No shift in council’s priorities in the river

 

Re-channeling the ‘biggest issue’, not trees

 

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

We sounded a false note of optimism last week when the Alice Springs News Online reported that the Town Council had got the message about tree protection in the Todd and Charles Rivers.  Work by trusties from the gaol, observed by readers knocking down buffel grass in the Todd, was no more than usual, occurring “most Thursdays” according to council’s Director of Technical Services, Greg Buxton.

We would be wrong to think that the elected members are particularly stirred by the evidence of destruction of trees in the Todd and the persistence of the conditions that threaten them. With the exception of a brief comment by Alderman Jane Clark, no-one spoke of the trees at council’s meeting last night. That there was discussion at all about the state of river came down to concern about flooding.

Ald John Rawnsley said the attitude of authorities seems to be “if it happens, it happens”, and he would like to see some action by council to protect the town from flood.

Mr Buxton replied that he was waiting on three certificates from the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) to allow re-channeling of the river, to take the bed back to where it was three years ago. Council has a certificate allowing these works north of Schwarz Crescent causeway. Its applications before AAPA cover three separate stretches of the river downstream as far as Heavitree Gap.

Mr Buxton expressed particular concern over the bed level at the Gap, a meter higher than the Bloomfield drainage line that feeds into it. If this remains the case, he thinks the river would break its banks in a Q20, let alone the feared Q100. He said he met with AAPA last week and they are having discussions with traditional owners.

Ald Murray Stewart said council can’t “sit around and wait” for AAPA’s deliberations: someone in AAPA needs to “get the message that this is urgent”.

Mr Buxton reminded him that council does not own the river but has a “care, control and trust” role, by arrangement with the NT Government [the river is Crown land where native title co-exists]. He said officers meet with AAPA [the authority administering the law protecting traditional Aboriginal interests in the river] on a monthly basis, dialogue is ongoing, “the traditional owners have to be consulted”, “due respect” is owed to them, council can’t “force” a solution.

Ald Stewart said he understands the need for respect but there also needs to be some urgency.

Ald Eli Melky questioned the nature of council’s obligations in the river. If council bears all the liability should something go wrong, it must be “100% in complete control”, he said. Either council should hand back its care and control obligations or it should gain the power to manage as it sees fit, he argued.

CEO Rex Mooney reassured aldermen that council is not legally exposed on this front. He said council can demonstrate that it has taken all possible legal steps to “effect improvement works in the river”. As AAPA has the power to take council to court, he warned, all council can do is to act “quickly, efficiently but also legally”. Handing back the care and control of the river would be “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, he said. Council has “built up a good relationship with AAPA”, will be having meetings “very soon” and will report back to aldermen.

At this point Ald Clark asked about whether council is collaborating with Greening Australia, as she understands that this organisation has AAPA permission to clear around trees. She suggested working with them and bodies like Landcare may be one of the solutions to better management of the river.

Mayor Damien Ryan responded that the biggest issue in the river is re-channeling.

Mr Buxton acknowledged that council has permission to clear the river of buffel grass right through town, as far as the John Blakeman Bridge south of the Gap and this is what crews do most Thursdays in various locations. He dismissed the “hype” in the media over trees burning down – council is “not responsible for arsonists”, he said. He implied that the work to clear buffel is limited by the conditions of the certificate that will not allow soil disturbance. Crews must work with “hand tools”: this does not preclude whipper-snippers and slashers but council can’t take in its “Dingos and backhoes”.

Pictured: Trees ablaze in the Todd, opposite the Crowne Plaza hotel, on November 8, 2011. Alice News reader Dy Kelaart took this shot, commenting: “Fire crews were in attendance as bystanders with the many observers watching in disbelief as fire engulfed the beautiful old river gums. An amazing skeptical, shame about the majestic trees!” Senior Station Fire Officer in Alice Springs, John Kleeman, says fire crews would definitely have tried to put out the fires as “this is our job”.  The Alice News visited the site yesterday. Many of the trees in the mid-channel island have survived, although one (above right, view looking east)  has been utterly destroyed.  Meanwhile, the buffel grass all around is greening up (below, view looking towards the west bank). If unchecked, by spraying or slashing, when it dries out it will again create the tinderbox conditions that fed this fire.

 

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4 Comments (starting with the most recent)

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  1. Hal Duell
    Posted December 2, 2011 at 5:33 am

    I can’t agree that the Town Council is quite as slack and irresponsible as some would seem to suggest. While I often disagree with Council’s actions, in the case of the Todd River, I wonder what else they can do, in addition to what they are already doing, without more funds and clearer authority.
    An increase in rates is never welcome, but without spending more money, how can the grasses be kept from becoming a fuel load? How can the remains of the trees burned by arsonists be removed before they add to next year’s fuel load? And how can the river’s floor be deepened, or its channels improved, so Alice is protected from a Q20 flood breaking the banks?
    No one, and on my own I include the Council, wants to see the large river gums go. I suggest the inclination to protect the river is there but is being stymied by other bureaucracies. Why else is Council only allowed to enter the river with handheld tools? Rakes and a whipper snipper or two to look after the broad expanse of the Todd that Council has been given responsibility for by the NT Government? It’s almost as if someone is deliberately putting rocks in Council’s road.
    The massacre of mature trees in the riverbed is down to arson, and as Mr Buxton correctly pointed out, that is not Council’s problem. The clean-up is, or could be if allowed, but the act itself is a crime and belongs to the NT Police.
    Expertise can be hired. A River Warden has been suggested, but if we go down that path, I would like to see Council remain the designated authority. We have tried splitting authority in Alice before when Tangentyere Council was given authority over the Town Camps, and that just didn’t work. Splitting the Todd won’t either.
    I think much of the current problem is that as a town we have turned our back on the Todd. Other than the bicycle path, the Sturt Tce. parklands and the veranda at Juicy Rump, where else is the river the focus? Even in the more than 170 activities listed in the recently released and truly admirable Youth Activities Calendar 2011/12 – summer holidays, not one activity is scheduled to take place in the Todd. Not one.

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  2. Bob Durnan
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    I agree with Alex Nelson. As a bike path user, the only evidence of fire prevention that I see is the mowing beside the bike paths and, recently, a small amount of mowing around the base of a few trees by gaol inmates, on the western bank, south of the Stott Terrace bridge. On the other hand, the Town Council goes merrily about the business of removing Frank McEllister’s magnificent legacy from the streets of the town and replacing it with bushes and trees which provide little shade or visual interest.
    Council also seems to greatly enjoy lopping off the lower limbs of everything that grows in the parks, against all arid zone horticultural sense.
    The sooner some appropriate expertise and care is introduced to this situation the better. The current trajectory appears to be towards a bland suburban streetscape similar to anywhere else in outback arid Australia, and a riverbed reduced to expanses devoid of mature trees of character, with the occasional manicured park. I don’t mind the occasional park, but I can’t believe that we can afford to sit idly by and witness the unnecessary massacre of the splendid visual character of the river.

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  3. Posted December 1, 2011 at 10:56 am

    Greg Buxton is not being candid. There has been no regular program of grass control in the Todd River by council workers at any time, except for mowing verges along bike paths. I have been crossing the Todd River on foot for most days in the past decade, and I cross it at all times (including at night) where and when most people are afraid to do so. I have an extensive photographic record to match this claim.
    Council rangers do regularly patrol the river moving itinerant campers, maintaining dog control and removing litter. However, when it comes to the management and maintenance of the river and its ecology, the Alice Springs Town Council has clearly abrogated its responsibilities in this regard, and has done so for years. It should be relieved of its responsibilities for care of the ecology of the river, as it has neither the expertise nor the inclination to do so.

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  4. Hal Duell
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    “He said he met with AAPA last week and they are having discussions with traditional owners.” I was in the public gallery during last Monday’s council meeting and heard Director of Technical Services, Greg Buxton, make this statement.
    One question: When he said they are having discussions, did he mean the Town Council and AAPA are having discussions with the traditional owners of the different stretches of the Todd River, or did he mean that AAPA is having the discussions and relaying back to Council any decisions?
    I would like to think our Town Council is a participant in any discussions with traditional owners when the discussions relate to a matter of public safety for all the residents of Alice Springs. Given the concern that the Todd River is now so shallow that a Q20 flood could break the river’s banks, I suggest these discussions would fall within the rubric of public safety.
    Just asking.

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