Failed access bridges over drainage canals in Macleay Valley

DILAPIDATED: Many of the access bridges crossing flood drainage canals on private properties across the Macleay are in disrepair or nearing imminent failure. Photo: Tom Bushnell.

DILAPIDATED: Many of the access bridges crossing flood drainage canals on private properties across the Macleay are in disrepair or nearing imminent failure. Photo: Tom Bushnell.

Kempsey Shire Council director of infrastructure services, Robert Scott, discusses the dilapidated access bridges crossing flood drains throughout the Macleay. The failed access bridges cross flood drains on private properties throughout the Macleay. The bridges were built as part of the flood mitigation scheme in the 1960s and Kempsey Shire Council assumed responsibility for the flood mitigation scheme when the Kempsey Municipal Council and the Macleay Shire Council amalgamated in 1975, thus abolishing the Macleay River County Council in the process. 

Q : Farmers apparently contacted Cr Liz Campbell prior to the election to raise the issue with her and at the time she told the farmers that council would have to take another look at the matter. Does council intend to review the matter? 

A: An action group representing the landowners affected by bridges over the drains canvassed all candidates before the local government elections. 

The Delivery Program Council adopted this week includes an item to ‘Complete a Review of Council’s Flood Risk Management Strategy’, which is an initial step in reviewing all the issues associated with floods, the infrastructure and the impact. 

Q: Council now says it is not responsible for maintaining and repairing the bridges, and has shifted that burden on to the property owners. 

A: Prior to an insurance claim for losses in 2010, council had done some maintenance on bridges, namely replacement of decking planks and some pile strengthening. Legal advice obtained in relation to that claim and reported to council in December 2010 advised council is not responsible for ongoing maintenance or replacement. 

As the constructing authority of the Flood Mitigation Scheme, council was required to reinstate access to properties, hence the bridges, but no ongoing maintenance to private property is required. 

Q: The necessary repairs are too expensive for the farmers to afford. 

A: In 2016 council completed a flood study on alternative options, over Union Drain at Belmore River, which were not as costly for bridges. Alternatives such as shortening bridges by partially filling them in or using large pipes or box culverts were considered. Council can work with landowners on the necessary Development Approvals for this kind of work. 

Q: Can council provide a copy of the agreements for acquisition, which allegedly states that council would only repair or replace the bridges for 40 years?

A: Document searches that have been carried out have located documents that refer to such agreement but neither the property owners or council have copies of any signed agreements. 

Q: The farmers say no such agreement exists.

A: See answer above. In the absence of any agreement otherwise, then the legislation in force at the time would apply. This required council to reinstate private access across the drains but not maintain it. 

Q: The farmers also say that if the agreement does contain such a stipulation then the bridges should have been handed over to the farmers in good condition. They were not.

A:  On the basis of the legal advice received in 2010, council elected not to continue to maintain the bridges on the basis that it was not required to do so by the legislation. In context of the money required to maintain all of council’s assets, including roads, sports fields and facilities, there is limited funding available for flood mitigation. 

Q: The farmers also say council will not let them fill the drains in because it wants to ensure the effectiveness of the flood mitigation system, which is reasonable. However, if this is true, then shouldn't council cover the cost of repairs and maintenance?

A: This is not true and council has worked with property owners to consider alternatives following the study done on Union Drain at Belmore River. Property owners are able to review this study information, consider options for replacement and use the information provided to support their development application. Council advise that an owner should only embark on alternative options after carefully considering the impact that restricting the drain will have on flooding of their property. As previously established, the costs of repairs and maintenance is not covered by council. 

Q: How do you expect farmers to afford repairs on the bridges?

A: This situation is considered similar to any other property owner who has an access that crosses a water body. In the case of the insurance claim made by one property owner in 2010, the losses claimed would have exceeded the costs of replacing the bridge in a year or two. By this indication some businesses may consider replacement to be a good investment. 

Q: Do you think it is fair to burden farmers, who are experiencing financial hardship already, with the cost of repairs?

A: It is not council’s intention to unfairly burden any property owner through any action it undertakes. Council’s core purpose is to provide infrastructure and services across the community which requires balancing investment across a whole range of priorities and the needs of various sectors of the community. 

Q: Do you think it is fair that the farmers can't use their properties effectively?

A: The issue of fairness needs to be considered in the broader context. Flood mitigation and drainage of the 1960s provided significant benefits to the property owners, which have had economic impacts through improved productivity over that time. 

Q: What does council plan to do about the matter?

A: A full revision of the Lower Macleay Floodplain Management Plan is required. This will lead to a case being made for improvements or alterations to the flood mitigation system. An economic assessment of the benefits of the scheme is also required so that an informed debate can be conducted regarding the level of community investment that is warranted in this area. This is a significant body of work, dependent on grant funding and can’t be prioritised until the refurbishment of the major floodgates is achieved. 

Q: The farmers think money from the funds council receives from the Government for flood mitigation could be redirected, is this a possible solution?

A: If this was possible it would definitely be pursued by council. 

Council currently receives $87,000 each year from the Government for maintenance of the entire Floodplain Management scheme on a 1:1 basis. This funds works on flood gates, drain cleaning and operation of the flood warning system.

Competitive grants are also available at 2:1 basis, however they must be related to an investigation, study or the implementation of a new action resulting from a study. The replacement of bridges would not be eligible. Competition for these grants is getting increasingly difficult each year and applications are heavily scrutinised by the department. 

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