A SPECIAL REPORT by Karen Buck
IN the face of a strong community backlash to its failed forced opening of the Irwin inlet sandbar on July 15, the Denmark Shire council has agreed to review its protocol for future openings.
Council ignored urgent pleas from Peaceful Bay community members, commercial fishers and even one of its own councillors not to push ahead with the opening because of the inlet’s low water level.
It also appears that by undertaking the controversial bar breach council ignored its own protocol, which outlines procedures for opening the bar, including considering relevant information from stakeholders as to an appropriate water level.
The bar has reopened and closed at least twice since the initial breach but the outflow has been nothing more than a trickle, according to locals, who believe it will close permanently within weeks.
Many Peaceful Bay residents are furious and perplexed about council’s action, which they claim has seriously risked the long-term health of the estuary.
Council’s Irwin Inlet Sandbar Protocol sets the opening levels at a minimum of 0.44m and a maximum of 0.77m. This year the bar was breached at 0.59m.
Last year’s artificial opening at 0.77m was also called “ridiculously” low by critics, and the inlet closed within weeks.
This year’s fiasco, they believe, doubles down on potential harm to the inlet, which needs a good outflow and a strong exchange of water and marine life for some months, for optimal health.
Commercial fishers say that there were fewer fish after last year’s “dismal” opening, and that low water levels over summer could bring algal blooms.
Shire CEO Bill Parker said the bar was breached to protect Peaceful Bay road, as well as adjacent farmland, from possible water damage.
Council hadn’t been vigilant in previous years around the impact of rising water on Peaceful Bay road, he said, but since the recently completed asset condition report council now held serious concerns about possible failure of the road.
The protocol requires council to consider both the flooding of the road and adjacent farmland when deciding on an artificial breach.
“One reason that the road is failing is that it’s seasonally inundated, which impacts the pavement underneath the seal,” Mr Parker said. “The decision was made to intervene this year before water went over the road. “In hindsight it was the wrong decision, but only because a large swell arrived and caused the inlet to close again. I think you’ll find we learned from that.”
Those advocating better-managed inlet openings point out that adjacent farmland on the floodplain should never have been released or allowed to be cleared. Some of the affected landholders also say that fresh water inundation does no permanent damage to their properties. As one local pragmatically commented, “it comes and it goes”.
The group also disputes that inundation has caused any significant damage to the road, which, they say, should have been built much higher and with better drainage. They say that the road has been flooded on and off for 60 years and suffered no perceptible damage. Mr Parker conceded that over the years council had not had to spend a lot of money on repairs to the road, and that the road’s present condition was possibly due as much to its age as to any water issues. “If it does fail it will cost an absolute fortune to fix,” he said. Mr Parker insisted that both the health of the road and the inlet were of equal importance, and that council would consider redoing the low lying section of road and raising the road height.
Opening the bar was not an exact science, and council was guided by the procedures set out in the protocol. “It can be very subjective, and is influenced by a number of factors,” he said. “We may get half a dozen calls from people saying it’s too low, don’t open it, and then we get the same number from the other side saying it’s too high, cut it now.” He was unable to confirm whether council had received any requests from Peaceful Bay locals asking for the bar to be opened in July but said he would check. No response had yet been received by The Voice on this undertaking.
However, Mr Parker later conceded by email that council had not adhered to its own protocol for the July opening, which among other things requires it to ‘consult with the Department of Water as to the water quality and the likelihood of a negative environmental impact resulting from the bar opening’. Under the protocol the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) determines whether conditions are suitable for an opening, and then gives council the green light.
In this instance – and in some previous openings, it appears – this had not occurred, according to DWER. Mr Parker’s statement said, “I confirm that the department was notified of the opening. In saying this, there was no exchange of information. “Given community feedback the shire has committed to reviewing the protocol.
“We have many competing priorities and hopefully a review can find some common ground. The review will involve high levels of community input and will occur in October 2019.”
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