Brisbane to Sydney by Kayak - Oct-Nov 2008

Engineers Media

Is it fair that engineers are not receiving balanced information? Can we expect engineers to construct suitable infrastructure if they are not told the truth? How do they hope to uphold their own code of ethics which is a very admirable code?

This is all very serious. Our lives revolve around infrastructure unless we live in the bush with no roads, power or communication. How is it possible to provide the correct infrastructure if the very people who design and built it are being fed controlled government spin?

What about three strikes and you're out? Well here are three examples of why I think that Engineers Australia needs to have a very good look at itself.

Strike 1

Cover story on Traveston Crossing Dam.

Here is the full Water Engineering article (PDF, 1.4MB). It was pure spin by non engineers supporting the government line. Are they really trying to tell us that Traveston Crossing dam is bigger than the Pacific Ocean? The Tugun desalination plant is to provide more water, more reliably than the optimistic yields from Traveston. Here is some history.

In June 2008 SSEE QLD chapter (Society for Sustainability & Environmental Engineering) held a technical session on the SEQ Water Strategy. This included a presentation by me on my kayak trip down the Murray Darling as well as the Mary River. It also included a presentation by Steve Burgess on the Mary River Catchment Co-ordinating Committee and the values of the Mary River Catchment. Melanie Simmonds gave an overview of the EPBC Act and how Traveston Dam would be assessed under this act. Alex Kozlexis from UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures evaluated the SEQ Water Strategy (SSEE could find no-one in Qld to do it) and Dan Spiller gave the Queensland Water Commission's perspective.

As a result of the session there was an article in the Gympie Times which was reasonably accurate albeit the headline was typically sensational. Graeme Newton, the CEO of QWI (the Qld Water Commission's constructor) expressed concern about the presentation. His concern was about an apparent imbalance in the presentations and how it was reported.

As a result of these concerns QLD Division considered it prudent to allow QWI to present their side of the story. The SSEE committee was worried that it would be a biased view, but decided to accept this and agreed to the presentation. Unlike typical technical session held in QLD, where committee members select and organise presenters all presenters on the night in August were selected by QWI.

The QWI session was a joint session with EAQLD division, the QLD water panel and SSEE QLD. There was no mention of this in the article and only the water panel was given acknowledgement of holding the session, although SSEE members put in a lot of work to help organise the session. Whilst organising the session the SSEE committee were advised that there was little point advertising the evening as QWI had booked out the session venue. The venue selected had a capacity of 120 people so SSEE wondered why the QWI insisted that they hold a session in the interest of balance and proceeded to book it out so no one else could go. The SSEE committee insisted that this was not appropriate and as a result of this objection the session was held at a different venue which could accommodate 220 people.

The presentation mentioned in the article was a result of complaints by Graeme Newton that SSEE was biased and that a small local paper had printed this biased information about the technical session. This complaint then opened the door for QWI to have an article published nationally by a very respected organisation.

Some feedback to SSEE about the night.

Was this a clever strategy by QWI? I think not. They have gone a step too far and incurred the ire of many engineers.

Strike 2

While paddling from Brisbane to Sydney with thousands of letters for Peter Garrett about Traveston Crossing Dam I met the No Tillegra Dam group. Their complaints about government spin were the same as the Save The Mary River Group. Astoundingly though, they were also quite disturbed by the cover story in the journal Water Engineering Australia December 2007 issue. The title was "Hunter Region's Dam Solution to a zero risk challenge" and the article was simply a rehash of the State Government/Hunter Water Corporation defense of the Tillegra Dam proposal. It was only after close questioning that Hunter Water Corporation admitted it had been written by a Hunter Water Corp employee specializing in public relations, not engineers, nor in fact by a journalist. They questioned why a supposedly prestigious magazine would succumb to such pressure and not provide a balanced article.

Strike 3

Here is one of many paragraphs in an article I wrote about the Darling River trip for Water Engineering. (ie Brisbane to Adelaide by kayak).

"Let's have a look at an early lesson. We had rain on the Darling Downs and I got a day's paddle in before the water disappeared. Where did it go? Probably aquifer recharge. The paddling was hard because of log jams and fighting my way through willows. Willows are the trees that the NSW government is paying a fortune to remove. I question this policy. Sure, they shouldn't be there but to pull them out and wait 20 years for something else seems madness. Willows are on the inside of bends. To me that is not a coincidence, they are holding the soil. Willows trap all sorts of things, in fact just about everything, in their extensive root system. I am not an ecologist, just an engineer but I can tell you they work in an engineering sense to keep valuable soil on the Darling Downs. And they also prevent erosion in other areas."

Response from the editor:
"I found the opinion piece not particularly suiting the style of the magazine, and so have edited your piece quite a bit so its content could fit within the style. Do you find the alterations satisfactory, or am I misconstruing you and you would prefer it not run?" This is his replacement paragraph:

"Paddling along the river was at times difficult due to log jams and fighting through willows. Willows are growing on the inside of bends, and appear to be holding the soil and trapping all sorts of river debris in their extensive root system. The trees appear to serve a function in an engineering sense in keeping valuable soil on the Darling Downs and preventing erosion in other areas. However, the willow tree is a weed that is receiving particular removal attention from the NSW government, and caution must be taken to ensure riverbank stabilisation projects coincide with the removal program."

Articles on the trip were included in Water, and WME magazine. I declined to have an article in Water Engineering but did wonder whether I was being a little unreasonable. It was just a slightly different slant which demonstrated subtly that the magazine is pro government policy. But it certainly did not sound like me and was not reflective of what I was saying.


Water Engineering is now attempting to correct their imbalance in the Traveston Crossing article. My strike 3 complaint is personal and immaterial. No correction of the Tillegra Dam imbalance has been made to my knowledge. It remains to be seen whether the balancing article is a full blown cover story as was the QWI article.

[UPDATE] Balancing article?

Water Engineering's next issue contained three letters in a brand new "letters to the editor" plus an article about this trip. Here are the letters and article (PDF, 88KB). Let's see what the new year brings with the next issue but it is obvious that the magazine has proved offensive to people who know the facts about the issue. I thank Danny Cameron for the article on my trip.

Meanwhile, there has been nothing submitted to Peter Garrett yet but the state government has ramped up work at the site. How can this be? Are Queenslanders loaded with so much money that it can be thrown away on the off chance that the dam will proceed even in the face of international condemnation? How many people would run a business like that? Maybe only the ones that go broke eh!