Commission of Inquiry into Queensland floods 2011

Yesterday the Queensland Premier announced a Commission of Inquiry into flood disaster. Terms of reference – on 2 pages, which read to me as being in simple plain english.
The Premier said the inquiry would have the powers of a Royal Commission – perhaps lawyers could explain and comment.
Have I missed seeing “climate change” mentioned ?
I suppose there are three main areas that take my interest, all very different – not in order.
[1] The more than a century long Australian town planning practice of building on floodplains.
[2] Issues around the management of Wivenhoe Dam.
[3] The deadly Toowoomba flash floods of 1 – 2pm on 10th January.
And of course there are interstate implications for two of these.
Does anybody have bio notes / info on the dam expert on the Commission – Dr Phil Cummins from Victoria ?
I note the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) has a series of webpages headed;
National Flood Forecasting and Warning Service
What are lawyers going to make of this ?
I see a link at the page – “Queensland Flood Warning Centre”
“Qld Flood History” which takes you to a large number of detailed reports into past floods.
It will be interesting to see if this inquiry results in an upgraded warning system against flash flooding.

33 thoughts on “Commission of Inquiry into Queensland floods 2011”

  1. A Royal Commissioner has the power to
    a)to compel witnesses to appear
    b)to take evidence
    c)to issue search warrants
    d)to compel the production of documents
    If anyone’s interested the Royal Commissions Act Cth is here
    In Qld the relevant legislation is called COMMISSIONS OF INQUIRY ACT 1950
    I have never worked on a Qld Enquiry but just looking at the legislation the Commissioner certainly seems to have similar powers to a Cth appointed Royal Commissioner EXCEPT that the latter has the power to take evidence outside Australia

    Just looking at the Terms of Reference I can assure you ‘climate change’ is not mentioned

  2. I put this on the wrong article but it’s relevant here:

    Dr Tim Ball has an article on the Qld floods

    final paras:
    I chaired the first attempt to establish a management strategy for the Assiniboine River and drainage basin in Canada (Figure1). As usual it was an extreme event that triggered a conflict – it was typical of the ongoing practice of crisis management. The extreme was caused by the drought across western North America in 1988/89 that was in the same pattern of the 1930s drought. Conflict developed when water flow in the Assiniboine River reached the lowest flow in 94 years of record. In 1996, the worst flood in 101 years was recorded. It was valuable because I could more easily convince Board members that any strategy must consider the extreme variability.

    Engineers and hydrologists, among others, deal with what is called the recurrence frequency. When planning they determine what level of natural events will set the limit for their design. It is described as a one-in-100 event, but the second number can have any value. Usually the design is limited by the length and accuracy of the record and cost. The difficulty is, if an event exceeds the limit, then the disaster is exacerbated. The approach assumes the record is adequate in length, which it isn’t. It assumes the range of the record is consistent because they assume the weather is the same over long periods of time. All this ignores the third critical measure of statistics, the variation. Global warming alarmists have claimed the weather is more variable, but more variable than what? Variation changes occur all the time and has increased because of cooling not warming as the cold air of Antarctica expands.

    There are human factors involved in the Brisbane flooding. Apparently a dam designed for flood control was allowed to fill with limited release. “We need a full inquiry into why this dam managed by SEQ Water, and others managed by Sunwater, were managed in a way that actually produced the kind of flood it was designed to prevent.”

    Another problem, learned from our research of the Assiniboine Basin, was the pattern caused by the wet and dry cycle, as in Queensland. During wet periods, demands are for flood control by dams and drainage ditches. In dry periods the demand is opposite. Now storage and prevention of runoff is required. These systems can serve dual purposes but it requires knowledge of the extremes and management that anticipate the swing from one to another. This is limited by the failure to understand that the records used are totally inadequate in length, trend and variability. I am grateful to Professor Stewart who drew attention to three papers that address the problems. His 2004 paper, “Multi-decadal climate variability, New South Wales, Australia.” A joint paper with Danielle Verdon, “Long-term behaviour of ENSO: Interactions with the PDO over the 400 years inferred from paleoclimate records” And a third paper with Anthony Kiem and George Kuczera titled, Multi-decadal variability of flood risk.”

    Living In High Risk Zones
    Finally, there is the problem of people being allowed to live in high-risk zones, such as flood plains. Often these zones are ill identified because of the lack of understanding of the true cyclical climate pattern. Maybe people shouldn’t be allowed to live in flood plains, especially at the first flood stage level, but that’s another subject.

  3. I have asked someone with much more expertise than I have to ascertain who the dam expert is
    My view is that this commission of inquiry needs international experts (engineers and hydrologists who have experience with bigger dams than Wivenhoe) and meteorology experts and other experts of the type Dr Ball talks about in the excerpt I’ve put above
    That is not going to happen and in my view the findings are going to be limited both in scope and possibly politically because of that
    hopefully my view is wrong

  4. From the SMEC (a consultancy company originally out of the Snowy Mtns Authority and sold off by the Keating Government in 1993) 2005-6 Annual report ( ) Phil Cummins is described as follows “Dams- During more than 35 years of experience in the field of dam engineering Phil has been involved in all aspects of the process, including design, construction,operation, maintenance and rehabilitation, with principal responsibility for the design of new dams or
    rehabilitation of existing dams in Australia and overseas.”
    It seems that in 2008 that he was chairman of ANCOLD (Australian National Committee on Large Dams). At the time he was involved with a review of preliminary engineering of the Traveston Dam (ie before final design) for the Queensland Government.
    It would appear that he is now retired as he is not mentioned on the present SMEC or ANCOLD web sites.
    Looking at the Board of Professional Engineers website it appears that Phil Cummins is not a registered engineer in Queensland. He may have been in breach of the Professional Engineers Act in 2008. He will certainly need to be registered if he takes part in the Commission of Enquiry.
    One has to wonder if the Commission of Enquiry is intended to be a whitewash of government and council officials (especially those without engineering qualifications) who have made poor decisions based on unprofessional advice eg Tim Flannery.

  5. Thank you cemtafriend; I suspect without the international expertise to which Tim Ball refers in the piece I’ve copied in my comment above this inquiry is going to be a provincial affair with nobody prepared to sheet any blame
    and cemtafriend I understand the proposed dam expert is a Queenslander
    is that correct?

  6. No Val, I believe Anna Bligh said Cummins is from Victoria (where he may now live). SMEC has its registered head office in Cooma NSW and another regional office which may hold some of its head office staff in Canberra. It has offices in all capital cities of Australia and has a number of overseas offices where it operates eg India, Vitnam and China. SMEC has close connection to all Governments in Australia from where it gets most of its work. The Commonwealth Government also uses SMEC for overseas aid projects. It seem that SMEC now owns a majority share of Brisbane City Enterprises Pty Ltd which it acquired from the Brisbane Council (Was the Council in Labour hands in 2005?) to assist local governemnts. It seems there is an office on the Gold Coast and in Townsville.
    It is interesting to note that SMEC where involved with the Geothermal power station at Lihir Is PNG (Lihir Gold had notable warmist Garnaut as its chairman- the shareholders mainly benefited when he left and it was taken over by Newcrest)
    I would imagine that SMEC (through Cummins) will have a large input into the enquiry.
    One has to ask whether the input can be/will be politically influenced.

  7. Hmmm… when the expert has or may have had political ties to the State Govt it’s never a good sign; that’s why I would have preferred a large dam expert from overseas

    I’ve also had another look at the Terms of Reference which Warwick has linked above

    this is a bit of a nonsence para ‘The preparation and planning by federal, State and local governments; emergency services and the community for the 2010/2011 floods in Queensland’
    should read
    The preparation and planning by federal, State and local governments; emergency services and other entities, communities and households for floods in Queensland including current laws, policies, resources, strategies and practices for the prevention, identification, evaluation, management and communication of flood threats and risks
    (this is a para similar to the Black Saturday’s Terms of Ref which I think is more explicit)

    AND the terms of reference should have a ‘catch all’ phrase something like ‘Any other matters that the enquiry deems appropriate in relation to the 2010/2011 floods’
    (this is similar to the catch all phrase the Black Saturday enquiry had and covers anything which turns up during the enquiry and is not otherwise covered) like the ‘recurrence frequency’ referred to by Dr Ball linked in my comment above

  8. Agree Val – in response to that para – “The preparation and planning by federal, State and local governments; emergency services and the community for the 2010/2011 floods in Queensland”.
    would it be fair to say;
    Is it not mainly an issue of how authorities REACTED to these floods once they started.
    Authorities were all beating up the concept of “permanent greenhouse drought” only a short time ago.
    What has ever been done to restrict building on the Brisbane floodplain ?
    BTW – I saw a few days ago mention of a proposed Brisbane levee – please comment if anybody ever sees a cost estimate for that.

  9. I agree with what you say Warwick, how the authorities reacted is an important issue and in my view is adequately covered in the TR

    Do you read the Oz Warwick, there’s been a number of the past few days critical of the operational management of Wivenhoe; one was written by an engineer – O’Brien I think his name was; can’t find that one at the moment; maybe cementafriend could help but here are some of the others
    and the scariest of all:

    haven’t seen a cost est for levees but haven’t seen one for the NBN either

    I think there are real questions to be asked about Wivenhoe; Jennifer Morahassy had a post about this
    there are some interesting comments about the perceived primary use of Wivenhoe by Poly

  10. interesting study
    2500 Years of European Climate Variability and Human Susceptibility
    Climate variations have influenced the agricultural
    productivity, health risk and conflict level of preindustrial
    societies. Discrimination between environmental and
    anthropogenic impacts on past civilizations, however,
    remains difficult because of the paucity of high-resolution
    palaeoclimatic evidence. Here we present tree ring-based
    reconstructions of Central European summer
    precipitation and temperature variability over the past
    2500 years. Recent warming is unprecedented, but
    modern hydroclimatic variations may have at times been
    exceeded in magnitude and duration. Wet and warm
    summers occurred during periods of Roman and
    Medieval prosperity. Increased climate variability from
    ~AD 250-600 coincided with the demise of the Western
    Roman Empire and the turmoil of the Migration Period.
    Historical circumstances may challenge recent political
    and fiscal reluctance to mitigate projected climate change.
    as Coolerheads says:

    In a nutshell, periods of warmer temperatures and greater precipitation (the Roman Empire up to 250 A.D., aka the Roman Warm Period; Europe during 800-1200 A.D., aka the Medieval Warm Period) were also periods improved human health, prosperity, and political stability. Conversely, periods of colder temperatures and less precipitation (Europe during 250-550 A.D., aka the Dark Ages Cold Period; Europe during 1300-1700 A.D., aka the Little Ice Age) were marked by famine, plague, population displacement, and political instability.

  11. Val, Here is the article that mentions Michael O’Brien,,. I think that was also mentioned on the television showing a chart of the water releases. I think the basic point is that January, February and March are the wet months of the year, for example in the area of Indigo Jones observatory I have noted the following monthly records January 1898 -1384mm, February 1893 – 1819mm, March 1898 -1189mm. By contrast the December 2010 rain in the same area was a record since 1893 of 668mm compared with the average (since 1893) of 167mm. Michael O’Brien says dam level the should have been lower before Monday 10th, 2011. In fact probably at the beginning of the wet season the dam level should have been below 100%. What Michael O’Brien is saying is just common sense.
    Further, on the television a metrologist from a private company, I think Weather Zone or something like that identified from the radar the unusual weather pattern and said he gave some warnings at least four hours before the weather burueau (BOM). No doubt that will come up at the enquiry but of course no one will be blamed and there will be promises to put in place a better warning system.
    Val, I have read similar things about the Roman Empire. Could I suggest to you a great book by (Prof) Geoffrey Blainey “The Great Seesaw -A New View of the Western World 1750-2000”
    regards and keep strong

  12. Sorry, I should have added the average rainfall for the wet months January 247mm, February 284mm and March 278mm, (April average is 175mm). The record rainfall is 4 to 6 times the average. There is nothing difficult about working out the probability of the dams filling up in the wet months.
    I would be interested in Warwick’s comment

  13. yes, i’d be interested in Warwick’s comment as well
    to repeat Warwick in respect to some other post ‘a given amount of rain fell in a given catchment’ and ‘it can’t be that hard’
    Sorry Warwick if I’ve misrepresented you

  14. Here are a few links to earlier articles.
    In August 2006 – Brisbane catchments rainfall history 1900-2005
    – which has a link to;
    Brisbane water issues and catchment rainfall history 1900 to 2005
    Then two years ago;
    Traveston Crossing Dam catchment rainfall trends
    Wyaralong dam district rain history
    People would be amazed at the poor state of our national rain data.
    See – Deterioration in BoM rainfall data quality this decade (means post 1999)
    And emails to and from the BoM as a concerned taxpayer tried to tell them about faulty rain data – key to the Cotter catchment near Canberra.
    Then in many districts there is a recent network of rain gauges – but when I asked about getting the data I was told – “..that is the hydrology network (or some such name) and you will have to pay additional for that.” So I have never bothered to pay them – but it would be good for Australia you would think – if all rain data was freely available. I would guess it would not pay the BoM the cost of billing for the amount of data they would sell. IMHO it is just a method of putting up barriers around their data.
    For all our main catchments, Perth, Melbourne (Thomson), Sydney (Warragamba) and Brisbane – there is no readily available catchment rain index. Amazing stuff.

  15. that’s scary Warwick; I’ve questioned the temperature data but haven’t concentrated on the rain data
    Hmmm …
    so far as you are aware does the data still depend on someone ringing in and reporting or is it mechanised for urban areas

    more about warnings or in this case the lack of them
    Mr Cornelius, other meteorologists, and amateur weather-watchers posted their concerns on a public forum at

    Mr Cornelius warned his family who lived in the area.

    He posted a warning on the forum as early as 12.16pm on Monday.

    The flash flooding hit Grantham between 2.30pm and 3pm.

    The Bureau of Meteorology issued a warning for “moderate to major flooding” at 4.16pm.

    “If we (Weatherwatch) were in the situation, an alert should really have been issued between 12.30pm and 1pm.”

  17. Val,
    Andrew Bolt is good at putting all the facts together. I think in one of his posts he mentions Roger Pielke Jr who has posted on his blog the following Some of these quotes add a bit of authority.
    To some extent I agree with Warwick about BOM. Weather can be very localised. At my place we had yesterday a sudden downpour 10mm in about 20 minutes-gutters overflowing but on the way to drop off the grandson a few kms away no rain. It is appalling that BOM are shutting down weather stations. However, there is lots of old records of rainfall in Queensland. For example goto then put in daily rainfall put in location say Toowoomba, click Toowoomba City, unclick only open stations and have a look at the long list of nearby weather stations. The first one the Laurels has data from 1888 to 1900. Have a look at February 1893 -total 941mm. Look at the 15 and 16th.That surely must have caused local flooding. Now go to the 4th station Toowoomba 41103 opened in 1869 closed 2007. Look at 1974 January rain not as heavy as February 1893 but 25th to 27th enough to cause local flooding. The record is there for the design of stormwater.
    Calling the present rain one in a hundred years is nonsense. 1893 may have been one in a hundred years but the present is more like one in fifty years. There can be no excuse for the dams to be 100% full at the beginning of the rainy season.

  18. Val,I think there is more responsibility than just BOM’s in all this. They did issue a forecast for rain,heavy at times for the Toowoomba area.They do not have any means of pinpointing super heavy downpours before the fact. BOM has its telemetry,and with DERM, have a network of stream gauges,but refined warning responsibility within a city like Toowoomba with a stormwater system,and modified natural streamways lies to my mind with the council that designed them. In Toowoomba’s particular case,perhaps a tamper-proof warning system with sirens/flashing lights at the major culverts can be installed at key points on East and West Creeks.Expensive though if the return time of this event is big.

    Lockyer Valley Regional Council is presumably responsible for zoning and services below the escarpment. Would be interesting to know what background information on flood characteristics and history they give to landowners in these narrow valleys. I do however believe that this event was the most severe on record after studying archived reports.

    Do BOM in Queensland post a Flood Watch catchment warning as they do in NSW? This is a very useful product that gives a heads up for possibilities in major streams and tributaries before projected rainfall begins,and could be/should be tuned to reflect knowledge of areas particularly vulnerable to damaging flash-flooding. The narrow valleys below the Toowoomba escarpment clearly qualify.

  19. And what about Justice Holmes? When Anna Bligh was Families Minister in 1998, Bligh was forced to set up the Forde Inquiry into Child Abuse. Ms Cate Holmes, as she was then, was appointed Counsel Assisting. She is named in the Rofe QC Audit of the Heiner Affair, together with the other Commissioner, former Police Commissioner Jim O’Sullivan.
    Piers Akermann in his Blog makes the pertinent point that currently serving Judges are not supposed to officiate at such inquiries. There is the real possibility that the floods could result in a raft of civil claims, from which she will have to recuse herself. Also, her role in the Forde Inquiry was seen as one of damage control by some people, particularly as regards the Heiner Affair references.
    It is wishful thinking to assume that she will NOT play the same role in this Commission.

  20. Kandler thanks for that comment; I don’t know whether BOM post a Flood Watch catchment warning for the T’wmba area BUT others here would know I suspect; there was an article about warnings being sent to local authorities after the event but again I know nothing personally about that

    and thanks Romanoz; I knew nothing about Justice Holmes so interesting

    I do suspect the inquiry will be a bit of a whitewash but I hope I’m proved wrong

    I understand the inquiry will be calling for public submissions at some stage and that should be earlier rather than later

  21. For many years in the 80s and 90s, I was a Professional Engineer performing flood studies throughout Queensland, on the Brisbane, Pine, Burdekin, McIntyre, Dee, Boyne rivers to name a few. Given the scant detail of information provided at the time I was happy and relieved to see the Goondiwindi levee system perform as designed, but also share in the grief of Grantham, much more so as I warned of such events in the late 80s. This was as a result of work on the Burdekin River where waves are a frequent phenomenon. There are many residents in Queensland that are unaware that they live in areas where flood waves can occur. To briefly explain, these areas have not been identified as the computer models most frequently used are from the US or Europe where they do not experience the high intensities rainfalls common to Queensland that result in waves. These waves arrive with little warning at levels much higher than predicted that can, as we have seen, result high death rates. Without the right modeling the Bureau of Meteorology is quite right to say they cannot predict these events which were first acknowledge by them after the Charleville flood in the late 80s. Since then decades have past, with huge advances in information and computing. We cannot continue to hold the view that these events cannot be predicted and forecast. To do so, is to accept yet another Grantham, happening again.

  22. An alert reader has drawn my attention to this odd and obfuscating SMH article – I would appreciate peoples interpretations – Queenslanders might have memories of these planning issues and what parts various identities played.
    I read it a few times and my first thoughts are – what does the 9000/6000 number matter – it is water height that invades properties. The net effect of past decisions this month was many thousands of flooded properties – and taxpayers hip pockets will be damaged in the aftermath – and most will be rebuilt to wait for the next inevitable flood to repeat the process. All quite mad.
    Andrew Bolt has dug out this great comparison between NSW & Qld long term efforts to reduce building on flood-plains. Clearly the Brisbane flood damage has been made worse by Qld State Govt actions/inactions.

  23. interesting article
    A PIONEER of the Brisbane Valley was asked to “call back tomorrow” when he made an urgent Sunday morning call to the Wivenhoe Dam’s operator, SEQWater, to seek immediate action to mitigate a large flood he warned would soon occur from rainfall across the catchment.
    Chris McConnel – whose family’s history in recording and forecasting local flooding and rainfall goes back to the 1840s, when his great-grandfather settled the land – said yesterday he was “very angry” his warnings were not heeded by SEQWater on the crucial January weekend.

    Mr McConnel wants the royal commission-style inquiry into the floods to examine the duty roster on the weekend of January 8 and 9 to establish the seniority and availability of staff making vital decisions on water releases as the dam filled with increasing inflows and rainfall.

    He said that if asked to give evidence at the inquiry he would explain that at about 11am on Sunday, January 9, after measuring the river height and talking to local contacts about rainfall in their gauges, he rang SEQWater to warn of an imminent and “very large flood”.

    (more at the link including leaked e mails)

  24. THE operators of Wivenhoe Dam almost tripled the rate of water released into the Brisbane River just prior to the January floods, adding to the inundation of thousands of homes and businesses.
    After weeks of stonewalling, the State Government-owned Seqwater last night succumbed to public pressure and publicly detailed the release rates in the crucial days before the flood.

    The 85-page document showed the operators ramped up releases from 240,000 megalitres a day on the night of January 10, when the dam was 158 per cent full, to 645,000ML/day the next night when the dam hit 183 per cent.

    The release rate was radically reined in to 205,000ML/day the following morning.

    The massive release coincided with intense rainfall upstream of Brisbane and Ipswich.

    Critics have accused the operators of reacting too slowly both before and during the rainfall event by failing to release more water earlier.

    Start of sidebar. Skip to end of sidebar.
    .End of sidebar. Return to start of sidebar.
    They have also been accused of hoarding water in the dam’s flood compartment from the weekend prior, compromising its ability to mitigate the flood.

    However, the percentage of the flooding that can be attributed directly to Wivenhoe’s releases was yet to be calculated.

    In the report entitled “January 2011 flood event summary of dam operations”, Seqwater said “detailed information about the impact of dam releases on river levels is being prepared by the Bureau of Meteorology and responsible councils”.

  25. there’s an article at p3 of the Australian’s Inquirer section entitled ‘Engineer bores a hole in dam untruths’
    Michael O’Brien engineer says facts, numbers, charts, mathematical calculations, operating procedures and ratings curves should inform the true story of what he describes as Brisbane’s great avoidable flood of Jan 2011

    the article says O’Brien’s report is on The Inquirer’s website; haven’t found it yet but might be looking in the wrong place, in short O’Brien blames the huge release from Wivenhoe for the Brisbane and Bremer River floods and flooding of their tributaries

  26. here’s the article
    and here’s the report

    the report is described as a submission but I don’t know on whose behalf other than the article says he ‘has no financial, political or professional motive for having spent most of his spare time in the past 2 months on exhaustive research into the floods

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