Dealing first with Hal Duell’s comments, the Taffy Pick Crossing …

Comment on LETTER: Removing sand from the Todd makes no sense as a flood mitigation measure by Alex Nelson.

Dealing first with Hal Duell’s comments, the Taffy Pick Crossing (originally the Casino Causeway) was constructed in 1981, and opened in July that year simultaneously with the opening of the Federal Hotels Casino. Federal Hotels and the NT Government jointly funded the construction of the Casino Causeway.
Amongst the earliest critics of the new causeway was Taffy Pick in a letter published in the Centralian Advocate in early December 1982 – three months later the flood of March 1983 swamped the foyer of the casino and ripped out an 11 metre wide chunk of the causeway.
A study was undertaken from 1984 onwards by the NT Government for the construction of a full size bridge to replace the Casino Causeway; and in 1986 the NT Government announced a $5.7 million project for the reconstruction and re-alignment of roads at the north entrance of Heavitree Gap and South Terrace, including a large roundabout at the Gap, re-alignment of South Terrace, a new bridge downstream from (and replacing) the Casino Causeway, a roundabout on the east bank of the Todd linking Stephens Road and Barritt Drive with the bridge, and extension of Stephens Road to link with Sadadeen and Undoolya. Only the roundabout at Heavitree Gap has been built, and that was a separate project in 1994 that was part of the NT Government’s plans for the rejuvenation of Alice Springs (which in itself sounds awfully repetitive, doesnt’ it?).
The NT Government transferred responsibility for the Casino Causeway to the Alice Springs Town Council in early 1987. Following the flood of April 1988, the mayor Leslie Oldfield begged the NT Government to urgently replace the Casino Causeway with a properly constructed bridge.
The NT Government has long publicly recognised that the Casino Causeway exacerbates flooding of properties by the river for a distance of 400m upstream from the causeway but has never done anything to resolve this problem of its own making.
To my knowledge and recollection, there have been four major occasions in the past 30 years or so when sand has been removed from the Todd River within the urban area. The first was in the early 1980s but was suspended in 1982 following assessment by the NT Conservation Commission that showed that sand removal was having an adverse effect on the river gums.
The second was in August / September of 1988, when the Department of Transport and Works removed sand that had accumulated next to the Casino Causeway. This was only a few months after the flood that year and coincided with the Flynn by-election campaign, during which the effect on flooding by that causeway was a major concern of voters in that electorate. (The CLP polled last and Labor topped the poll on that occasion, the only time this has happened in an urban electorate of Alice Springs. The CLP’s preferences helped NT Nationals candidate Enzo Floreani to win).
The next major sand extraction that I recall was a decade ago, when the Alice Springs Town Council was granted $400,000 for the extraction of sand from Heavitree Gap to Taffy Pick Crossing, which also included extensive spraying of couch and buffel grass. This was a part of the NT Government’s Alice in 10 project; and this particular project was meant to be the first stage of cleaning up the river all the way to the top of town. It never progressed beyond that first stage; and (as predicted on the ABC by both my father and myself) this was a complete waste of money.
The last major sand extraction from the Todd River occurred in 2006, in a project funded by the Martin Labor Government. This involved an upgrading of the Wills Terrace Causeway and extraction of sand downstream along the CBD, which cost (from memory) $600,000.
So now we have yet another publicly funded program of removal of sand from the bed of the Todd River, based on utterly spurious documentation upon which the Alice Springs Town Council relies to justify the expenditure of public monies.

Alex Nelson Also Commented

LETTER: Removing sand from the Todd makes no sense as a flood mitigation measure
Perhaps I can answer your query, Hal – in short, yes, the removal of the sand at the junction of the Todd River with Chinaman’s Creek (yes, that was its name) at the north entrance to Heavitree Gap was unnecessary. This same area was sprayed with Roundup to kill the couch and buffel grass all the way to Taffy Pick Crossing and the sand was excavated only 10 years ago (I took photographs). It was a complete waste of public money.
For a good example of where to see the effect of unimpeded water flow of the Todd River, it’s worth checking the river bank adjacent to the Arid Zone Research Institute. You’ll see an extensive indentation carved into side of the river with a sheer drop of three metres; it looks rather like a miniature version of the Great Australian Bight. This feature was caused by the flood of 1988, when the river water carved out a chunk of land (at least in the hundreds of tons of soil, perhaps more) and completely swept it away.
All the trees and grasses on the side of the river bank did nothing to prevent that erosion, they all vanished downstream. Shortly after that flood, when I went exploring out that way to see what had happened (I was living nearby at the CSIRO Field Station at the time, now the Centre for Appropriate Technology) I observed trees and grasses teetering on the edge of that bank, with partial exposure of the roots dangling metres above the riverbed (again I took photographs). This stretch of the riverbank is the largest natural sudden change of the land I’ve seen occur anywhere in this region’s vicinity.
The point here is that when there is a major flow of the river, piles of sand and sediment held together by grasses will simply be swept away.
It’s also worth noting that the slope of the riverbed through town between the Charles Creek junction at Schwarz Crescent and Heavitree Gap to the south is a drop of 10 metres. Thus the impact of floodwaters backing up at Heavitree Gap itself has a minimal effect on the town further upstream.


LETTER: Removing sand from the Todd makes no sense as a flood mitigation measure
Peter Driscoll’s comment highlights why so much inaction has occurred with flood mitigation and management of the Todd River through Alice Springs during the period of time almost equivalent to self-government of the NT. Essentially the NT Government’s attitude (under CLP rule) was that the single most effective measure to counter flooding of the Todd River would be the construction of a flood mitigation dam in the hills upstream of Alice Springs.
Two locations were proposed during the 1980s; the first was at the Old Telegraph Station, the second at Junction Waterhole further north. Both sites were strenuously resisted by Arrernte traditional owners concerned about the impact the dams would have on sacred sites.
Technically a “dry dam” for flood mitigation would be the most effective measure against large floods but this would require extensive re-negotiation with TO’s who undoubtedly remain wary in light of the bitter diviseness this matter has generated in the past. The project would stand a much better chance of success, I think, if any suggestion of permanent inundation for recreational purposes (as insisted upon by the NT Government in the past) is ruled out completely.
But that still leaves us with the need for dealing with localised flooding of the Todd River through town and for adequate management of it at all times.
Currently the Todd River, for most of its length in town, is at or below the natural bed level of the sand. This is evident (as Charlie Carter pointed out on ABC radio a few days ago) by observing the bases of old river gum trees which predate the existance of Alice Springs – many of them now sit well above the natural bed level of the river at the time of their germination with significant root exposure. River gums never grow naturally with their roots exposed. This is particularly evident just downstream of the Wills Terrace Causeway, which was extensively excavated just six years ago. This same stretch of the river is now slated as Stage 3 for the current sand-mining of the Todd River by the Alice Town Council, as stated by Greg Buxton on ABC radio!
There is also photographic evidence, too – the best example I know is a photo taken by Rev. John Flynn from the top of Meyers Hill in 1926 with a view towards what is now the CBD. The riverbed and west bank adjacent to the Civic Centre has not changed in almost 80 years.
Equally I know of a photo held at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden taken during the drought of the 1960s, which views Olive Pink’s flora reserve from across the Todd River. Again, the riverbed and bank adjacent to the OPBG has not changed.
In the 1950s my father regularly camped in the Todd River adjacent to May’s Guest House (now the Institute for Aboriginal Development on South Terrace), where the riverbank is quite high and steep. It was so in the 1950s and remains the same today, it hasn’t changed.
The only part of Charlie Carter’s letter I disagree with is where he states The Alice Springs Flood Plain Management Plan 1996 concluded that the Tuncks Road causeway has no effect on the bed level of the Todd River. That’s clearly not the case now, where there is an obvious drop in the river bed on the downstream side – so much so, that just a little further downstream it is easy to observe the concrete capping that marks the position of the Palm Valley gas pipeline for the old power station. This was constructed in 1983, and the concrete capping was buried beneath the sand level at that time. Now it is exposed.
Only the Schwarz Crescent causeway shows no impact on the Todd riverbed, yet that is where the Council has, and is, removing sand from the Todd!
Finally, the cause of sand and silt buildup in the Todd River through the town is regularly attributed to the presence of exotic grasses, especially buffel and couch. While these grasses are most undesirable from an environmental perspective, they clearly are not the main cause (if any) of the perceived buildup of sand and silt. These grasses dominate along many of the rivers and creeks in the Central Australian region yet nowhere else have they caused any major flow restrictions; for some reason, they only do so (according to many) within the confines of the town’s urban area.
Strangely, that’s the only stretch of the river where we have all these causeways, too.


Recent Comments by Alex Nelson

Road Transport Hall of Fame is saved
This is great news to start the day. The lingering question in my mind is why the situation was allowed to get to the point where this major attraction was under imminent threat of being significantly reduced, and possibly under threat of closure.
Why endure the aggravation of crisis and emergency before action is taken to achieve a reasonable and satisfactory resolution for all involved?
Surely this outcome could have been negotiated in a more congenial and reasonable manner than apparently was the case.
However, at least this asset for Alice Springs looks set to be saved and for that we must be grateful.


Aboriginal flag on Anzac Hill: the nays have it 
@ Steve Brown (Posted February 16, 2018 at 10:02 am): I’m interested to know, Steve, when it was that TO’s dedicated Anzac Hill for the purpose it now serves as a war memorial? The memorial was first dedicated on Anzac Day, 1934, and as far as I’m aware local Aboriginal people had no involvement in it. Is there a subsequent occasion when this matter was addressed?


Jacinta Price reneges on council undertaking
If Jacinta Price does win preselection to stand as a candidate in the next Federal election campaign, she will not be the first to do so.
On his third attempt, John Reeves was elected in a triple by-election as an Alderman of the Alice Springs Town Council in April 1981.
He was the Labor candidate for the seat of the Northern Territory in the Federal election campaign of February-March, 1983.
Reeves was successful, and his departure from the Council contributed to another multiple by-election in April that year (this was the occasion when Leslie Oldfield was first elected as Mayor after the retirement of George Smith).
Alderman Bob Liddle resigned from the town council in 1987 to run as a candidate for the NT Nationals in the Federal election campaign in July that year. He was unsuccessful.
The NT Government had earlier changed the law so that resignations by council members who stood as candidates for NT and Federal elections were not reinstated as council members even if the candidates were unsuccessful (at present they are).
Alderman Di Shanahan had stood as a Labor candidate in the NT elections of March 1987 and was also unsuccessful. The law being what it was at the time, a double by-election was held for the Alice Springs Town Council. Neither Liddle or Shanahan chose to run again.
The NT Government subsequently reversed this law to the current situation now prevailing.


Bully buffel barges into natives’ live and let live harmony
I largely concur with Lindsay Johannsen’s observations about buffel grass; however, another mode of seed spread is via the digestive tracts of herbivores.
I pointed this fact out several years ago, beginning with observations of buffel seedlings germinating in euro (hill kangaroo) scats at Olive Pink Botanic Garden.
I followed this up with a germination trial of fresh euro scats I collected by the Todd River near the Old Telegraph Station – no buffel seedlings emerged but I did obtain couch grass and stinking lovegrass seedlings, both introduced species. There were no native species.
I can also confirm that termites do indeed consume buffel grass, including seeds gathered from the ground surface, but no way near enough to make any impact on the grasses (seed harvesting ants also consume buffel grass seeds).
I’ve taken quite a number of photos of termite activity in buffel grass; and indeed pointed out in an article published in the Alice Springs News over a decade ago that one species of termite that prevails in rocky hill slopes has become particularly partial to buffel grass.
On one damp overcast day at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden I observed (and photographed) termites actively and vigorously harvesting dead buffel foliage and stems during daylight hours. Every buffel clump I checked on the hillside at OPBG had termite activity associated with it, and I believe this works to the mutual advantage of both species but would have significant implications for the natural ecology assuming this situation applies on a wider landscape scale.


Story Wall, buffel and Jacinta
@ Kathy (Posted January 31, 2018 at 7:47 am): Unfortunately almost nothing of what you’ve claimed is correct. Here is a brief history – in the summer of 1951/52 the wet season failed completely, and much of northern and Central Australia was caught in the grip of a short but very severe drought. However, Central Australia experienced a wet winter in 1952 which prompted the growth of an enormous variety of native flowers and grasses. There were numerous claims by pastoralists of various species never having been seen before.
To the founding director of the Animal Industry Branch, Colonel Lionel Rose, this situation compounded his already strong awareness of the critical lack of knowledge of the natural ecology that underpinned the beef cattle industry. For this reason he gave significant material support to the establishment of the CSIRO’s permanent presence in Alice Springs in 1953; and the first permanent CSIRO officer, Bob Winkworth, immediately began to collect and collate specimens of native pasture species.
In 1954 the AIB itself finally gained its first botanist, George Chippendale, stationed in Alice Springs who immediately commenced work to establish a Herbarium of native plant specimens from across the NT. Bob Winkworth contributed his own collection to assist the establishment of the Herbarium.
The mid 1950s was generally a run of good seasons. Alice Springs was a cattle town and was actually one of the busiest railheads in Australia, transporting cattle from the southern half of the NT via the Central Australian Railway to markets in South Australia.
In 1958 the year went dry – it was the beginning of one of the worst droughts on record in the Centre. It was in this year that my father worked for the CSIRO but transferred back to the AIB in early 1959. He became offsider to botanist George Chippendale and was involved in a number of major botanical survey trips in the NT during the 1960s drought.
Central Australia and Alice Springs were not swept by “huge sand storms”, they were dust storms – and they blew up from overstocked pastoral leases that had denuded the natural vegetation of the region. The dust storms did not come from the true desert regions. My father personally observed and noted these conditions during his botanical survey trips.
The 1960s drought crippled the beef cattle industry in the Centre; conversely it assisted the rise of the tourism industry as an alternative economic basis for Alice Springs.
From the late 1940s onwards there had been a range of evaluation trials of buffel grass (amongst other species) for improved pasture. Ironically, at the start of the drought there was a lot of failure experienced with these trials and it looked as if buffel grass wasn’t suitable for introduction. However, a pasture species evaluation trial run by the CSIRO at AZRI during the 1960s drought indicated that, with the right conditions, buffel grass could be successfully established in limited areas.
However, it was the burgeoning tourism industry that provided the impetus for widespread establishment of buffel grass in the region. The major airlines TAA and Ansett-ANA wanted to introduce jet airliners to service Alice Springs but this would only proceed if the dust storms could be controlled. It was the need to control dust around the Alice Springs Airport that led to extensive sowing of buffel grass in the area from the late 1960s onwards, as a method to achieve soil conservation.
The 1970s were a reversal of the climatic conditions that dominated the 1960s. From 1973 onwards there commenced six years of well above average rainfall in the Centre. This happened to coincide with the collapse of the beef cattle market, leading to an enormous build-up of herd numbers in the Centre of largely unsaleable cattle. This led to concerns that the large herd numbers significantly exceeded the natural carrying capacity of the country; it was only the exceptional seasonal conditions that prevented an environmental catastrophe from occurring.
The establishment of buffel grass on many pastoral leases was systematically undertaken during this period, intended to alleviate the grazing pressure on natural pastures. In combination with the exceptional seasons, it was this program of well-intentioned soil conservation measures that triggered the invasion of buffel grass in the environment, still ongoing in many situations where it was never originally envisaged it would take hold.
In 1980/81 I was involved with a CSIRO project at AZRI to ascertain the grazing preferences of cattle at varying stocking intensities on mixed buffel/native grass pastures. It was discovered that cattle preferentially graze native grasses first before consuming buffel grass so this means that livestock assist buffel grass in outcompeting native species.
Buffel grass itself outcompetes most native plant species, that is well documented. In situations where buffel grass is removed (such as I helped to achieve at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden) and there is no grazing pressure, there is an immediate response in the return of native plant species. It’s easy to see the obvious differences of plant species diversity between areas dominated with buffel grass compared to those without buffel. It’s not difficult to measure.
Buffel grass does help stabilise soil and provides useful feed for livestock but so do native pastures when they are well managed and not abused by persistent overstocking of grazing animals.
There is no doubt, however, that buffel grass alone is the single greatest environmental threat by far across most of inland Australia, far more so than other officially recognised feral weed species, but in this case there remains a studious avoidance by government to do anything substantial about it.


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