Selling Queensland down the river
How environmentalists and politicians helped cause the floods
12 March 2022
At a public meeting at Brisbane’s Mt Crosby in 1996, the halting of dredging the Brisbane River was concluded. The Lord Mayor claimed that the ‘ugly dredgers were causing bank erosion’. These dredgers with diminutive 300hp engines and 4-knot speed, were only capable of running with the tide and incapable of making a bow wave. The dredging was stopped, concluding over 100 years of effective acquisition of sand and aggregates. Brisbane then was the cheapest place in the country to build a house due to the abundance of cheap concrete, bricks, pavers and tiles delivered into the city by the river.
As the lone consultant appointed two days earlier by the Premier’s Department I protested against this decision, explaining that replacing these two quiet, old 2,000-tonne barges with 160 truck movements (each with 400hp turbocharged diesels) a day was madness, endangering schoolkids, contributing thousands of cubic metres of truck exhaust gases daily and adding to road maintenance costs.
I also concluded that the halting of the river dredging would shallow the river and exacerbate the danger of flooding. Simple cross-sectional area geometry, if you shallow the river the water will go sideways into the ‘burbs. While dams can assist in slowing upstream water volumes in rain events, dredging is a basic tool for flood mitigation, confirmed by Brisbane based dredging expert Captain Kasper Kuiper. Yet the Lord Mayor hailed the decision to halt dredging as ‘a significant victory for Queensland’. He said that for 100 years, the Brisbane River had been ‘treated as a sewer and a mine’.
‘No other capital cities in the world allow ugly dredgers into the heart of their city to mine their river’, he claimed. Nodding their agreement was an environment minister, a natural resources minister, two mayors, and the Queensland Conservation Council head who said the agreement was ‘a major breakthrough for the rehabilitation of the river’ and continued, ‘Clearly dredging is way out of line with community attitudes’.
These fools are probably perplexed that the Brisbane river, and every other river in the country, is still brown.
Most river port cities in the world have active dredging programs with aggregate extraction as the lowest cost method of maintaining navigation channel depth and mitigating flood levels. Take a trip around Asia and you will see on the Pearl River in China, Saigon River in Vietnam and the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok, multitudes of low-powered grab dredgers that are anchored until the tide changes, as they, like the Brisbane river grab dredgers, are only capable of steaming with the tide.
Fifteen years later, in 2011, I shook my head in dismay watching the Brisbane River floods on TV. Even a 300-500mm difference in water levels makes a huge difference to some houses and businesses, and the subsequent enquiry unfortunately ignored the fact that continued river dredging could have dropped the flood levels. This 2011 flood claimed 38 lives and this recent one claimed 13 lives. The people who supported and made this decision to halt river dredging should hang their heads in shame. The upper Brisbane River was navigable 46kms from the CBD by the Riverside coal barges until the Nineties.
Recent declarations that the proposed Melbourne to Brisbane rail corridor was to end in Acacia Ridge rail terminal and then thousands of containers would be barged to the port, came to a sticky halt when the clever transport policy people discovered that the Brisbane river is now ‘way too shallow’. Rail or road alternatives down to the port will be at least 40 times more expensive, and certainly louder. During the Nineties dredging debate, despite the state government getting royalties from every cubic metre extracted, dredging was halted. The navigation channel through to the Gold Coast at Jacobs Well, kept open by a sand extraction program, was abandoned, and vessels started to run aground again at anything below mid-tide. The program to attract luxury superyachts to the region suffered a knockback.
Cruise ship companies are seeking new destinations and the year-round good weather of Queensland is a natural attraction. But even to anchor off some of the beautiful destinations and send their tenders ashore is being hampered by the ongoing demonisation of dredging by the Queensland government. Picturesque destinations such as Innisfail and 1770 are not accessible from the sea except for high tide, due to lack of dredging at the river mouths. Cooktown has been listed as unsafe by marine underwriters, with the state program of a visit by a large dredger every five years. Frequent modest dredging is the best and proven way to keep a river mouth deep, and more importantly, safe !
Five years ago, a video-link to nation-building initiative of extracting sand from river mouths for local use was circulated to the councils in control of 138 blocked river outlets around the nation. You can view it at https://youtu.be/A14qiQUZNzU The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Clean sand extraction at river mouths makes bar conditions safer for small vessels. Every year sees family members drown on the various bars around the nation when their cruiser or fishing boats capsize during transit.
The Queensland Labor government’s anti-dredging policy for the last twenty-six years has been an economic disaster for jobs and prosperity. Despite their claim of creating jobs, the present Labor government implemented policies that not only halted capital dredging around the state, but they halted transhipping and export mini ports through their ridiculous ‘Sustainable Ports Act’. To clarify this, the analogy is a ‘Sustainable Milk Bar Act’ where the state government owns the ten milk bars in an emerging economy, and then passes an Act to stop anyone else building or operating a milk bar.
The successful mini port of Bing Bong in the Northern Territory, has exported more than $11 billion of cargo in the last thirty years with one small transhipment vessel, and with royalties paid to the government of over $700m. The indigenous Mawa group are still co-owners of the transhipment vessel. But no such opportunity in Queensland.
A proposal by the Hopevale Congress, just north of Cooktown, to export silica sand by barge transhipment was soundly rejected, despite the product being exported being the same as the stuff on the seabed at the proposed transhipment point making the remote possibility of pollution by spillage to be zero. One senior official stated to me, ‘That may well be Dr Ballantyne, but they could use that export point to handle coal!’ The Green/Labor paranoia about coal knows no bounds.
Nowhere in our nation for the last 100 years will you find evidence of any environmental damage from dredging or transhipping. This Green/Labor philosophy and decisions totally ignore regional Australia, our traditional owners, the prosperity of the states and jobs for our kids and grandkids.
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