Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Open letter to the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, and the Council of the University of Tasmania.

Dear Chancellor, Vice Chancellor and Members of Council,

As you watch and re-watch the video footage of the catastrophic floods and the aftermath in and around Hobart, and as you are forced to address the problems and the very real risk to life arising from the flood events at the Sandy Bay campus of the University of Tasmania, including the dramatic rescue of the security officer trapped in a room with the rising waters, consider the implications should, and when, such events occur at Inveresk, Launceston.
After you review the footage of water flowing down a long hallway where people are still present, of ruined Law Library books washed out onto the grass, of the height reached by flood water and the resulting damage to computers in the Engineering department and the emotional responses of staff and students, and after you clean up and prepare to assess the damage and costs, it is incumbent upon you to thoroughly examine the following serious matters in relation to the University’s Northern campus.

The flood catastrophe in Hobart and the flooding and damage at the Sandy Bay Campus have been described as unprecedented. In stark contrast, flooding of Inveresk, the planned relocation site of the University’s Launceston campus is not unprecedented. Inveresk is a tidal flat that sits 1.5 metres below high level, the only such suburb in Australia. It has been subject to serious flooding in the past. More than half of the length of its boundary is tidal estuarine frontage. Although it is bordered by flood levees, these levees require constant maintenance, levees are never guaranteed to protect an area from flood inundation, and this is becoming increasingly so in the era of climate change and rising sea levels.

Climate change, rising sea temperatures and rising sea levels are already affecting the North Esk Estuary. Sea temperatures along Tasmania’s East Coast have risen 2 degrees in recent years. The tidal range along the north coast near the mouth of the Tamar River is approximately 3 metres. The tidal range in Launceston is around 4 metres, higher during king tides, and the water table rises with the tides. While sea-level rise can be calculated along the coast, it is not yet known what the effects will be on the greater tidal range or the water table at Launceston or along the North Esk Estuary which extends for some ten kilometres beyond the Inveresk Precinct. So not only is the North Esk River/Estuary subject to flood waters it is also subject to the affect of tides and sea level rises. In this era of climate change that should be a sobering thought to any thinking person.

The Inveresk area is zoned as Flood Inundation Zone and as such is subject to the Flood Inundation Code of the Launceston Interim Planning Scheme. …? The deliberate intention of the Flood Code was to permanently limit development in the flood plain (tidal flat), irrespective of any flood protection system or the levees. The Code was mandated by Treasury to protect the State from any future damage claim.  Moreover, it should not be forgotten, that the modelling done in 2006-7 and that resulted in the formulation of the Code, never considered climate change. As sea temperatures rise (witness the two degree rise already in sea temperatures off Tasmania’s East Coast), as sea levels rise and as the number and intensity of climate events - such as that experienced across Tasmania in June 2016 and now in Hobart – increase, rainfall intensities are predicted to increase by 20 percent. Consequently, the 1:200 AEP (a one in 200 year event) based on the 2007 modelling, may in fact be only 1:60 AEP (a one in sixty year event) Such conditions are already being taken into account in the Netherlands and North Germany, where flood/tidal water management and levees (dykes) have been a way of life for many hundreds of years and I suggest you examine the current trends in flood risk mitigation in these countries.   

During periods of high rainfall and flood warnings, water in what is one of the longest straight stretches of the North Esk River/Estuary rushes headlong in a direct line towards the Inveresk Precinct with the full combined force of the ebb tide and flood waters - twice daily. Every time there is a flood emergency for Launceston, Inveresk and, depending on the severity of the flooding expected, parts of Invermay, need to be evacuated. The dangers of power failures, pump failures, storm water and sewerage overflows, drinking water contamination and resulting loss of essential services are always present. In around 2011-2012 before the construction of the student accommodation there, the Inveresk precinct, including all the campus buildings, was evacuated at a monetary and time cost to the University.

These factors are all taken into account by the Insurance industry and already prior to/ as early as 2010-2012 resulted in large/trebling increases in insurance premiums across the whole Inveresk suburb.

In June 2016, the Inveresk Precinct, along with the entire suburb of Inveresk and most of Invermay was evacuated at great distress and at great cost and effort by residents and emergency services. Emergency personnel were working and preparing for days beforehand. The two days prior to the peak flood, and particularly the day of the flood traffic and evacuation activity across Inveresk and beyond were chaotic with lengthy traffic jams. All residents of Inveresk evacuated. (The process so distressed one elderly lady, who, although she lived on higher ground, never returned to her home and instead ended up in a nursing home.) With the early evening installation of flood gates across the Charles Street bridge – a highway, usually Northern Tasmania’s busiest traffic thoroughfare/intersection – and of the five bridges across the flood plain section of the North Esk River only one remained open. Even half of this bridge, Tamar Street (Victoria) bridge, was closed with only two lanes open. SES crews and police worked on into the night door-knocking Invermay residences encouraging even those living on higher ground to leave their homes. Evacuating the student accommodation added ten percent to the workload of the SES. The student population of that accommodation was later described by a senior emergency official as ‘a vulnerable population’ due to lack of own vehicles/transport and lack of available family support. In addition, the evacuation of its Inveresk campus cost the University $40,000. Meanwhile, ironically, the Newnham campus, safe on high ground with its facilities and infrastructure, was one of the city’s two flood evacuation centres.

While city and university officials held their breath for several hours during the early evening and well into the early hours of the next morning  that the levees would hold (they were leaking in several sections) or that flood water would not over-top them, the relocation proponents appeared to have simply breathed a sigh of relief, continue in denial and continue to ignore the warnings.

Events at the Sandy Bay campus should be heeded as further warning about the damage that can be caused by flood waters. Are you, Chancellor, Vice Chancellor and Members of the University Council, aware of the risks and dangers associated with Inveresk site? Are you aware that insurance industry research provides some of the best indicators of risk assessment as they apply to the Inveresk district? Are you aware that while events in Hobart and at Sandy Bay campus were ‘unprecedented’ and ‘catastrophic’, and that while the Sandy Bay campus is above sea level, Inveresk sits below high tide level.? Even in times of moderately heavy rain, storm water and sewerage spills can, and do, occur at any time across Inveresk and the university’s nominated relocation site. For example, such occurrences have previously affected the Museum’s conservation department and the School of Architecture.

Given all the above, are you prepared to dismiss the clear evidence before you of the inevitable risks inherent with the Inveresk site? Are you prepared to dismiss international best practice in flood management, sustainability and risk mitigation and thereby jeopardise the national/international reputation of the University of Tasmania? Are you prepared to deny the climate change effects on the North Esk Estuary and continue to push the campus relocation from the safety and security of the existing Newnham campus with its purpose-built facilities and infrastructure to the tidal flat /flood inundation zone?

Are you prepared to address the moral and ethical issues associated with increasing the risks and placing added pressure on emergency service workers, and placing lives at risk. On behalf of concerned ratepayers and residents of Launceston, the Tamar Valley and Northern Tasmania, and staff and students of Utas, I ask you to reverse the relocation plan with its misrepresentations and outrageous cost, which will exceed the stated $200 million, and to return to the original fully researched 2007-2017 Master Plan plan for the refurbishment of the Newnham campus for the cost of $59 million.

Yours faithfully,

Basil Fitch,     
4/25 Waveney Street, South Launceston 7249.                                      14 May  2018

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