While kudos is due to the Denmark Shire council for its quick action to resolve a potentially serious problem around the health of the Irwin inlet, there are questions that need to be answered about how the situation was allowed to occur as it did.
Unfortunately they remain unanswered, because despite further questions put to both council and the Department of Water and Regulation (DWER) last week by The Voice, no replies had been received by the time we went to press.
The Irwin Inlet Sandbar Protocol is not a bulky document – it’s just five pages, written mostly in plain English, and is easily accessible.
It lays out a number of factors that need to be checked before an artificial breaching of the Irwin inlet bar, ranging from checking weather forecasts, oceanic conditions, tide patterns, barometric pressure systems, to the all-important water levels in the inlet.
It states that DWER is responsible for monitoring the ongoing health of the inlet.
It outlines the factors that council needs to consider, including human safety concerns arising from any traffic hazards caused by flooding of Peaceful Bay road, to limiting negative impacts resulting from inundation of adjacent farmland and – the point which seems to be the cause of all the controversy – achieving adequate inlet levels above sea level to ensure scouring of the channel to allow for good outflows and sustained marine exchange for estuarine fish populations recruitment and breeding cycles.
It sets the recommended levels as a minimum of 0.44m, the absolute maximum of 0.77m, and the agreed opening level of 0.6m.
It also says that when all the factors have been satisfied and council determines that an opening is imminent due to flooding risk, it will consult with DWER, which will then determine whether conditions are suitable – that is, water quality conditions and stream flow – and advise council of the outcome.
While the document is clear, it is equally clear having a protocol and following a protocol are two very different things.
It is apparent from the responses from both council and DWER that council has never ‘consulted’ the department but has only ever advised it that it plans to open the bar, and the time and date.
In fact looking at the protocol document it would appear the only thing it has religiously followed is the recommended inlet water levels for a breach, and these are hotly contested by the Irwin inlet advocates, who claim they have never been consulted about the levels and have no idea who set them.
Shire CEO Bill Parker also says he has no idea who determined that the levels in the protocol were the best levels – while DWER says that it is “confident they represent best practice for maintaining inlet ecosystem health and water quality”.
Establishing whose idea of best practice the levels represent has proven impossible, and a trawl through council minutes and agendas over the years only muddies the water.
A comment in an agenda discussion paper from July 2011 notes that the preferred water levels required to protect council road infrastructure had been provided by shire engineering staff.
But obviously, that is only about the road.
Adding to the puzzle is the statement in the 2012 DWER-prepared protocol document that DWER manages the Irwin inlet and monitors its water.
When asked by The Voice last week what the results of its monitoring had shown, DWER’s response was, “DWER does not monitor water quality in the inlet.”
“Curiouser and curiouser,” as Alice said.
Neither the Denmark council nor DWER have indicated any concern about what seems to be the systemic failure of the protocol as it relates to their responsibilities, and only a handful of fishers and residents of Peaceful Bay seem concerned enough about the health of Irwin Inlet to champion its cause.
While council’s swift agreement to review and consult widely to establish a new protocol is laudable, it must include failsafe precautions to ensure that any protocol is followed.
• See main story in the August 29 print issue of The Voice of the South.