Flood response creates 'wasteland'


TWO years after facing devastating floods, many of Benjeroop's remaining residents are still disappointed at the decisions made by the Victorian Government which have left the community a shell of its former self.

TWO years after facing devastating floods, many of Benjeroop's remaining residents are still disappointed at the decisions made by the Victorian Government which have left the community a shell of its former self.


And as the next round of properties bought-back on behalf of the government are prepared for sale, there is concern there is no plan in place to remove water from the area should history repeat.

John Baulch, a long-time flood warden in the area, said the town and its previously fertile irrigated land, north of Kerang on the Murray, Little Murray and Loddon rivers, had been left a "barren wasteland now, (making it) almost impossible for the locals to buy it back".

"What we wanted was for them to pump the water out of the low-lying area of Benjeroop, which they did, and (for) them to read and implement the flood studies," he said.

"We don't want pondage; we want flow.

"They've gone for the opposite and removed everyone from the Benjeroop area."

By "everyone", Mr Baulch means residents of the 23 properties bought by Rural Finance after State Water Minister Peter Walsh announced an irrigator-focused assistance package – including $12.3 million for buybacks and compensation – in April 2011.

With the government not interested in building a new system to protect the Benjeroop floodplains from water, the package instead offered money to buy – at pre-flood values – the properties of those who wanted to leave the area.

Owners wanting to stay had the option of receiving compensation for a conversion to dryland farming.

The government would not guarantee irrigation would continue on the properties; it did, however, make plain – as voluntarily-signed floodplain management agreements stated – that residents should expect inundation in the event of future floods.

The area's then mayor, Max Fehring, said the buy-back decision shifted the future for most farmers.

"When the government offered to do what they did and said 'we'll buy (the area) out and make it a floodplain', they devalued land immediately," he said.

"The Premier and Mr Walsh took a decision and it seemed a bit bold at the time.

"People were heavily affected but they were heavily affected because they were flooded for two to three months, not two to three weeks."

Mr Fehring said with farmers in distressed circumstances looking for help, the government should not be criticised "too heavily" for the buy-back scheme.

But the 10-year Gannawarra Shire councillor – who retired in October last year, after eight years as mayor – said the plan had stripped significant wealth from the community without solving the key problem.

"There would be at least $3.5m less agricultural production in the area and what we have is no greater ability to get the floodwater out of the area in the event of a flood," he said.

"They should have to deal with getting that water away after the event – (Mr Walsh) has made the floodplain more passive but he hasn't solved the problem."

Mr Fehring, who chaired the community consultative committee which met with the taskforce behind the package's implementation, said there needed to be more levees constructed and greater consultation between NSW and Victoria on floodplains management.

For Mr Baulch, whose family has seen at least five other floods in the area in the past 60 years, the installation of a floodway would have been a better path to take.

"You would have lost no people (from the land)," he said.

A 1986 Lower Loddon Floodplain management study recommended the spacing of the Loddon levees between the Barr Junction and the Benjeroop Bridge be increased to an average 300-metre width, lowering larger floods by as much as 500 millimetres at the junction.

Additional recommendations included the creation of a high-level floodway to bypass some of the Benjeroop Bridge flows, as well as the abandonment of some levee banks downstream of the bridge.

The study led to the creation of a masterplan which has never been substantially implemented.

The potential for acquisition of land in the area to achieve "land use change" was foreshadowed in a 1999 report.

Rural Finance's rural industries manager Geoff Blyth has led the property component of the recovery package and said 2013 would see the remaining re-configured blocks put on the market.

A tender for the first four blocks – two with ring-levy-protected houses and totalling 1260-hectares – would start in coming weeks.

"Depending on the take-up of this first release, we would be expecting to put (the rest) of them up this year, with some in mid-year and some in spring," Mr Blyth said.

"What were nine separate properties (have been made) into four – aggregated into sizes from 194ha to 419ha."

Mr Blyth confirmed there had been five damaged homes demolished as the 23 properties were converted to 14 lots, with stock and domestic water to be provided and all irrigation infrastructure removed.

Some parcels would retain an ability to apply for a water licence which would be subject to an irrigation plan.

"If they wanted to irrigate land, they would have to set up their own infrastructure – it would be pump and pipe," he said.

Mr Walsh emphasised the buy-backs were voluntary and popular in a traumatic time.

"Everyone who put an expression of interest in ended up taking a buy-back," he said.

The Minister and local member said there had been a lot of work done by government in the area, particurly on the construction of a significant number of ring levees to protect houses.

Mr Fehring said ultimately people were given the choice of either accepting or declining offers, and some had done well out of the deal.

Mr Blyth said he did not expect corporates to dominate this year's sales.

"I would have thought it would be more (local) farmer-based, as a whole, and in lots added on to existing operations," he said.

The government is due to respond to a joint-party committee's flood mitigation infrastructure report by March 1.

The report notes that land use planning and development and building controls are two of the four main types of effective floodplain management measures.


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