‘Don’t forget Bungawalbin, we are in despair’: Levee and river height gauge broken

ABOVE: Debbie Johnston on a boat at Bungawalbin during the floods. Photos: Contributed

Susanna Freymark

Bungawalbin resident Deborah Johnston stood at the Richmond Valley Council meeting on Tuesday, April 19 and pleaded to councillors, mayor and council staff.

“Don’t forget Bungawalbin,”  she said.

“This has been an exhausting time for everyone in the flooded areas and especially for the Richmond Valley which has not been getting the media attention that more highly populated areas received.”

Ms Johnston applauded the “council’s commitment in the Richmond Valley Flood Response to source urgent assistance and funding to stabilise and restore eroded riverbanks, riparian corridor habitat as well as programs to restore river health in the Richmond River catchment”. 

Because Bungawalbin has “extremely high nature conservation values with one of the highest biodiversity levels in Australia,” Ms Johnston wanted the council to include the Bungawalbin Creek, its tributaries and wetlands in the restoration works.

Ms Johnston spoke about the Bungawalbin levee.

“The Bungawalbin levee built in 1945 is a critical flood mitigation asset, protecting residents and property in Bungawalbin, Swan Bay, New Italy and Woodburn.

“No major repairs were needed to the levee until 2017 when the Pacific Hwy upgrade dammed the Richmond Catchment, increasing the height, volume and velocity of water in the river.

Fast flowing water during the floods.

“Rous County Council was unable to sufficiently repair the levee which broke through again in the same spot in 2021 and ‘22. This entire 5km Bungawalbin levee is now in a dangerous state and requires immediate attention.”

Ms Johnston said she had pleaded with Rous County Council, Richmond Valley Council, Resilience NSW, the army, SES and the local MP, for help.

“No one will fix it,” she said.

Bungawalbin is a vast catchment, almost 2000 square kilometres.

“The upgrade of the Woodburn Coraki road seems to have created an additional small dam, holding the waters back in the Bungawalbin basin. They have never drained away this slowly before,” Ms Johnston said.

“Parts of the creek were still in flood until Monday, April 18 and the water inundating the main access road has only just receded, leaving huge holes, making the road almost impassable.”

Getting accurate information about water levels was another concern for Bungawalbin residents.

“There is currently a section of the creek over 70 kilometres long with no flood or rain gauges. Because of this, we were not issued an evacuation notice until we had reached major flood level and it was too late to leave,” Ms Johnston said.

“Just last week, I had to contact BOM to advise that their readings were incorrect and we were still flooded. Woodburn residents were mistakenly told to return to their homes, with the river still rising. I also provided daily updates to the SES of the river levels.”

It was essential that the Neilleys Lagoon river height gauge be repaired and additional rain and river height gauges be installed as a matter of urgency, for flood mitigation, as advised in the 2010 flood study, Ms Johnston said.

Bungawalbin businesses and residents needing to rebuild, they needed to stay on their properties, in order to salvage, repair and restore what they can and tend to the farmland, livestock and animals, Ms Johnston said.

“It is not feasible for rural residents to be moved off their land and into the ‘parks’ proposed in Wollongbar and Ballina.”

“I implore council to use a commonsense approach and consider options like the Woodburn company Big River Modular Cabins, or caravans or using existing sheds as ‘granny type’ flats until homes can be restored. This will allow residents to remain on their land.”

There are more than 100 households in the Bungawalbin and Giberagee area.

“There is a huge sense of being in limbo which is counterproductive to recovery. Many of the community recovery and resilience resources in other areas have missed us and moved on.

“We need support.

“Please, do not forget Bungawalbin.”

Richmond Valley Council is appointing a new recovery coordinator and an advisory group covering Bungawalbin, New Italy, Swan Bay and Whiporie will be formed within  a month.

Two people from each of the areas will be on the advisory group.

Deborah Johnston has put her hand up to be one of the people from Bungawalbin.

She wants to make sure Bungawalbin and the flood issues residents have faced are not forgotten.

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