21st Apr

The Bangalow Weir and Pool – a community asset in crisis

The Bangalow Weir on Byron Creek was built and had a grand opening in 1924. Photographs show a brass band led the dignitaries and populace down the mains street to the pool, when it became ”the waterfront”, the scene of decades of community use and enjoyment as generations of kids learned to swim there, carnivals were held and other events like dances and socials. During all this time the pool and weir were maintained by community volunteers.
In the 1950s substantial work was done to strengthen weir and western wall to prevent creek breakthrough in floods. A stalwart Committee member from that time Jean Rose said recently: “we did all that work so the kids of Bangalow would have somewhere to swim”.
The Pool was heavily used and greatly valued for swimming and aesthetic values up to 2010 when the weir was undermined, apparently by the roots of a large gum tree. Discussions with Council staff were ongoing about the clearly visible growing leakage beneath the weir but nothing was done and eventually in March 2011 the water level dropped about one meter with substantial environmental impacts for 2km upstream. Community members expressed concern about platypus upstream. Weeds have been spreading along the exposed lower banks, and camphors have been failing in.
There is a need for some kind of structure to be in place in future even if the weir were removed – this will carry some cost, recently $60,000 was allowed by Council staff for demolition. The discussion in early 2012 is about what we want to be there and how much it will cost.
The community has expressed a desire for swimming to be retained, there’s a need for fish passage across the barrier of the weir (both in legislation and in reality), and an independent qualified engineer has stated cost-effective repairs could be carried out, with a practical preliminary concept design. The Pool must be safe for public use, should be landscaped, and should be reasonably low maintenance over the long term.
A large public forum was held by the Bangalow Weir Group in February 2012, with a number of resolutions carried unanimously to the effect that the community was unhappy about Council’s performance in the matter, that the weir not be demolished, and that Council staff need to come back the community with their proposals for the weir.
When it became clear just prior to a Council meeting that Council staff were recommending demolition in spite of previous discussions with the Bangalow Weir Group, the Group authorised David Pont to address Councillors at the April 12, 2012 Ordinary Meeting.
Notes from five-minute address on the Bangalow Weir and Pool to Byron Shire Council meeting by David Pont, 12 April 2012.
Representing Bangalow Land and Rivercare, Bangalow Community Alliance, and Bangalow Historical Society.
David argued in Public Access that the case for demolition was not strong enough at this point and that the value of the weir and Pool to the community indicated that further assessment is warranted before making a decision.
Main points of address:
“The various reports attached to the meeting agenda do not mention that Landcare was in regular communication with Council staff about the deteriorating weir during 2010 when minor works could have prevented the current collapse which was probably caused by the roots of a large tree which has since been removed.
The Weir Condition Assessment Report by consultants Geolink although a professional analysis was a preliminary visual assessment and did not consider in any detail whether repair of the structure is feasible. Other qualified people have indicated to the Bangalow Weir Group that cost-effective repair may be practical. Further assessment is required.
The Platypus Report by consultants Geolink provided helpful information on platypus ecology. In relation to the weir damage and subsequent lowering of water level the report concluded that although the “affects (sic) would have been minimal” it is expected that some negative impacts have occurred. Many burrows (platypus or other burrowers) were exposed by the sudden drop in lower water level. The surveys over four days in January found few platypus in an area known to have a substantial population. We have no baseline data on the platypus population above the weir to compare how many would have lived there before the rapid loss of water in early 2011.
The comments by the Team Leader Environmental Services on water quality in the creek at Bangalow are not supported. The use of emotive terms such as “extremely unsatisfactory and unhealthy conditions” in relation to Byron Creek, and recommending signs to warn against swimming, flies in the face of the community’s experience over nine decades and is quite unscientific, considering the case about swimming water quality is primarily based on faecal coliform monitoring – an unreliable measure that provides little information about the real pathogen threat.
All our creeks and rivers will be closed to swimming if this position is carried. It is arguable that the weir and pool do not need to be classified as a “public pool” for the purposes of the upcoming Public Health Regulation when traditionally Council has maintained the historic structure as a simple creek pool with a commonsense safety approach and people take their own decisions about swimming there. The idea of chlorinating all swimming waters is ludicrous.
The Bangalow Weir Group have had positive discussions with NSW Fisheries and the Office of Water about the design and planning aspects of the weir and Pool that would satisfy the needs of the environment (mainly fish passage) and relevant legislation, swimmability, safety and reasonably low cost maintenance.
It was pointed out that the various reports had failed to mention the importance of the Water Management Act in assessing whatever is left in place of the present weir.
The social values of the weir and Pool are very high, but have hardly been mentioned in any of the reports to Councillors. In the past Bangalow has had a public space that kids love, and that absorbs their energy so they’re not in the streets getting into trouble. The pool and weir add greatly to the ambience and visual amenity of the public park for locals and visitors alike. These are important factors in how a community feels about itself.
There will be insurance issues to consider with whatever structure is in the creek in future, whether the weir is removed or repaired. Council’s past modification of the creek bed just downstream means new hydraulic conditions need to be considered with a new water level. Rocks are in the creek bed, and fences and concrete need to be examined. Many risk assessments have been done on the weir over the years.
The Director Community Infrastructure made four recommendations to Council, three of which provide a framework under which further assessment of options for the weir and Pool would be workable, including allocation of funds. David Pont urged Councillors to use some of the money to undertake an options study as previously resolved, to provide more information and understanding to help in making the right decision about this important piece of community infrastructure. The expenditure was considered justified.
He also suggested removing the reference in the Directors’ fourth recommendation to “removal” of the weir so an open assessment without bias could be carried out. A firmer consultation process was also requested.”
Councillors voted 6-3 for this Resolution:
12-272 Resolved:
1. That Council note the report regarding the current status of the Bangalow Weir.
2. That point 1. in Resolution 11-998 ‘allocate up to $5,000 from the Risk Management Reserves for an ‘Options Study’ be acted on as a matter of urgency and that staff develop a brief and a Request for Quote (RfQ) with capacity to assess those engineering, environmental, social and heritage issues that have not currently been assessed for a program to remove part of the weir wall sufficient to make it safe, whilst retaining elements of the wall for heritage monument(s).
3. That Council engage with the Bangalow community whom have an interest in the weir and pool, and with Rous Water and the DPI – Fisheries to discuss plans to restore the weir, pool and upstream reaches of the creek to a natural environment and/or other options, prior to any works.
4. That Council staff continue to monitor the condition of the weir structures on a weekly basis until arrangements are complete for any works. (Morrisey/Staples) The motion was put to the vote and declared carried.
Crs Tucker, Woods and Heeson voted against the motion.
Options Study
In this forthcoming Options Study the issues will be examined by a qualified consultant, although whether a sufficient analysis can be carried out for the allocated $5,000 is arguable.
The Weir Group sees three main themes: Environment, Heritage, Governance.
Environment: conflicting impacts of obstruction to fish passage by the weir at normal water level, and short-medium impacts on upstream ecology adapted to 90 years of higher water level.
Heritage: 90-year old swimming facility built and maintained over the decades by community until recent times. Thousands of children learned to swim here. Beautiful public asset of pool in the park.
Governance: serious damage done to a community asset by the failure to take action when the problems were in an early stage and it was obvious what was occurring. The barbed wire fence is an eyesore. Has there been adequate consultation by government representatives on this matter? Who is accountable for the satisfactory resolution of the issue – Council staff, councillors, state government officers?

Options
Restore the weir
Physical:
Weir is cracked, undermined on western side.
Build new weir – relatively expensive, unlikely to be necessary.
Repair the weir – rocks below weir to shore up the wall, concrete to fill scour-hole under weir – other? Is repair possible, and for how long?
Financial:
Reported $1M cost for new weir – is this a realistic assessment and if so it is realistic to expect it to be done?
Repair the weir – what is the cost, including fishway?
Environmental
When weir was intact and water level high, fish such as mullet, bass, and eastern cod could only get to upper creek habitat during “weir drown-out events” in floods.
A lot of flora and fauna for at least 2km upstream had adapted to over 90 years of that water level and there is no doubt the sudden and prolonged drop in level would have had a substantial impact.
Blue Taro (environmental weed) is spreading along the exposed lower creek banks, and camphor laurels are falling from weakened banks, causing erosion.
Restoring the weir with normal water level will not be permitted by NSW Fisheries and Office of Water without formal assessment, and approval may not be given at all.
NSW Fisheries to advise on a fishway – what type, what chance of success, what cost?

Remove the weir
Physical:
Weir would need to be removed from the creek, needing approvals and having a cost; something would be required to replace it – a new creek bed, with a water level to be set and be integrated with rock bed downstream; concrete floor, railings, side walls need to be assessed; landscaping.
Financial:
Relatively lower financial cost of removal ($60k allowed by staff), offset by costs in lost tourism, and losses in community well-being from lack of swimming and loss of visual beauty.
Loss of community respect and sense of place.
Environmental:
Severe ongoing dislocation of all species upstream adapted to the normal water level; probable reduction in numbers of platypus. Several species of fish would gain access to several kilometres of upper creek habitat.
Lower the weir
Physical:
If restoration and repair, or removal, are not satisfactory options for physical, environmental, financial and legal reasons, a practical compromise may be possible. This would see a lower water level integrated with a rock ramp fishway running onto the present creek bed below the weir, maintenance of a swimming opportunity as a concrete-floored pool in the creek with safe edges and maintained by Council free of weeds and silt. What to do about the “kids’ section” of concrete floor? The “55” deep zone below the old diving tower can be investigated as the core of a swimming area. Part of the weir would be mounted in the park as a heritage item with appropriate explanation. The side walls can be left in place for stability, with landscaping to suit the park surrounds. Landcare and other community revegetation groups can advise.
Financial:
A compromise solution may incur only a low-moderate cost in weir removal, management of the project, low-profile rock fishway, and ongoing maintenance – probably less than previous maintenance requirements.
Environmental:
A compromise solution would probably have the best long term ecological outcomes.

Summary:
Remove the weir: low cost, some environmental gains, high environmental costs in the short term, loss of heritage, loss of swimming, loss of visual asset. Strongly opposed by some, strongly supported by some.
Repair the weir: moderate to high cost, short term environmental gains, long term disadvantage to fish species, restore heritage, restore visual asset.
Strongly opposed by some, strongly supported by some.
Lower the weir: low to moderate cost, mix of environmental results but long term gains, recognition and honouring of heritage, restore visual asset, swimming restored. Lack of information and understanding of this option but may gain support.

Sean (about the author)
Sean is a web designer from Brisbane, Australia
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