Remember when the river …


p2393-laflamme-todd-1-pk-okMICHAEL LA FLAMME
in our Rest & Reflection Series says none of us would be here without the Todd.
In the middle of December, my wife Pam tells me: “There’s a storm coming!”
“I don’t see any clouds.”
“Look at that one peeking over the ranges.”
“Wow.  But why is the storm coming from down there?”
“I don’t know.  Look at the radar on your phone.”
“Uh-oh, it’s yellow with bits of red.”
“Maybe the river will run!”
“I hope so.”
We watch the sky and smell the winds. As always, the clouds have a mind of their own.  Some days, in the mornings they blow in from the northwest and in the afternoons from the southeast.
The satellite shows the clouds flowing in long streaks, then in waves, then arcs and vast spirals.  The rain starts with less than a millimetre. Then one mill, then zero; then up to five mills, down to two for two days, then 50.4!
“I heard on the news the Finke is flowing.”
“Good. The Todd is next.”
p2393-laflamme-todd-boobook“Now the Hugh is flowing!”
“Why is the Todd still dry?”
“Jay Creek is flowing!”
“That’s not fair!  How can Jay Creek flow, and not us?”
“I don’t know.  But it looks like the storm may be circling around to the north.”
Off we go to watch the water, to feel the excitement, to get wet, but most of all to join this community ceremony, because none of us would be here without the river.
Along the river are Aboriginal families, migrants from overseas or down south, backpackers, grey nomads and FIFOs, watching it rise together.
All await the thrill of the causeways closing one by one, hoping to experience the awesome power when the Todd is frothing and churning bank to bank.  Who can forget the first time seeing that, and the intimate feeling of a holiday “banker” when the loudest sound in town is the river.
Central Australia has the least predictable rainfall in the world, and our river powerfully connects us to global changes.
There is an ancient current linking the temperature and air pressure in the Pacific to the Todd’s flow through town.  But that current of clouds passes over a lot of land before it comes to us, and each swirl adds uncertainty.  That’s one reason we celebrate when the rain finds us and river flows!
This unpredictable river has been flowing for such a long time that The Gap rose up around it.  During that unimaginable period, the life along its length has adapted to its erratic low and high flows.
Minuscule organisms like our endangered land snail, or massive red gums and their hollows filled with Boobook nestlings, have become interdependent in ways we do not fully understand, and perhaps can never understand because those connections are older than we are.
We humans are the most adaptable species, but I wonder how our lives would be different if we changed ourselves to suit this desert environment more often than we changed the environment to suit ourselves?
Even though Power and Water has the technology to pump 10,000-year old water from an ancient aquifer, should we continue to consume it at one of the highest rates in the world? Even though an advisory committee wants to build detention dams to protect some properties against the possibility of a major flood, should we forever change the ecology of our ancient river ecosystem?
Our introduction of non-native plants, animals and cultural practices contp2393-laflamme-todd-selfieinues to eliminate more and more native species in this vulnerable place.  Overall, I see little evidence of past success “managing” desert ecosystems.
Walking around town, I see stories that would have been different if we had adapted. Why is so much water flowing off roofs, and not into rainwater tanks?  Why does water flow down Eastside streets and ditches into the river, and not into the dying coolibah swamp?
Where did the river flow when the massive red gums in the Araluen centre were young? What caused the loss of the acacia woodlands along Bradshaw? What event long ago placed the dead logs on the cliff above the Gap?
How much valuable soil has eroded under Bond Springs’s hooves to raise the riverbed in town so high? Could we dredge soil from the bed and return it to historical levels to mitigate flood threat?  I wonder what lessons we can learn from these stories.
When I managed IAD Press, our sliding glass doors fronted on the river at ground level.  We expected to be flooded, and planned to minimize our financial loss, insurance claim, and occupational stress.
Before a big storm arrived, we spent an hour moving boxes and files up high.  Our warehouse and records were above flood level in another building. It was the price we paid to spend every day in such a priceless place.
Before moving here in 2006, I was a scientist studying regulated rivers in North America: the Rio Grande through New Mexico, the Columbia between Washington and Oregon, and the Flathead in northwest Montana.
In each case, influential people changed the river step by step to suit themselves, until its ecosystem reached a tipping point and decline was irreversible.  Often, my painful job was to explain the full story to residents on the river: Why the trees were dying, the fish were poisoned, and so much native life was missing. They felt helpless, and tribal elders asked of the regulators: “How can they sleep at night?”
Imagine the day, a few years from now, when the Todd River is regulated and it rains. Residents may get a text message like this:
p2393-laflamme-metFollowing Protocol 5.8, the Controller of the River will open Gate #2 of the West Detention Dam to 43% of its maximum, resulting in a 39cm depth in Channel A, with 17cm depth in Channels D and F.  Following Department of Tourism guidelines, it will occur at 4:40pm to maximize views.  Get our RiverCam app with the latest Schedule of Flows!
I’ll stay home.
Each of us is born with a temperament. About half are the flexible type and one quarter are either feisty or fearful. Many fear the possibility of losing their belongings in a flooded river.
However, we should also fear losing more valuable assets: What this river adds to our daily lives, how the riverside brings us joyfully together, and our responsibility for other living things.
Learning to go with the flow will require all of our creativity. Such action is overdue, but the possibility of a flood can be just the motivation we need.
PHOTOS: Bookbook owl (copyright BARB GILFEDDER). The Todd and “author taking selfy with raging river” by PAMELA KEIL.


  1. Bravo, and thanks Michael.
    “We humans are the most adaptable species, but I wonder how our lives would be different if we changed ourselves to suit this desert environment more often than we changed the environment to suit ourselves?”
    Yes, Yes, Yes! Unfortunately one of the most important of these adaptations that was endorsed by the Alice Springs Flood plain management plan is no longer possible.
    That was the TIO flood insurance. It meant that all TIO home insurance policies in Alice included flood insurance.
    This was a bit like community immunity for vaccination. Across the board insurance meant that everyone was covered in the event of a major flood.
    And for the whingers who cried “I’m up on the hill, I don’t need it” a moment’s thought would reveal that the whole town would suffer.
    Of course Mr Giles chose to try to cover his own incompetence by selling TIO. And our most economically efficient response to the flood threat (much better than dams) was lost.
    “Could we dredge soil from the bed and return it to historical levels to mitigate flood threat? I wonder what lessons we can learn from these stories”
    The short answer is no! As I suspect you know. As has been covered in the aforementioned study.
    So how do we go forward? This is right off the top of my head, but some kind of council town-wide insurance scheme seems to be a possibility. Sure, it may mean a small rise in rates, but it would be a hell of a lot cheaper than the pollies’ mantra: “There’s an election coming up! I feel a dam coming on!”

  2. Thanks Michael for such an insightful reflection.
    For the record, I do not support detention basins for the Todd catchment outright.
    We need to get the topographical data so that we can make the most informed adaptive responses for the town.
    This could include better awareness and preparedness of the community for a big one, 1:50, 1:100 or bigger.
    But it would also give us options to better appreciate and express love for the cultural, spiritual and ecological backbone of Alice Springs for the thousands of other days that it doesn’t flow.
    Going with the flow is the only option we have. We just have to ensure that we’re up to it.

  3. In the 1950s my father would sometimes stay at Mays’ Guesthouse which fronted onto the Todd River where the IAD complex exists now.
    Sometimes, especially when it was hot (there were no airconditioners in the lodgings) those staying at the guesthouse opted to camp in the Todd riverbed, which in those days was quite safe to do. A distinguishing feature of the riverbank at that location was its height and steepness, and this afforded protection from flooding at that position along the Todd River. My father has often told me the riverbank has not changed at that location.
    Neither has the height of the Todd riverbed increased in other parts of the river except in localised positions where there are artificial barriers that impede the transportation of sediment, namely the causeways.
    My father was involved with extensive CSIRO research in the 1980s studying the sedimentation patterns of Central Australian river systems, and the evidence showed the Todd had not changed despite popular opinion to the contrary.
    In fact, there have been several occasions over the last few decades when sand and sediment was excavated from the Todd River. In the 1980s such was the public concern about the danger posed to the stability of the river red gums due to extensive sand extraction that the NT Government responded by banning this practice within the municipal area and for a considerable distance south of the ranges.
    However, in 2006 the Martin Labor Government provided significant funding for flood mitigation work in the Todd River to lower the riverbed level adjacent to Alice Springs CBD while also upgrading the Wills Terrace Causeway by raising its height.
    The excavation of the riverbed next to the town centre has reduced it to an artificially low level, as clearly evidenced by the old river red gums (whose age precedes that of the town) with significant exposure of their root systems.
    There is also gully erosion along the banks of the river in this vicinity which has worsened considerably since this work was done a decade ago. These gullies are increasing with every flow of the river.
    Conversely there has been frequent excavation of the sand in the riverbed upstream from the Wills Terrace Causeway, combined with channelling of the riverbed to direct water flow through the culverts in the roadway. The sand that is excavated and removed from the riverbed upstream of the Wills Terrace Causeway would naturally restore the artifially lowered riverbed on the downstream side, if it wasn’t impeded by the causeway itself.
    The whole management of the Todd River within the town area is disgracefully incompetent but this has been the case for decades.
    I disagree with some of Michael La Flamme’s observations about the Todd River though not all of them, such as the deterioration of the Coolibah Swamp due to inappropriate development or the impact of introduced grasses and other weed species on the local ecology; and I concur with his statement that “I see little evidence of past success managing desert ecosystems” which sadly is all too true.

  4. Move it off and move it off FAST. This attitude to rainwater is the same one applied to biomass – tree comes down – gotta get it to the dump.
    Then once the water and dead plants are safely moved spend a lot of effort getting water and nutrients / mulch / firewood back.
    The same thinking goes on at the backyard, suburban and catchment levels. What if we welcomed the water and plant material where it fell? Focus the manipulation of the system on capturing, slowing and harnessing these valuable resources, not pushing them away to cause a problem elsewhere.

  5. The scenario of river regulation that Michael posits is grim.
    It would tragically change the river system we share with each other and fragile trees, plants and animals persistent in our environment.
    Michael’s piece seems to celebrate the rushing unpredictability of our river in flood. Here is a link to a recent photo album ‘Among the River Reds’ that also celebrates the beauty and drama of our rivers (URL may need to be copy and pasted).
    23 years ago, local geomorphologist, Russell Grant explained forces of erosion and deposition in Central Australia.
    He interpreted sand deposition in the Todd River to include erosion sources from old tracks to mining fields east of Bond Spring.
    Additionally, better design and preparedness of individual dwellings, businesses and offices would reduce need for dams and engineering works. Charlie’s insurance suggestion warrants further thought.

  6. Thanks everyone for sharing your own reflections! Cheers for your thumbs-up, Peter.
    A big shout-out to Charlie and David, for your practical and cost-effective strategies. Much obliged Alex, for your historical knowledge and detailed observations. (I posed that question about riverbed height and sand removal because TOs and the Town Council discussed it last year.)
    Fiona’s bright photos show the joys of this year’s unique flood, and Russell Grant’s dissertation she cited makes me want to take a long walk upstream!
    I don’t share Jimmy’s faith that a topographic model can account for the full impact of river regulation.
    I’ve seen how incomplete models can lead to poor policy decisions.
    However, if the Mayor invites more residents like you all into the planning process we can develop a better understanding of our complex river system.


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