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.