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HomeVolume 28Government action flows more slowly than a raging Todd

Government action flows more slowly than a raging Todd


“It would have been a flood high enough to have covered all of Alice Springs except for the crest of Billy-goat Hill and other similar high points on the edge of town.”

This occurred in about 1830 concludes historian Dick Kimber in his report Cultural values associated with Alice Springs water, drawing on historical records and oral sources.

“Later scientists in town, Geoff Pickup (an expert on slack-water deposits, formed during periods of high floods) and American Mary Bourke, a geomorphologist who was doing her PhD on floods in deserts, found evidence hundreds of years old and, in some cases, tens of thousands of years old, that indicated that there had been rare floods of much greater size.

“Remnant evidence from these super-floods of ancient times, ranging from about 400 years ago to tens of thousands of years ago in the Pleistocene period, was normally viewed as part of the natural form of the country by the Arrernte.”

Today, with Cyclone Ellie uncomfortably close and La Niña dumping big rains on Alice Springs, the town has cause to ask: What’s the government doing about flood mitigation?

The answer is not much, judging by what a local committee recommended and what of that has actually been carried out.

The Alice Springs Flood Mitigation Advisory Committee, chaired by then Mayor Damien Ryan, was convened on March 1, 2016. That is six years ago.

It recommended to “test structural mitigation options and their associated cost benefits with a new digital flood model [and] measures include detention basins in the upper catchments … strategically located detention basins … behind an embankment”.

If you think the committee (see photo) is tippy toeing around something you’d be right.

Serious flood protection work, with bulldozers already in place, ceased on May 17, 1992: Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Robert Tickner stopped the NT Government from building a dam in the Todd, upstream from the Telegraph Station, described by a report at the time as the only effective solution for saving the town.

Mr Tickner acted on requests from traditional owners seeking to protect sacred sites.

Junction Waterhole, site of the Todd dam proposed 30 years ago.

These “structural mitigation options” are clearly a dam but like the war in Basil Fawlty’s hotel, this is a word not to be mentioned.

Mr Tickner imposed a 20 year moratorium, which expired 10 years ago. Using it as an excuse for doing nothing has long since ceased to be credible.

People dying when the river rages notwithstanding, the governments – plural – keep sitting on their hands.

What would the dam recommendation from the committee cost? $500,000 for initial modelling / testing and a capital works budget of $30m over a five to 10 year timeframe.

Is that measured from the convening of the committee? From the release of the undated report? Has it started?

Making the digital flood model may have, but bulldozers are nowhere in sight.

The committee report estimates at $25m “to construct preferred technical option as per the Mount Johns Flood Immunity Project … supported by a flood study which demonstrates that any new infrastructure proposed does not negatively impact the existing flood profile of Alice Springs.”

This has apparently been started but it is not clear what stage it has reached. That is one issue included in the questions the News has put to the government.

The next one is the doozy of all the committee’s recommendations.

It’s worth $100m: “That an engineering investigation is undertaken to gain the necessary data to determine the technical feasibility and the flow on effects of widening the river bed as it passes through Heavitree Gap.”

What will they do with the road?

Elsewhere the government has contemplated elevating it on stilts as it goes through the town’s most magnificent landmark and linked to dreaming tracks spanning The Centre.

Another oddity in the report is this drawing (at right) in the report suggesting the railway line should run trough a tunnel at the base of the ranges, at the western side of The Gap.

This has been suggested by the News, was described by the nation’s most experienced tunnel builder as eminently feasible, and would be used to channel flood water when necessary, following an example already in operation in Malaysia.

The idea was apparently raised in the town council but went nowhere.

We will report government replies if and when we receive them.

COMMITTEE, pictured above, from left – front: Russell Lynch and Mayor Damien Ryan. Rear – Ken Lechleitner, Rod Cramer, Jimmy Cocking and Michael Sitzler.


UPDATE January 14:

The Department of the Chief Minister and Cabinet provided information, replying to the Alice Springs News, about emergency activities in the event of local rivers flooding.

How many measuring points are there?

The primary surface water monitoring sites used as part of the flood alerting system for the Alice Springs township can be found on the Bureau of Meteorology website: Todd River at Wigley Gorge, Charles River at the Big Dipper and again in the Todd River at Anzac Oval and at Heavitree Gap.

These are part of a larger network of monitoring sites the Department of Parks, Environment and Water Security (DEPWS) operates and maintains, including monitoring rainfall, which is used to predict flood events.

What is the maintenance routine for flood warning devices:

Monitoring sites are continuously monitored via telemetry to ensure they are in working condition with alerts sent to officers when errors are detected. Key monitoring sites are inspected by officers on a regular basis however, additional inspections are undertaken before and after significant flow events to ensure equipment remains in working order. Officers are also on a 24 hour duty roster to respond to issues as they arise.

What is the process of alerting the public of flood danger? 

The Bureau of Meteorology is Australia’s national weather, climate and water agency. Its expertise and services assist Australians in dealing with the harsh realities of their natural environment, including drought, floods, fires, storms, tsunami and tropical cyclones.

Through regular forecasts, warnings, monitoring and advice spanning the Australian region and Antarctic territory, the Bureau provides one of the most fundamental and widely used services of government.

For riverine flooding where there are gauging stations, flood advice and warnings are issued to the public by the Bureau and shared by SecureNT and PFES platforms (websites and social media).

Please refer to Local Emergency Plans for advice dependent on the locality. Updated LEPs for 22/23 are due to be published soon.

What are the measures the Government undertakes to help the public in the event of floods (the Todd breaching its banks)?

NTES is responsible for facilitating emergency management planning, raising public awareness of potential disasters and providing a response capability for emergency events through dedicated volunteers.

To prepare the communities of the NT for the impact of storm, flood, cyclone, earthquake and tsunami, the NTES Community Engagement Unit offers free education and awareness programs to the public, as well as creating public safety displays at public events and publications.

NTES Community Engagement Officers deliver public Flood Briefings throughout the NT, in culturally and audience sensitive contexts for all ages groups, including for businesses, schools, and aboriginal communities.

The hierarchy of NT Emergency Plans provide a list of functional groups from across NT Government outlining the designated roles and responsibilities during the response and recovery phases of an emergency event. General advice on floods is available here.


  1. A bit of clarification on the Junction waterhole proposal:
    It is my clear memory that it was for a flood mitigation structure, essentially a wall with a slot in it that would hold back a major flow, and let it drain at a rate that would not flood the town.
    The Aboriginal Traditional Owners sought a guarantee from the the Chief Minister that they wouldn’t close the slot and turn it into a lake, which would have permanently inundated some important sacred sites.
    He declined to do so, and that was the end of that.
    It may well still be a viable option if a sensible, and sensitive approach is taken in negotiations with TOs.
    [ED – Thank you, Charlie. I too remember the emotional wet dam / dry dam argument. Mr Tickner’s moratorium covered both. “Sensible and sensitive” were not strengths possessed by NT Minister Max Ortmann, the government’s main negotiator. For example, he was told to leave by a group women meeting with him at the waterhole.]

  2. This dam got off to a very bad start.
    In 1978 at the start of self-government one of the first actions of the new government was to announce a recreation lake in the Old Telegraph Station, with no consideration of sacred sites in the area.
    This has led to on going suspicion by traditional owners that a flood mitigation dam is a back door method of creating a recreation lake.
    By the 1990s it was clear that a flood control dam was economically justified.
    Now because of climate change the risk of flooding is substantially higher than before.
    This is very difficult to quantify, but the events the size of that in the 1830s probably had a return period of hundreds of years. Now it may be 100 years or less.

  3. It seems to be long forgotten now but the original determination of a site for a dam on the Todd River was conducted by Water Resources (Mines Branch, NT Administration) during 1965.
    This included extensive contour mapping of the topography of the Todd catchment area, test drilling of bed rock, and flow rates of groundwater at a location just upstream from the Old Telegraph Station.
    Construction of a dam on the Todd River was a long-running popular issue for many years, not least during the severe drought of the 1960s when Alice Springs (which was reliant on the Todd River basin for its water supply) frequently endured severe restrictions.
    However, long before the drought the then tiny town often ran short of water and there was much annoyance of the occasional sight of the Todd River swiftly in flow through town and out past Heavitree Gap, with all that valuable water “wasted” in the great expanse of the desert.
    A leading campaigner for a dam on the Todd River for several decades was Norman Creighton Bell, a mining warden and prospector who had come to the Territory as long ago as 1907.
    N. C. Bell died in 1965, and it was proposed the new dam on the Todd River should be named in his honour.
    A “Water Committee” was established to oversee public support and funding for the dam, led by the Member for Alice Springs, Colonel Lionel Rose, also including Bernie Kilgariff and Tony Greatorex.
    The major purpose of the proposed Todd River Dam was to augment the town’s water supply and especially ensure increased reserves of water for the struggling local farms along the banks of the Todd River that were hit hard by the drought – flood mitigation didn’t come into it at all.
    However, all this effort and enthusiasm came to naught as it coincided with the development of the recently discovered Mereenie aquifer.
    The cost of construction of the dam and its estimated water storage capacity compared poorly with drilling and equipping the Mereenie borefield, water pipelines and tank storage in the fast-growing town.
    As the Member for Alice Springs in the late 1960s, Bernie Kilgariff often queried the NT Administration in the Legislative Council about the Commonwealth’s progress on the dam, but the answer was always that it was an extremely low priority and unlikely to proceed.
    In 1970 the NT Administration advised the dam project was cancelled but that it was surveying the region within a 30-mile radius of Alice Springs to find a suitable site for a recreational dam or lake.
    In late 1975 a couple of sites to the west of town near Jay Creek were publicised as potential recreational dam sites (this was announced during the extremely brief period when Paul Keating was the Minister for Northern Australia just prior to the Dismissal of the Whitlam Government).
    As Robert Read stated in his comment, the NT Government announced in 1978 the dam site at the Old Telegraph Station would go ahead for development as a recreational lake which eventually led to the first struggle by Traditional Owners in the early 1980s to prevent it from going ahead.

  4. And in 1987/88 there was a proposal for a new suburb east of town, to be built around a “lake” to be provided by damming the creek (I don’t know a name for it) the other side of the hills on the edge of town.
    This was in response to the predictions that Alice population would be 40,000 by the end of the century. AKA planning by wishful thinking!
    It was reluctantly acknowledged the the “lake would have to be kept full by pumping Mereenie water”.
    That is, pumping and piping limited and expensive underground water for it to evaporate in the sun.

  5. I had forgotten the proposal to build a dam near the Telegraph Station in the 1960s.
    The object of this was to increase recharge to the town basin by allowing the water to flow more slowly down the Todd over the town basin.
    This would have increased the yield of the town basin to more than its safe yield of 1GL/y, but it would still have been far less than the 9 GL/y that has been pumped from Roe Creek borefield in recent decades. (Approximate figures).
    In the early 1970s hydrological investigations were carried at 3? (my memory is shaky) possible locations for a recreational lake.
    An abandoned gauging station, pluviometer and evaporation tank can still be seen near the track to Birthday Waterhole in the headwaters of the Hugh River. This was a silly idea.
    In 1978 soon after self government the new Territory government announced that a recreation lake would be built near the Telegraph Station.

  6. You people should come to Perth WA for some lessons on massive water wasting tips!
    After Mr Flannery the climate loon posted his comment that Perth would be the first city in the world to close due to lack of water, the State Gov and Watercorp built two desalination plants.
    Due to the contract both these plants must operate 24/7 no matter what the water draw is. So one Plant sends 45 GLs of 60 cents per cube treated water straight into local surface dams every year where during summers the whole lot evaporates.
    The cost to every Perth family to pay for this insane water waste is an extra $1000 a year on their water bills. You can’t make this stuff up!!

  7. Re: Sherrin Ball 23 January 2023 At 6:27am: Around Perth what are they doing with the salt and other chemicals?


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