Climate change: Melbourne braces for the deluge

Melbourne’s bayside suburbs will pay a hefty price for global warming, writes BRIDGET FitzGERALD

It was a day few Elwood residents will ever forget. On February 4, 2011 the suburb was hit by an intense tropical storm. During the afternoon high tide the waves were pushed up onto the sand by fierce winds. Elster Creek – which runs from Bentleigh through Brighton and into the Elwood canal – gushed and overflowed, spilling into the street.

The combination of the incoming storm tide and the overflowing canal pushed drains to capacity. Sewage was released from emergency drains at Elwood, Brighton and Hampton to stop ‘‘backed up’’ waste spilling into houses through pipes. Residents say the smell was nauseating. 

Elwood has always been prone to flood but data from the Port Phillip Bay Coastal Adaptation Pathways program – a collaborative report by state, federal and local governments due to be released in February 2013 – predicts that flood damage around the Elwood canal will increase dramatically over the next 90 years because of rising sea levels caused by climate change. 

The cost of flood damage in Elwood currently sits at $2 million a year, but that figure is expected to double every 30 years until 2100, according to a 2011 research report.

The 2011 storm hit at 4pm on February 4; by 6am the next day the State Emergency Service had received 270 calls from residents between St Kilda and Moorabbin. 

David Robinson, a spokesperson for the Port Phillip environmental activist group, Locals Into Victoria’s Environment, says the damage caused that day will not be quickly forgotten. He says the flood serves both as a warning about what we can expect in the future with global warming, and also as a call to action.

“The folks in Elwood don’t say: ‘Oh it’s flooded, this is due to climate change’ – we really need to act on climate change.”

CSIRO scientist Dr Kathy McInnes says as the earth warms intense storms will create storm surges which, combined with rising sea levels, will increase flooding in low-lying coastal areas. Those areas with creeks and canals like Elwood are particularly vulnerable, she says. 

Earlier this year, Port Phillip’s previous mayor Rachel Powning met with Minister for Environment and Climate Change Ryan Smith to “convey [the] concerns” of the council following the floods. Now newly elected mayor Amanda Stevens says responding to climate change is one of the present council’s highest priorities.

Port Phillip is just one of 10 bayside councils working together to secure state government funding for an updated “bay-wide coastal vulnerability assessment”.

“We are committed to preparing the community and our assets for a different climatic future,” says Stevens.

Melbourne Water is responsible for the city’s large metropolitan drains and works with individual councils to manage local networks. Most of Melbourne’s drains were built to withstand one-in-five-year floods, but since legislative changes in the 1970s all new drains are required to cope with extreme1-in-100 year floods.

Melbourne Water’s floodplain services manager Phillip Neville says when older suburbs like Elwood were planned no consideration was given to reserving land for excess water flows that might occur during a severe storm.

Floods activist Meni Christofakis says flooding is not just an issue for coastal suburbs. She says more work should be done to improve drainage right along Elster Creek to prevent water ending up in Elwood. “Local councils have to work together with Melbourne Water to seek a solution,” Christofakis says. “Water doesn’t recognise borders.”

Melbourne Water’s Neville says the organisation has engaged consultants to examine the entire Elwood Canal and the creek’s main drain in Elsternwick to identify ways to reduce the flooding problem. The study will be completed in mid-2013.

Flooding is also a risk factor in Bayside, where beaches in Brighton, Sandringham and Beaumaris face the additional threat of erosion.

Highett resident and physical scientist Roger Jones spent 13 years at CSIRO calculating the risk of approaching climate change. He now works in the Economic Research Centre at Victoria University where his research focuses on practical decision making in the face of climate change.

Jones, who is on Bayside council’s Community Environment Forum, says erosion is already a problem in Bayside, but will likely get worse as sea levels rise.

He says with increased rainfall and higher tides, the cliffs in areas like Beaumaris will become increasingly vulnerable. “We’ve got this narrow band of coastal vegetation along there, and then we’ve got Beach Road,” he explains. “So we’ve really only got so much room to play with.”

Risks associated with climate change are already taken into account in city planning, says Bayside council’s director of city strategy Shiran Wickramasinghe. But there are no specific guidelines for Bayside residents and developers on how close they can build to the coastline. 

Wickramasinghe says most of the land along the Bayside coast is Crown land, so there is very little consultation about the use of coastal private land. But in those rare instances where development is proposed along the foreshore, he says the council would consider potential sea level rises in accordance with the state planning scheme. 

 In 2010 the state government’s Coastal Climate Change Advisory Committee recommended that planners allow for sea level rises of up to 80cm by 2100 when making planning decisions. But in June this year, the government implemented restrictions in rural seaside towns allowing for rises of just 20cm.  The 80cm sea level rise planning will apply outside town boundaries. 

Minister for Planning Matthew Guy said the government is developing a Metropolitan Planning Strategy, which will include planning for “changing environment and climate conditions”.

“We need coastal planning in Victoria that is common sense,” Guy says. “The Coalition government is providing a planning system that is flexible and effective for Victoria’s coastal communities.” 

Planning for future climate change is necessary now, says Victoria University’s Jones. “Planning a long time 

ahead is obviously more cost-efficient than panicking at the last minute and building big infrastructure quickly.”

He says the Bayside council has done a good job at recognising climate change risks, but argues that there needs to be a co-ordinated approach with all levels of government to develop an appropriate strategy.

“I think there’s a lot of possibilities,” he says. “We’ve only just scratched the surface in looking at them.” 

But he is positive. “You want people in your area to help, and come up with creative suggestions,” he says. 

“Then you have the potential to manage what people really treasure as an environment.”

SURVIVING THE STORMS

As Meni Christofakis ripped up the putrid, sodden carpet from her living room floor, she promised herself she’d never again have carpet in her house. Not while she lived in Elwood. Not when she had to live through a flood every few years.

The storm water rushed in so quickly that February afternoon in 2011 that before she could think about finding sandbags, her house was soaked and the damage done. 

Christofakis and her husband, author Steve J. Brook, have lived in Byron Street for 25 years. They were flooded in 1989, then again in 2011. Both floods hit in February, at the same time of day, fuelled by summer storms.

A retired teacher, Christofakis stood for Port Phillip council in October representing the Elwood Floods Action Group, which advocates for action on flooding, rising sea levels and climate change. She campaigned for more work by the council, Melbourne Water and the state government to improve infrastructure to prepare for the future.

She says there’s not a lot anyone can do when it’s flooding; it takes just half an hour of severe rain to get into trouble.

Though unsuccessful in the election, Christofakis and her group will continue to work with the council to find solutions to Elwood’s flood problem 

In particular she would like to see increased focus on flooding preparation in the summer months and co-ordination between the council and emergency services. But ultimately, she says, we need a long-term solution.

FROM SWAMP TO SWAMPED

Elwood was originally a swamp and in the nineteenth century residents lived only on higher ground at Point Ormond.

When the Elster Creek canal system was built between 1889 and 1897, it helped to drain the marshland and made the whole area habitable, opening the way for intense residential development after 1910. 

But while the canal system allowed people to live in the area, Elwood remains a low-lying, flood-prone suburb.

There are 52,273 properties in Port Phillip, of these, 9052 are at risk of flooding.

A flood-management plan released by Melbourne Water and Port Phillip in March identified Elwood as a site of extreme flood risk. 

The report recommended engineering works be put in place to reduce “intolerable” flood risks around the canal and the main storm drain at Elwood canal.

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