Farms and homes are vulnerable after flood damaged levee

ABOVE: Debbie Johnston stands on the levee at Bungawalbin.

Susanna Freymark

The Bungawalbin levee runs through Debbie Johnston’s property.

The 7.8km long levee is meant to protect the Bungawalbin catchment from flooding. This includes Swan Bay, New Italy and Woodburn.

It was built in 1945 to protect the Lower Richmond from minor–moderate floods, Ms Johnston said.

“It broke here in 2017, 2021 and again in 2022. It can no longer protect us,” she said at a meeting of concerned residents at the site on March 2.

The levee has significant erosion, some clay core is missing and numerous large trees have collapsed the levee, she said.

There is a 50m rock armour on a curve in the levee to help prevent erosion. It was put there after the 2021 flood.

The rock armour can be clearly seen from Whiporie–Bungawalbin Rd.

Debbie Johnston addresses the group about the levee.

But on the other side of the levee – the side that faces the creek – the slump of rocks is visible.

Rous County Council is responsible for maintaining the levee and has applied for funding of $1.2million to do a flood study and for design and construction works to make the levee more resilient when it is overtopped.

Rous general manager Phillip Rudd said the rock has subsided into the creek.

“We have applied for funding through the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements to investigate options and undertake works to repair this area and make it more resilient,” Mr Rudd said.

“There are a number of other sections along the levee where it runs close to the creek where there are slumps that have occurred on the creek bank or levee edge or trees have fallen over, exposing the levee.”

Former Woodburn SES captain Jim McCormack was at the community meeting.

Fixing the levee is vital, Mr McCormack said.

“This is vital for us who live in this area. It has to be attended to before it’s too late.”

Mr McCormack farms his land and knows the impact floods have on the landscape.

“The longer the water stays on your ground, the more ratshit your crops and your natural pastures,” he said.

Current Woodburn SES commander Ash Slapp said when the levee doesn’t do its job it changes how a flood affects people.

“You will get isolated in a minor flood if this is not fixed,” Mr Slapp said.

Mr Rudd said it came down to the budget.

“Rous has applied for funding under a number of Government grant programs for these repairs and improvements and we are waiting on advice as to whether they have been successful or not.”

Debbie Johnston sits on the edge of the levee. Photos: Susanna Freymark

Rous is restricted by budget in what it can do along the levee, Mr Rudd said.

“Outside of grants, we are unable to fund the works required to improve the long-term resilience of the levee,” he said.

Rous manages a number of assets on the floodplain of Richmond Valley, Ballina and Lismore local government areas. This includes 41 levees with a length of 73km, 756 floodgates and 124km of drains and canals.

The problem is the 50m section of the levee that was overtopped and breached in the 2017 and 2021 floods, Mr Rudd.

“It was not breached in the 2022 floods, most likely due to the rock protection and armour that was placed there as part of the 2021 flood repair.”

In contrast to this, Ms Johnston said the levee was breached in the 2022 flood.

“The levee provides protection to the downstream community for minor to moderate floods in the Bungawalbin catchment. It will continue to overtop in bigger floods,” Mr Rudd said.

“We need to understand the flooding conditions in the area and how the levee behaves so that we can make changes to the levee so that floodwater overtops initially in a controlled manner and that larger scale overtopping does not result in breaches or holes in the levee.”

Ms Johnston has had enough and wants the levee fixed.

She urged the community to lobby Rous County Council, State Public Works, state and federal governments and political representatives, the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation and CSIRO to encourage funding for restoring the levee and the protection it can offer.

The video below was taken at the community meeting at the Bungawalbin levee on March 2.

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