Flood risk: ‘My kids are afraid every time it rains’
Hundreds of homes in the state's west are at extreme risk of catastrophic flooding, their stressed owners living in "complete and utter fear", amid claims their council hasn't acted on official reports recommending the vital heightening of a levee.
Instead, Wagga Wagga council started building a bike track on top of the levee bank on the Murrumbidgee River which is supposed to protect North Wagga, before stopping work as debate about the levy rages.
Wagga Wagga mayor Greg Conkey has publicly downplayed the need for increased flood protection for North Wagga. saying: "People of North Wagga live on a flood plain, when they bought those properties they realised it was on a flood plain and they had limited protection over there."
But the levee bank on the Murrumbidgee River that once protected North Wagga from a one-in-20 year flood has been weakened by vegetation and construction of the Wagga CBD, and now only affords protection from a one-in-eight year flood.
The last catastrophic flood, in 2012, has the more than 700 residents of North Wagga worried a flood capable of inundating their 200 homes is imminent on the law of averages.
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Former Wagga Wagga council general manager Alan Eldridge claims the Mr Conkey privately dismissed the need to raise the levee.
"I had a number of robust discussions with Greg Conkey and he was blatantly clear in his opinion," Mr Eldridge said.
"He said to me on a number of occasions 'stop wasting time on this matter, no one is ever going to support putting resources into a North Wagga levee'."
Mayor Conkey claims he could not recall ever speaking to Mr Eldridge about North Wagga in the 13 months they worked together.
"The comments are a complete fabrication," Mr Conkey said.
"I find the comments highly offensive."
Wagga council is currently investigating raising the levee height, but The Sunday Telegraph can reveal it allowed construction of a flagship bike path on the existing levee earlier this month.
Graders started removing dirt from the top of the existing North Wagga flood levee on Wednesday, July 1, as part of construction of a 42km bicycle loop of the city.
"These works were immediately halted given there is every reason to expect the height of the levee will be increased as part of the flood mitigation work," Wagga council general manager Peter Thompson said.
Raising the North Wagga levee to afford one-in-100 year flood level protection was the preferred option of the NSW government's Public Works department five years ago.
Since then council has commissioned hydrological reports that have angered residents with conflicting and questionable reasons why North Wagga should not be protected, including the suggestion a larger levee may "reduce the village feel" by encouraging further residential development.
A 2009 report from water engineers WMA Water said raising the North Wagga levee to one-in-100 year protection would create "small increases in flood level" upstream, but in 2018 the same firm said the levee would cause "unacceptable adverse impacts on other properties across the flood plain".
A recent hydrological report confirmed construction of a higher levee would significantly reduce the risk of flooding, but that would in turn make the currently compliant North Wagga residents complacent and unwilling to evacuate.
After the state government in 2015 entirely dismissed the suggestion of buying up and mothballing homes in North Wagga, the council's hydrologist subsequently found the plan had merit.
Local academic Dr Jennifer Woods who holds a doctorate in disaster-focused social work, said
North Wagga residents live in "complete and utter fear" of inundation and suffer "some form of post-traumatic stress disorder" worsened by recent forecasts of a wet winter.
North Wagga mother-of-five Jodie Green, 42, has to calm her kids every time it rains because they are petrified of another flood like the 2012 disaster that displaced them for six months.
"The kids are constantly worried, constantly fearful - especially when it rains a lot - that we're going to be flooded," Ms Green said.
"We pay our rates so we deserve protection.
"I don't think anyone should have to endure the constant trauma of worrying about the next natural disaster."
Wagga potter Kathryn Powderly, 61, has a grand brick home in North Wagga she cannot sell because banks have demanded prospective buyers stump up a 40 per cent mortgage deposit on account of the flood risk.
While she is loath to leave, Ms Powderly believes North Wagga residents have become pariahs in their own city, which is why they have not been granted adequate flood protection.
"On one side of the river I am a person who is taken seriously, but on the North Wagga side of the river I am a nonentity," she said.
Originally published as Flood risk: 'My kids are afraid every time it rains'