Townsville Floods

I’ve received many queries about the floods in Townsville and frustratingly, there has been a lot of typically inaccurate media reporting by blow-in journalists unfamiliar with geography, what’s typical here and Townsville’s history. Mainly because the genuine care factor – for accuracy regarding northern Australia – is lacking.

Channel 9 weather report on the 1st of Feb 2019, when the floods were well underway in several Townsville suburbs. Not only did Channel 9 not bother to mark Townsville on the map – though the largest city in Northern Australia – there was no mention of the weather here at all, let alone that the flooding was set to worsen as more heavy rain was due.  Townsville is much larger than Cairns, Darwin, Broome, Alice Springs and Hobart. It has a business, education & medical facility catchment that stretches from the NT’s eastern Barkly Tableland up Cape York to PNG.  Classic disrespect and time for North Queenslanders to actively call it out every time they see it – or nothing will change.

Townsville is in the dry tropics – the wet tropics boundary is just 60km or so to the north. Paluma is officially the southern boundary of Australia’s wet tropics rainforest. Because Townsville’s coastline runs east-west rather than north-south, many weather systems pass us by instead of getting snagged on our best efforts, Castle Hill or Mt Stuart. The wet season months are really only January to March, with our long-term average for February being by far our best month for rain. It’s typical to not receive any rain at all in June, July, August and September – sometimes May and October; or even April and November as well.  As a Northern Gulf Country pastoralist said to me last year ‘we get a drought every year, it just varies in length and severity’.  On average, we get more than 320 days a year of sunshine.  It’s the ideal location for anyone who gets depressed in cloudy weather.  On the other hand, it does rain here every wet season, without fail. Sometimes it’s just not enough, or more than we’d like.

View from the Strand towards Magnetic Island, Townsville, North Queensland. On average, Townsville has at least 320 days a year of sunshine. Great for anyone who finds grey skies depressing.

During most wet seasons we get thunderstorms but also a bit of monsoonal weather. What’s that? It’s when a trough of tropical low pressure moves far enough south to bring us cloudy weather and intermittent showers, with lower temperatures & higher humidity – running up to 100%. Usually we get monsoon weather for 3 days maximum – and it fizzles out on the fourth.  Low pressure systems are the primary way for northern coastal and inland Australia to get good soaking rain. Sometimes these low pressure systems are the remnants of tropical cyclones.

Wet tropics rainforest grows on the Paluma Range, just to the north of Townsville, due to the height of these mountains. The trees around the top ‘cloud-strip’ moisture out of passing clouds so they get a bit of a drink even when no rain falls. The Paluma Range is at the southern end of the wet tropics rainforest and receives a lot more rain than to the south and west. Often, media working hard to over-dramatise will quote rainfall figures from the Paluma region, as if this rainforest was within Townsville itself. That said, there is a dam at Paluma that supplies water to some of Townsville’s Northern Beaches suburbs. (Pic taken with an early-model, basic Lumix camera in 2013.)

Enjoying a Paluma Range waterfall on a typically hot wet season day. These little creeks turn into dangerous torrents after heavy rain, so it’s not safe to jump in here during rainy weather. Townsville’s Castle Hill, Mount Stuart & Herveys Range even get small waterfalls running during heavy rain, but they don’t last long.

So what happened in Townsville this year? The monsoon trough crept south then got bogged over Townsville. We can easily cope with 12 or 14″ (350mm) of rain within a few days, that’s not unusual. Or 20″ (500mm) over a week.  But so far most Townsville suburbs have received more than 1500mm over the last 12 days. In fact some suburbs on the outskirts have received more than 2,000mm. And this is the time of year when we get extra high tides, thus slowing drainage. Oops.

Aplins Weir on Ross River, in the middle of suburban Townsville. Below this weir the water is brackish. Being in the tropics, deluges aren’t uncommon, but this much rain has not been recorded before (although undoubtedly this much has fallen, pre-whitefellas).  When this image was taken the only way to get to the weir was on foot, as surrounding roads were closed due to flooding. I don’t live far from here so it was a daily pilgrimage for myself and many other local residents. This is a major pedestrian walkway especially for school and uni students, but having suffered significant damage it will be a while before it is open again.  it’s taken such a pounding, a wonder it wasn’t washed away completely. It sums up what has happened here.

Townsville’s Ross River dam fell to below 15% last year and we were pumping water from the Burdekin Dam at at cost of more than $20,000/day.  A few days ago the Ross River Dam level reached 247% – IE nearly 2.5 times the holding capacity. Homes downstream were already flooded but there was no option but to let a lot more water out of the dam by opening the 3 gates fully, to avoid catastrophic pressure on the dam walls. Management decisions were complicated by the high tides we get at this time of year. And we were getting unpredictable bands of extremely heavy rainfall arriving in the catchment at erratic intervals, accelerating inflows – plus downstream, slowing down outflow.

It also should be pointed out that early last year the Ross River Dam was below 15% and water had to be pumped from the Burdekin Dam at a cost of more than $20,000/day. We don’t like to let water go!

Townsville floods – Charters Towers Road. The boat isn’t a decoration – this main road leading into Townsville was a sea of water. There’s some water hyacinth from the Ross River lying on the pavement in front of & behind the boat, indicating how much water went through these shops the day before.

Traditionally most Queensland houses were on hardwood or later concrete stumps, high enough that a person could walk underneath. This under-house area was kept clear or virtually so, and overflow from tropical downpours could pass underneath without causing much bother. High-set houses received a bit more sun and a lot more breeze, keeping them more midge-free, drier and less mouldy than low-set houses (flat on the ground) – and not quite as hot & humid. Then mass-produced brick boxes crept north – flat on concrete slabs, with sliding plate glass windows, narrow eaves and room layouts that didn’t allow good airflow through – identical in design to many houses being built in southern Victoria and temperate-climate countries overseas. (Many have dark roofs, which should be banned due to heat retention; as should tiled roofs, due to the downwind risk of cyclone damage.) Developers bought up swampy land where spider lilies grow naturally, carved out a few drains and artificial lakes and sold off house blocks. Long-term locals shook their heads & didn’t fall for the spin, sure that in the occasional massive wet season, these blocks would go under water. The combination of lowset houses and floodplain location has just been shown to be a disaster waiting to happen.  However in this flood, other homes in areas that have never been flooded before have also gone underwater.

Cairns and Mackay are even bigger flood disasters waiting to happen, being surrounded by steeper, higher hills. Alluvial cane paddocks beside the rivers these cities are based around, should never have been built on. One glance at the hills all around & the flatness of the valley inbetween, should tell prospective homeowners all they need to know to run screaming. These plains have been flattened by rushing floodwaters over eons.  Australian local councils and State Governments need greater powers to prevent housing development on at-risk flood plains – which has the even more important benefit of preserving valuable horticultural land.  And this isn’t a problem that’s unique to Australia – it’s a global issue.

Floodwater in Mabin Street, on the boundary of Mundingburra & Rosslea, Townsville. Older suburbs that do not usually flood here – this is river water. Fortunately most of the older houses are Queenslander-style, IE up on high stumps.

Low-set houses that are on stumps can be lifted higher; not cheap but it’s do-able. But what’s to be done about the brick boxes that got flooded? There’s a lot of talk about this being a ‘one in one hundred year flood’. Problem is, our rainfall records are flat out stretching to a century, let alone any meaningful length of time, given the age of the planet.  Some people have suggested they weren’t aware of the flood risk when they bought their house but the council has very detailed flood/storm surge danger maps freely available on their website, that clearly show areas that have previously been inundated. Which is most of what was flooded deeper than 30cm this time, although certainly not all. One of the most appalling disasters is the relatively new ‘Fairfield Waters’ shopping centre that is in the throes of being extended, on what is a floodplain and used to be paddocks for meatworks cattle and DPI land.  This centre should have been put on legs so cars could park underneath in the shade, and easily closed off during periods of extra heavy wet season rain, so water could have flowed through underneath without damaging the shops above. But instead this centre sprawls out on a single level across a few acres.  (Only idiots dig out basements in the tropics. Exhibit A: Castletown Shopping Centre, where cars go under water up to their roof.  Although none should now because there are signs and warnings and it does not flood after just one storm or two, only after hours of solid wet season rain.)  And don’t get me started on the new stadium, being built a gnat’s eyebrow above mangroves and looking very much like it’s meant to be a giant croc trap.

The owners of this Townsville house in the midst of renovations will be immensely relieved that they paid to have it put on such high steel legs. They probably intended building in underneath, at least partly, but may perhaps rethink this plan.  The river rushed in here with such force it knocked over a number of galvanised panel fences (one on the left) – another reason why older-style netting fences are much better – they don’t act as dam walls.

Classic Queenslander-style home, Lucinda; the breeze can flow unimpeded under the floorboards and the casement windows direct the breeze inside. But it needs longer legs to be really useful in floods.

Many from other regions have said ‘why can’t we dam more of the water and send it to farmers out west’. It’s simply not economically feasible nor good environmental practice to remove water from one catchment and send it to another. And farming involves a lot of very expensive equipment and investment – it’s simply not feasible in areas where the water supply is not reasonably predictable as there’d be too many dry years when the expensive assets would sit idle. The beauty of the Ord River irrigation area is that the East Kimberley wet season is far more predictable than North Queensland’s, so it is feasible to invest heavily there as irrigation water can be guaranteed.

Burdekin River a couple of days ago. The railway bridge is high and dry in the background and the Macrossan Bridge in the foreground but underwater, below where the waves are. This is highway one – the main road from Townsville to Charters Towers then on to Darwin and Broome (or south to Adelaide). The Burdekin Dam is downstream.

Sugarcane crops in the Burdekin District of North Queensland. Many other tropical and horticultural crops are grown in this region, with irrigation water stored in the Burdekin River Dam. (Drone photography.)

The Burdekin Dam water flowing over the spillway last April. This morning it rose above 200% of capacity – so it has more than twice as much as it can hold, which is a massive 1,860,000 megalitres. Burdekin water is used for irrigating valuable crops grown downstream around Ayr and Home Hill, as well as being a vital back-up water supply for Townsville (Australia’s largest city north of Brisbane). (Drone photography)

In a typical year right now Townsvilleans would be looking out the window right now at the higher cloud, breeze and cooler temperatures and be saying ‘no way it’ll rain today’. But this time, the rain has hung around.  We’ve had about 5 years of below par wet seasons and our current weather is a reminder that in Australia, the longer and more severe the drought, the more severe the flooding that arrives to break the drought. It’s hard to think about preparations for the chance of severe flooding when skies are clear, but it must be done – especially on livestock properties.

With luck, at least the flood will have drowned the lawn grub population that has been increasing exponentially during a run of drier than usual years & decimating Townsville buffalo grass lawns! (This is my backyard – and yes there is lawn underneath the water.) The buffalo grass laughs if it goes underwater and comes up smiling.  It’s vital to grow the most suitable plants in northern Australia, or they’ll just die on you, eventually.

The heartbreaking cleanup begins for all the households who got stormwater runoff or river water through their home – losing personal possessions & suffering property damage. Even houses that are well ventilated & not wet inside are full of mouldy items.

My boots are always cleaned thoroughly & oiled well when I get back from trips, for livestock biosecurity reasons (I travel all over Aus & visit farms overseas as well.) Despite sitting under a ceiling fan in a well-ventilated room, this is how mouldy they went overnight, when the humidity sat on 100%. But such an infinitesimal inconvenience compared to homes which had floodwater through them, which can have persistent mould appearing on walls & ceilings for months afterwards.

Some good things can come out of bad, and apart from a full town water supply dam – for domestic and commercial use – the riverbed got a long-overdue cleanout (all waterways get a bit silted up over time), the water table has been properly replenished and there’s been runoff into the sea which is vital for fisheries.

In North West Queensland, the big drought has been broken by a big flood, as is unfortunately so often the case. With great devastation. However what isn’t making the news is that many northern properties have had the drought broken without destruction and now life-giving floodwater is heading south down the Thomson, Diamantina and Georgina Rivers plus Cooper Creek, thus creating a good season on flood-out country in arid SW Queensland.

The heavy rain has also been welcomed by the trees that survived Cyclone Yasi then a long relatively dry spell. Vegetation that is adapted to tropical climates starts to grow with enthusiasm during the rain, such as native vines and this fig, which is sending down more aerial roots. Whereas vegetation imported from other areas is not so suited to this climate and has to wait until the sun appears before growth can occur. (And yes the fig tree roots were this red; I never change the colours on images. The brightness was amazing on a gloomy, rainy day.)

Townsville is the largest city in the top half of Australia (with the next largest cities of Darwin, Cairns and Mackay all being considerably smaller.)  More people now live in North Queensland than in the whole of Tasmania, yet we have far less political representation.  We need the Queensland State Government and the Australian Federal Government to step up and provide funding for capital works for the long-term benefit of Northern Australia. Such as raising the height of the Burdekin Dam, as was originally intended, and installing a decent hydroelectricity scheme.

And we’re not interested in more studies or promises – we want action.

This disaster has brought the Townsville community and North West Queensland together; fostered generosity and neighbourliness as well as humour in the face of adversity.  But it will also have locals scrutinising what politicians are promising regarding investment in the whole of the north, not just our city.

Townsville floods – the flamingo that tried to leave Lake Smith (rainwater that has pooled in a park near Ross River). Australian humour thrives in the tropics.

*All images above taken on my phone except for one, as noted. Most mobile phones are a lot more resistant to water than professional photography equipment! I recorded many of the most memorable scenes on short videos because sound & action gives a much better understanding of the drama. Some of these Townsville Flood videos are scattered across my InstagramTwitter & Facebook accounts (I usually post different videos & images to each account, so each is unique rather than repetitious.)  Drones cannot be flown in most of central Townsville due to the proximity to the airport, and drone flight is illegal during declared emergencies, except for fully licenced drone pilots who have obtained specific permission.  There were far too many helicopters above for any drone flights to be safe.