In October 2022, central Victoria was hit with a major flooding event that devastated local communities. Homeowners were forced to evacuate as floodwaters damaged homes, rivers and roads. But amidst unprecedented circumstances, Coliban Water’s unwavering focus on caring for customers, and staff dedication to local communities helped it act quickly to mitigate the damage.
Coliban Water Managing Director, Damian Wells, said the water authority quickly established an incident team, which operated around the clock. “We made a decision early on to place customer impacts at the forefront of our decision-making in an unprecedented situation.
“Our mission was to respond in a way that ensured the safety of our customers and employees. “During the flood event we sought to protect our assets and the environment to achieve the best possible community outcomes,” Mr Wells said.
For more than 65 days, the team got on with the job and were based in the water authority’s head office in Bendigo. “It was fantastic for staff to be clear on their mission. It wasn’t about managing the flood – it was about managing the community consequences of the flood.
“Decision-making becomes quite clear when you know what you stand for,” Mr Wells said.
In the incident room
As the incident team began to understand the gravity of the task ahead, staff members were able to draw on their expertise and experience in incident management. “We knew this incident was going to run for a long time,” Mr Wells said. “There was a strong focus on safety, and rostering and fatigue management were in place early.
“We knew it was going to be a marathon, not a sprint. We had to make sure the protocols we put in place worked.” Among the assets damaged in the flood included sewer pump stations, which were submerged and had damage to their electrical controls, and part of the rural channel network which was eroded or collapsed due to flood waters.
In Rochester, flood walls installed around the town’s water treatment plant were put to the test. The plant is adjacent to the Campaspe River and the flood walls were erected following the 2011 flood. Aerial photography of the 2022 flood shows the walls successfully protecting the plant from inundation.
In Echuca and Cohuna, emergency earthworks were undertaken to protect critical infrastructure. Mr Wells said a proactive approach meant when assets were damaged, plans were already in motion to quickly repair them. “We had already started ordering electrical parts when the rainfall forecast came in.
“When the floodwaters went through, some of those electrical parts had arrived and it allowed us to quickly repair and recover damaged equipment and assets.” Mr Wells said that the incident team were able to quickly establish a working rhythm. “The emergency management environment can seem overwhelming but with good structures in place, it becomes more methodical and process-driven.”
Staying safe in the field
To ensure that staff were working as safely as possible during the flood response, Safety and Risk Manager Helen Ellis said her team implemented several new procedures across the 65-day incident. “With a lot more staff working around water, we held daily safety briefings that included reporting of hazards in the field.
“That allowed us to implement preventative measures,” Mrs Ellis said. “We completed risk assessments and developed additional safe work procedures. This included the need for staff to wear life jackets when working near water, especially levees.” The safety team also identified other risks including potholes, flooded roads, fatigue and increased mosquito and insect numbers.
“Warm weather meant that mosquito numbers increased on the ground. Bites, stings and Ross River Virus were of concern, so we arranged a vaccination program for staff.” At times there were up to 40 staff members and contractors in the field. “Staff tracking was vital. We didn’t rest until everyone was home safe, no matter what time of the night that was,” Mrs Ellis said.
“It was a long campaign and fatigue was a concern. Anyone who had worked seven days straight was immediately stood down until they had completed an appropriate rest break.” Mrs Ellis said the team was proud to report no injuries or illness to staff throughout the campaign.
Keeping a customer focus
A regular communication rhythm to provide accurate, timely and dependable information was the communication focus during the floods.
Manager of Customer Care and Support, Stewart Lines, said that remaining armed with information was a key part of the response.
“Customers just want to be informed,” Mr Lines said. “Key information and updates were readily available thanks to the level of expertise and skills of those in the incident team.
“In addition, the team was regularly liaising with various government and response agencies, meaning the latest information was there.” Mr Wells said the communications team issued daily updates at 10am and 2pm during this time. “A key part of this was ensuring that we were providing the right amount of information to our communities,” Mr Wells said.
“Keeping our customers informed and anticipating their questions reassured us that we were responding appropriately. “This also reduced the possibility of being overwhelmed with questions.” Outside of the incident, it was business as usual for Coliban Water and the towns unaffected by floods.
“Life goes on for some people. As much as there’s people out there needing help with sinkholes, there still might be a customer in Tylden for example, ringing up to pay a bill,” Mr Lines said. Mr Wells said that the team ensured that all 49 towns in Coliban Water’s service area were catered for.
“Whilst we’ve got incidents and flood-affected areas, we still have to keep running the business. “There’s still customers coming in the front door and towns that aren’t flood-affected that need their usual services. There’s the continued operation of our treatment plants,” Mr Wells said.
The flood aftermath
As the peak of the flood event passed, attention was shifted to medium and long-term flood recovery. Ongoing bill relief was established for impacted customers. Coliban Water staff assisted customers with more than 12,000 payment plans and more than 1,300 hardship payments.
“Some customers who were impacted by the floods last year are far from living back to normal,” Mr Wells said. “To help ease the burden to flood-impacted communities, bill credits were automatically applied to eligible accounts. “We continue to offer a range of ongoing payment support to assist customers with their bills, including concessions, flexible payment options, financial counselling and a community rebate program.”
On the ground, Coliban Water engineers got to work repairing assets, pump stations, electrical switchboards and pipelines affected by the flood. A pipeline that supplied water to Heathcote was destroyed, as flooding had proven so strong that sections had been uncovered and washed away. Thankfully, crews repaired the pipeline within four weeks.
Reflecting on the crisis
Almost a year on, a continued focus remains on recovery and rebuild plans into the future. The organisation’s efforts were recognised at the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) awards in June, when Coliban Water received the Emergency Management Award.
Mr Wells said the recognition reflected the organisation’s commitment to customers. “During a crisis, people look to the helpers, and that’s what we were. It’s not about awards, and it’s not about external recognition. “We live here, we work here, and our families live here and work here and go to school here. “We have relatives in Rochester.
We have staff in Rochester and Echuca. As members of the community, we understood the hurt these communities were experiencing.” Mr Wells said the experience would stay with staff members for some time and remind them of the importance of their work.
“Every staff member has got their own story about their role in the floods and their investment in it, “Every now and again, in our careers these big incidents present themselves and we are measured by how we respond. “This award is an opportunity for us to genuinely celebrate, reflect, and say ‘We were part of something big’. “We’ve been able to pause and reflect. The major takeaway is to continue to always put our customers at the centre of everything we do.
“That informs our decision-making and gives us clarity to consider community consequences. “At the heart of it, we provide essential water and wastewater services, and we know the recovery of these services come into sharp focus in times of crisis,” Mr Wells said.
Through the eyes of a rochester resident
Many towns throughout the Coliban Water region were significantly impacted by the flood crisis, most notably Rochester, where all but six houses were inundated by floodwaters. David Keenan had the unique perspective of experiencing the floods as both a Coliban Water staff member and a Rochester community member.
He recalls significant rainfall in the weeks prior to the flood event. “Bureau of Meteorology warnings were saying a potential flood would be 100mm higher than in 2011. “So, at home on Friday (14 October) we set all our furniture on outdoor pavers – lifting everything up 200mm.
Then it was a waiting game,” Mr Keenan said. “When the flood arrived, it was 700mm higher than in 2011 and we had 500mm of flood water through our house.” With waves of water coming through Rochester’s streets, Mr Keenan began fielding calls from friends and family as well as from Coliban water colleagues seeking flood information. Mr Keenan and his family were forced to evacuate their home – only four months after completing renovations.
“It was devastating to return home and see mud and sludge all over everything. “Cupboards were swollen and wouldn’t open, new carpet was thrown out and furniture was put on the roadside.” Mr Keenan said the family still don’t have a clear idea of when they can return home. “A lot of houses were so badly damaged you couldn’t enter them.”
After the initial flooding, Mr Keenan said Coliban Water staff were on the ground to repair pump stations. “This was to enable drinking water and flushing toilets. You could see the Coliban Water utes working on a substation just up from our house,” Mr Keenan said.
“Floodwater was still in the town but the water and sewer systems were running.” Mr Keenan spent four weeks cleaning up his property before returning to work, and reflects on the company’s response to the floods with pride. “As a staff member, I was so impressed about what was happening in the business,” Mr Keenan said.
“To see the way the incident room works was impressive. Everyone sitting there responsible for certain tasks. “I have spent more than 20 years in the water industry and never seen a response to crisis like Coliban Water did. They are second to none.”
More information about ongoing flood recovery efforts can be found online at www.connect.coliban.com.au