The Queensland opposition’s call for less of Wivenhoe Dam to be used as a flood buffer last year could come back to bite it, a political expert says.
The dam’s operation is now in the spotlight, with a commission of inquiry set to investigate whether this month’s Brisbane River flooding was made worse because the government-owned dam operator initially acted too slowly to release excess water.
However, in March, October and December, the opposition called on authorities to look at reducing the portion of dam capacity set aside for flood protection so that more could be used for drinking water storage.
Wivenhoe Dam can hold a total of 2.6 million megalitres but is deemed to be “full” of drinking water when it reaches 1.15 million megalitres.
The remaining space is used to store water from heavy rain events in a bid to reduce floods along the Brisbane River.
When the dam was at 94 per cent of its water storage capacity last March, opposition water spokesman Jeff Seeney told State Parliament “it would be absurd to release water from Wivenhoe Dam” until authorities reviewed options to increase water storage.
In October, Mr Seeney criticised the state government over releases of water from the dam, saying they were being done at a time when the dam was only at 40 per cent of its “true capacity”.
“Isn’t this release of water from Wivenhoe Dam, when it is holding only 40 per cent of its available storage capacity, a clear indication that the government has learned nothing from the water crisis and is still failing to plan for the next inevitable drought?” he asked Natural Resources Minister Stephen Robertson.
Deputy Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg repeated the call as recently as December 20, when he told Fairfax Radio 4BC it would be sensible to “start looking at things like can we actually eat into the flood buffer a little bit more”.
“And indeed, if we could store 50 per cent rather than 40 per cent before we let it spill, that’s an additional one year supply,” Mr Springborg said at the time.
“There’s still a lot of air room in Wivenhoe Dam that we could potentially capture some further water.”
Some engineers now believe government-owned dam operator Seqwater should have acted faster to release more water after Wivenhoe rapidly rose well beyond its full water storage level on the weekend before the Brisbane River flood peak.
Seqwater figures show the dam level rose from 106 per cent of its normal water storage limit on the morning of Friday, January 7, to 148 per cent by the following Monday.
The Bureau of Meteorology had predicted further heavy rainfall. The dam operators had to ramp up the scale of their major water releases from the dam in the days before the January 13 Brisbane River flood peak.
Queensland University of Technology political science professor Clive Bean said the opposition may find it hard to attack the government for being too slow to bring the dam back down towards its normal level, given previous comments.
“It may well be that the opposition will find it more difficult to make their criticism stick when they were making comments like that in a previous time, unless they can in a sense sheet it back to: ‘we were talking about specific circumstances,’” Dr Bean said.
“It’s probably one of those things that will come back to bite them a little bit but probably not totally.
“Politicians often find a way out of statements they’ve made; in a way it’s easier for an opposition to make statements off the cuff and qualify them later.”
Mr Seeney said yesterday his central point had been that a review of the dam operating rules was needed “to get better usage of the infrastructure”.
He said he had stressed at the time that flood mitigation remained important and stood by his call for a re-examination of the dam operating rules.
“We were calling for a review of the operating rules that had been in place almost unchanged since 1978 that took no account of the advances that had been made in weather forecasts and climate patterns,” he said.
“That need for a review applies just as much to the flood mitigation rules of the dam as it does to the water supply rules of the dam.”
Following the Brisbane River flood, Seqwater emphasised it had operated the dam according to the state government-approved manual.
However, Mr Seeney said the rules were “restrictive” and should have been reviewed sooner.
Independent Member for Burnett Rob Messenger, who quit the Liberal National Party last year, accused his former party of making a “serious water policy mistake”.
The state government last week released the Wivenhoe Dam operating manual but blacked out large portions, claiming terrorists might take advantage of an uncensored version.
The Queensland Water Commission last year identified a range of potential water sources for further investigation, including more desalination sites and use of recycled water to top up the Hinze and North Pine dams.
It outlined four options to secure more water from dams and weirs in the future, including the possibility of raising Wivenhoe Dam operating levels.
The dam’s operation will be among issues examined by a statewide commission of inquiry on the floods, which is due to produce an initial report by August and a final report by January next year.
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