Is Ross Lane open? It’s probably one of the most frequently asked questions on social media in Lennox Head. So much so that it is frequently turned into a meme, hashtag or even a bumper sticker. Since getting elected to Council I’ve read hundreds of pages of reports and studies by hydrologists, engineers, and planners. I’ve had conservations with countless residents each with their own ideas of what should/could be done to prevent Ross Lane flooding. Along the way I’m learning a lot about this exceedingly complex issue, so I thought it would be useful to summarise some of my key insights and hopefully demonstrate why there is no easy answer when it comes to flood mitigation at Ross Lane.

Why does Ross Lane flood?

The short answer is, it’s supposed to. The area surrounding Ross Lane is a wetland that contains mangroves, swamp sclerophyll forest and saltmarsh, as well as other species of flora and fauna, some of which are threatened. Pre-colonisation, this area was important to First Nations people and there is evidence of at least one Aboriginal midden in the area.

When settlers arrived, they wanted to farm this land, but it was too wet, so they constructed a complex series of drains to divert water away from the floodplain into the creeks and rivers. Over time and for various reasons, some of these drains have become clogged with weeds or silted up with dirt and many of them no long do what they were designed to do. Ironically, it was the creation of the drains that led to a lot of the weed growth in the first place as it altered the hydrology of the area by making the soil drier for longer periods of time.

In addition to poor drainage, the amount of water flowing into the catchment has increased, in part because of climate change (resulting in increased rainfall) but some landowners have also suggested to me that expansive residential development higher up the hill has contributed through increased stormwater runoff into the catchment.

Whatever the cause, the fact remains that the entire area is frequently inundated and doesn’t drain well. The point at which the water converges is at Ross Lane, where it crosses Deadman’s Creek, resulting in increasingly frequent road closures which are seriously inconvenient to the community.

Why doesn’t Council just fix it?

Firstly, the land use arrangements around Ross Lane flooding are complicated. It is important to note that Council is not the only stakeholder with jurisdiction over this area. A large chunk of land to the South East of Ross Lane comprises the Ballina Nature Reserve, which is managed by NSW National Parks and Wildlife (NSW State Government) in accordance with the Plan of Management. Most of the remaining surrounds is owned by several different landowners. Ballina Shire Council is responsible for maintaining the road itself. Rous County Council (the authority responsible for the region’s water supply,
weed biosecurity, and flood mitigation) and JALI Land Council are key stakeholders. An array of complex policies and plans of management governing different parts of the area and aspects of land use.

Why don’t we just clean the drains?

Several landowners have contacted me and said that cleaning the drainage network around Ross Lane would address the root cause of the problem and might even remove the need to fix Ross Lane at all. This might seem like an obvious solution but there are many constraints that need to be considered.

Firstly, the more significant drains in this area are managed by Rous County Council under a fee-for-service arrangement with Ballina Shire Council. There are also a multitude of other smaller drains criss-crossing the area, which are maintained by private landowners. Council is currently in the process of commissioning a hydrological assessment to inform the development of the North Creek Coastal Management Program which may provide us with more insight into these constraints.

If this plan of action was to proceed, soil tests have identified high levels of acid sulphate in this area, which is common in coastal wetlands. If left waterlogged and undisturbed it is fairly harmless, but when agitated it releases sulfuric acid intro the waterways and can harm the fragile ecology of the wetland. The Plan of Management (PoM) for the Ballina Nature Reserve explicitly warns that cleaning the drains may negatively affect the ecology of the wetlands and threaten the natural values of the Reserve and North Creek.

There are, however, techniques that can be used to mitigate the release of acid sulphate into the waterways (such as using lime to neutralise the acid). Ballina Shire Council have advocated that the PoM for the Ballina Nature Reserve should be amended to enable the safe cleaning of drains and the removal of other constraints (such as several weirs) that they believe would have a positive impact on the natural values of the wetland, but National Parks maintain that they will not consider doing this until the North Creek Coastal Management Program is completed, which is several years off. Welcome to the world of government bureaucracy where even the most logical solutions can end up in a never-ending game of hot potato.

What about raising the road?

While the drainage issue is exceedingly complex, improving the road is one of the things that Council can do to prevent flooding. Ross Lane is currently classified as a regional road, which means that Council is responsible for maintaining it. That said, the NSW Statement Government recently announced that it plans to re-assume responsibility for Ross Lane as part of a broader package of support for local councils to better manage and maintain the rural road network. Concerned that the State Government would re-assume responsibility for Ross Lane and flood mitigation works would get lost among other state-wide priorities, Council resolved not to handover the road to State Government until the flooding issue has been resolved.

At our May Ordinary Meeting, Council received a report that presented four hydrologically viable options for raising Ross Lane and building a bridge at Deadman’s Creek. At that same meeting it was resolved to allocate $70,000 to proceed to a detailed concept design for two of these options (Options 2 and 3). This will enable a much more detailed exploration of constraints, costs, timeframes and the possible impacts of neighboring properties.

While we still don’t have an identified source of funding for the planned works, the fact that Ross Lane is an important evacuation route in times of disaster, combined with the intention of the State Government to reassume responsibility for it, means that we are confident that we’ll be able to secure grant funding for the planned works soon. In fact, the Minister for Regional Transport and Roads (the Hon. Sam Farraway) has already visited Ross Lane twice and agreed that the project is aligned with the State Government’s current policy priorities.

Will raising the road affect surrounding properties?

It is likely that raising Ross Lane even by a small amount is likely to have some impact on surrounding properties, including the potential to divert more water into their homes and farms during a severe flood event. While the impacts of the two options Council are exploring have been assessed as having only minor impacts on surrounding priorities, some landowners I have spoken to have refuted this, saying that it is impossible to accurately determine the impacts on neighbouring properties do the difficulties in determining the height of the water table, and that even small amounts of diverted water could have significant impacts on their homes and farms. In response to these concerns, Council committed to consulting with local property owners and other stakeholders regarding the planned works. I have personally spoken to a number of landowners in the area about this issue and have committed to continued dialogue with them.

When can we stop asking “is Ross Lane open”?

Council is unanimous in its commitment to keeping Ross Lane open as often as possible while minimising the impact on property and farm owners, but the truth is, no engineering solution will entirely solve the issue of Ross Lane flooding. The options under consideration by Council will at best provide us with partial immunity at the 10-20% Annual Exceedance Probability (AEP) flood event (that’s between a 1 in 10 and 1 in 5 year flood in old terms). While this will be useful in avoiding the more frequent, less severe flood events, it’s like that this road will still need to close when severe flooding occurs.

This is an important reminder that we cannot simply engineer our way out of the impacts of human-induced problems such as climate change, unsustainable and degenerative land use, environmental degradation, and the impact of rapid and expansive residential development, which have all contributed to the situation we are now facing. It is these very issues that motivated me to run for Council in the first place and which I hope I can play a small role in addressing during my time on Council.