02 February 2012

Update: The Wivenhoe Investigation

UPDATE 5 Feb: The revelations from the inquiry continue.

I have commented occasionally on the role of flood management decisions leading up to the flooding of Brisbane in early 2011, as it is a fascinating case study at the intersection of science, uncertainty, decision processes, accountability and politics. As I mentioned last week the official investigation was re-opened after emails were released that suggested some inconsistencies in earlier reporting. The re-opened investigation started yesterday with explosive revelations:
In a series of heated exchanges at Queensland's recalled floods inquiry yesterday, SEQWater's principal engineer of dam safety, John Tibaldi, was grilled over a report he penned in the weeks following the January floods, which accounted for the actions he and his fellow engineers took.

At one point, Mr Tibaldi choked up in tears under the questioning.

Commissioner Cate Holmes, a Supreme Court judge, reconvened the inquiry after The Australian revealed evidence that appeared to show the dam was employing less severe flood mitigation strategies than those detailed in Mr Tibaldi's report.

As well as SEQWater officials and engineers being called to testify, Premier Anna Bligh has been asked to submit a written statement to the inquiry. Ms Bligh said she would provide a comprehensive statement by Monday and would submit a copy of her diary and relevant documents relating to the meetings and briefings she attended at the time of the floods.

Mr Tibaldi told the inquiry the report used raw data collected during the flood -- including lake levels and outflows -- and he then matched the data to the release strategies prescribed in the dam manual, known as W1, W2, W3 and W4. He said he had no recollection of asking the three other dam engineers which strategies they were using at various times during the disaster, but prepared the report based on the raw data and subsequently sought their approval.

"I tried to match the strategy transitions against the data that was available to me (and) just made conclusions based on that data as to when strategy transitions had occurred," he said.

Counsel assisting the inquiry, Peter Callaghan SC, suggested the manual was therefore used to analyse and justify the decisions taken by the four engineers -- Mr Tibaldi, Robert Ayre, Terry Malone and John Ruffini -- rather than dictating the decisions they took at the time.
Apparently SEQ Water is privately insured, though for what contingencies and to what financial level it is not clear from what I have read. What does seem increasingly clear is that someone is going to receive a big bill to settle what will inevitably be large claims against SEQ Water. Stay tuned.


  1. The enquiry reopened because an arrogant Canberra (not Brisbane) based journalist, Hedley Thomas, ran a series of articles commencing in February 2011, trying to find someone to blame and from which enquiry he might obtain some journalistic award. Thomas has pursued every one he could, but particularly the four dedicated engineers whose privilege it was to sit up for days on end trying to work out the best strategy to control something which had NEVER been tried before - the dam was not built on the occasion of the previous flood in 1974.

    The fact is that the water was highest in the upper reaches of the Bremer River and Ipswich, a region not particularly effected by the releases from the Wivenhoe dam, but where water levels were 1.4 metres higher than in 1974 because of extraordinary flooding in the Lockyer valley which wiped out Grantham (a very old town not previously affected by floods). Lower down, where the Wivenhoe water would have had most effect, the levels were 2.3 metres LOWER than in 1974. Go figure. Were the dam engineers lacking in skills? Hedley Thomas from Canberra is trying hard to make it appear so and to thereby collect his award! John Nicol, Brisbane. jonicol18@bigpond.com

  2. John Nichol---do you work for the Labor Party?

    Having read Hedley Thomas' articles, you would know that the allegation [ apparently supported by the data and other documentation]was that the story was changed after the SEQWater people were called to a meeting with representatives of Anna Bligh's Labor government---in with one story---out with a new one---the one that was given to the holmes Inquiry.

    Before the meeting, they apparently were saying they went to the level [W3 or W4]that would protect Brisbane on January 10, and after the meeting they were saying they went to that level on January 8.

    That is, before the government meeting, the dam authorities had a story that would show them to have not followed the regulations---after the government meeting,hey had themselves a story that exonerated them---but one that the data didn't fit.

    Hedley Thomas by the way, has protected that Labor government at times in the past , and at other times has exposed it.

    And that government has a dreadful history---a perfidious record of governance that would be hard to match in any democracy anywhere.

  3. '...intersection of science, uncertainty, decision processes, accountability and politics.' Perhaps we need to add journalistic ambition to the list.

  4. In summary.

    1. Official government policy is to believe in and act on fears of global warming, specifically that a current drought situation is permanent not cyclical.

    2. Because the official policy is to believe the current drought is permanent, water/flooding control procedures are changed so that precious water is never dumped in anticipation of large rainfall driven inflows of river water.

    3. When the "permanent" drought ends and huge volumes of water move downstream, the dam and reservoir that was designed to "sop up" theses flows by being emptied prior the large water flows reaching the reservoir, is kept full because - see #2 above.

    Massive flooding, staggering levels of property damage and dozens dead resulted from a belief in global warming that caused a policy change to water control procedures.

  5. I read at the time of the floods that damage was made worse because development had been allowed on flood plains. The prospect of AGW and a permanent drought led to this decision. I saw video of flooding at the time with commentary that the development depicted was on the flood plain. it was just at the edge of the creek so I would not be surprised if it were.

    Is my memory accurate on this. I have read a major AGW advocate denying it but I would just like to know if it is true or not