THE immediate future of the Corner Inlet Drainage Area Advisory Committee, which helps the shire looks after the seawalls which stretch for 25 kilometres or so across the Corner Inlet coastal flats from Foster to Agnes, will be decided today (Wednesday) at the March meeting of South Gippsland Shire Council.
If Council follows the recommendation of shire officers, the decision will be to delay the revocation of the Section 86 committee, originally intended for April 24, until November 30. By then the State Government will have had time to enact legislation formally appointing local government the responsible authority for drainage areas, such as Corner Inlet, so the status quo is the most likely end result.
The shire officers based their recommendation on the Ministerial response to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee (ENRC) Inquiry into Rural Drainage in Victoria – January 2014. The response indicates the State intends to allocate drainage area responsibility to local government, rather than Catchment Management Authorities, as had been expected. It was because of this expectation that South Gippsland Shire Council voted back in October 2012 to revoke the committee, once it had the recommendations from the inquiry, on April 24, 2014.
The decision was not without controversy, with the local landholders who make up the Section 86 committee fiercely opposed to losing the backing of the shire.
Council’s attempt to change the management of the seawalls was part of a bid to minimise its risk exposure for infrastructure – such as the seawalls – which it does not own. Its potential liability as a coastal council in the face of climate change heightened its concern.
Constructed in the early 1970s, the seawalls wind their way along the contours of the land, roughly at the high tide mark, in five earth sections, protecting around 17,000 hectares of rural and residential land. Landholders abutting Corner Inlet raised the need for them back in 1961, when exceptionally high tides led to severe flooding of their land. Maintenance of the walls, which have the dual purpose of providing protection from inundation from the sea and draining water back to the sea, is funded by special charges levied on owners in the area. Largely grass-covered, the seawalls, which vary in height from 1.5 to 2 metres, are partly on private property and partly on Crown land.
Local landowners have been extremely reluctant to take on full management of the seawalls. They are worried that they would not get insurance if they do not have the backing of the shire which a Section 86 committee provides. The last eighteen months have been a worrying time for them, as Allen Van Kuyk, speaking on behalf of the committee, noted in a presentation to Council last Wednesday. He urged Council to follow the recommendation of the shire officers and reconsider its decision to revoke the Section 86 committee.
Speaking later to ‘The Mirror,’ Mr Van Kuyk said the committee was cautiously optimistic that local government responsibility for the seawalls would remain, with the state government giving every indication that it would legislate to ensure this.
While admitting he was happy with the latest turn of events, he cautioned that there was still a lot to be finalised, including financial and administrative arrangements.