What the floods inquiry didn’t hear: Wivenhoe ‘breached the manual’

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

by: Hedley Thomas
From: The Australian
January 23, 2012 

A RAFT of official internal documents produced by senior public servants during Brisbane’s devastating flood in January last year show the Wivenhoe Dam was mismanaged in a serious breach of its manual for two crucial days.
An investigation by The Australian also shows that, after the flood, dam operator SEQWater adopted a different position about its actions, inconsistent with its own comprehensive documentary evidence of the dam’s management.
The investigation suggests SEQWater used the wrong operating strategy for the flood, contributing to the inundation of thousands of properties in Brisbane and Ipswich with a total cost to the economy of more than $5 billion.
But neither the flood engineers nor SEQWater have been asked by the $15 million royal commission-style public inquiry, set up by Premier Anna Bligh, to explain the numerous references in many documents they created during the flood that show they were using the wrong strategy, based on dam levels.
SEQWater spokesman Mike Foster said yesterday the state-owned utility was “unable to comment on issues before the inquiry; however, we note that the commission’s own independent expert advised that the flood engineers achieved close to the best possible result in the management of the dams during the 2011 flood event”.
The Australian’s investigation has collated an abundance of contemporaneous evidence, including internal emails, flood log entries, briefing papers, memorandums, situation reports and technical reports, that suggest SEQWater remained in the wrong strategy, known as W1, throughout the weekend of January 8-9 last year and into early Monday morning January 10.
There is no known contemporaneous documentary evidence from this period of the flood event to support the claims made later by SEQWater to the inquiry that the correct operating strategy, W3, began at 8am on Saturday, January 8.
There are significant differences between the strategies and the potential outcomes because W1’s purpose is to minimise disruption to rural life in the Brisbane Valley by not submerging low-level bridges downstream with releases of water from the dam. W3, which permits much bigger releases of water, has a primary consideration of protecting urban areas from inundation.
Evidence presented to the floods inquiry revealed the dam operators did not release water above the W1 limit of 1900 cubic metres a second until Monday morning. By Tuesday evening, the dam was releasing a massive 7500 cubic metres a second down the Brisbane River as weekend and Tuesday rainfall took the dam close to capacity.
Expert evidence at the inquiry has found that the dam’s releases comprised more than half the flood in Brisbane on Thursday, January 11, and also caused inundation in Ipswich.
The only known evidence that SEQWater adopted the correct strategy, W3, came from the lead flood engineer, Rob Ayre, during a public hearing for the inquiry.
But a situation report written by Mr Ayre on the evening of January 8 shows that the wrong strategy, W1, was still being deployed for dam releases at the time. Asked about this situation report, which directly contradicted evidence that he invoked W3 at 8am that day, Mr Ayre told the inquiry he had “inadvertently recorded” the wrong strategy, adding his entry “wasn’t correct; we had transitioned into W3 earlier in the day”.
The inquiry, in its interim report, accepted this evidence of when W3 began. But as a result of today’s disclosures, the inquiry, led by Supreme Court judge Catherine Holmes, is likely to be asked to conduct further investigations and consider the weight of evidence contradicting SEQWater’s explanation.
The documents are reinforced by evidence of the dam’s actual releases of water, which are consistent with the dam being in the wrong strategy, W1, until early January 10.
They show that the flood engineers, their colleagues and senior public servants working for the Queensland government’s Water Grid all believed they were in the W1 strategy and advised each other as well as political heads of this during, and after, the days they were in W1 strategy.
All these documents directly contradict evidence given weeks later at the public inquiry.
Owners of flooded property, lawyers for insurers and other affected parties are expected to press for more rigorous questioning of this crucial timing question.
Under the dam’s operating manual, which must be followed to ensure the Queensland government does not become liable for damages caused by negligent management, W1 was the wrong strategy after the lake level in the dam rose above 68.5m at 8am on Saturday January 8.
The measured rise in the level of the lake at 8am on January 8 should have triggered an escalation in dam operations to strategy W3.
Larger releases from Wivenhoe Dam are inevitable in the W3 strategy as the primary consideration of W3 changes to protecting Brisbane from flooding, and this requires the dam to have sufficient storage for flood mitigation.
Under W3, it is no longer a priority to keep rural bridges out of water.
A detailed report headed “Dam releases” and emailed at 9am on January 8 by the director of operations for Queensland’s Water Grid, Dan Spiller, gives no indication that the strategy had changed from W1 to W3 an hour earlier.
Mr Spiller’s reports during the flood event were informed by his direct contact with the dam’s operations manager, Rob Drury, who was in contact with the flood engineers.
The emphasis in Mr Spiller’s report is the objectives of W1 strategy, to minimise disruption to rural communities and bridges.
At 5.53pm, almost 10 hours after the W3 strategy should have begun, Mr Ayre, as the lead flood engineer, sent a “situation report” in which he wrote that the event magnitude “will require the operation of Wivenhoe Dam flood operation strategy W2”.
There was no suggestion in his report that W3 had begun.
At 8.14am on Sunday January 9, 24 hours after W3 should have begun, Mr Spiller sent another report that contained no suggestion that the strategy had changed to protect urban areas from inundation. The emphasis was still on rural bridges and the report states: “Releases are being made so as to avoid inundating the Fernvale and Mt Crosby Weir bridges.”
At 11.07pm on January 9, about 39 hours after the W3 strategy should have begun, Mr Spiller sent a report to high-level parties including the then head of the Premier’s Department, Ken Smith, and the then Natural Resources minister, Stephen Robertson, confirming that the W1 strategy was still running.
The report sent by Mr Spiller, setting out “latest advice from the Flood Control Centre”, states: “To date, the primary objective for this event has been managing to prevent inundation of the Mt Crosby Weir and Fernvale bridges.
“With the forecast volumes, this primary objective is being changed to minimising the risk of urban inundation.”
At 5.31am Monday January 10, almost 46 hours after W3 should have begun, Mr Spiller’s report states: “As specified in the approved Operational Procedures, the primary objective is now to minimise the risk of urban inundation – release strategy W2.”
The Flood Event Log for 3.30pm on January 9 shows that all duty engineers met. The entry states: “At this stage operating at top end of W1 and bottom end of W2.”
A flood engineer who was at the meeting later confirmed in evidence that the entry was correct, saying: “The description provided is consistent with my recollection of the meeting.”
In a further seven Flood Event Log entries from 4.20pm to 5.20pm, reference is made to a strategy with emphasis on the rural bridges staying above the flood, and relevant local councils are being advised of this.
One of the first official SEQWater reports, “January 2011 Flood Event”, sets out the timing and context to key decisions during the flood, but there is no reference to invoking strategy W3 at 8am on January 8, nor is there reference to the strategy starting on January 9.
The SEQWater report includes an entry that “the operational strategy had progressed to W2” by 3.30pm on January 9. The same SEQWater report indicates that they had progressed to the W3 strategy at 6.30am on Monday January 10.

 

** FURTHER UPDATE **
23 January 2012

SEQwater media statement

Claims in The Australian newspaper today suggesting Seqwater breached its operational manual during the January 2011 flood are inaccurate and unfounded.
Further, the implied allegation that Seqwater (and its engineers) gave misleading evidence to the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry is baseless and is utterly rejected.
The issue and the documents referred to by The Australian, have been investigated by the Commission as part of its Interim Report in July 2011.
The Commission’s Interim Report (page 72) found that Seqwater did invoke Strategy W3 at 8am on Saturday 8 January 2011 in accordance with the manual.
From this time, the primary consideration was the protection of urban areas from inundation. In making decisions about the volume of water released, Seqwater also considered the requirement to minimise the impact on rural life and downstream bridges, as the manual requires.
The Commission’s Interim Report noted that the flood operations centre logs for 8 January 2011 did not record the transition to Strategy W3 and recommended that all future logs record when decisions are made to transition from one strategy to the next (pages 66 and 67 of the Interim Report). Seqwater has accepted and implemented this recommendation.
Seqwater also notes that the Commission closely scrutinised the rates of release during 8-9 January, the period referred to in The Australian (pages 72-75 of the Commission’s Interim Report). The Interim Report does not identify any error in these release rates nor any failure to comply with the manual.
The Commission’s independent expert has examined Seqwater’s management of Wivenhoe and Somerset dams during the January 2011 flood event. The report investigates, amongst other things, the impact of an earlier release strategy, such as that suggested by The Australian. The report of the Commission’s expert finds that Seqwater’s engineers, using the strategies in the manual and the information available to them, achieved close to the best possible mitigation result.

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