Vegetation management is a vital part of helping to protect the Alice Springs community from the impacts of severe weather.
You might not expect wild storms, gusty winds and heavy rains in the desert regions of Central Australia, yet they occur frequently during late spring and summer. The storms can cause significant destruction, and the town of Alice Springs – the region’s largest, with a population of 28,000 – often feels the full force of these unexpected events with little warning.
The Northern Territory’s Power and Water Corporation is committed to public safety around all electricity infrastructure, ensuring that the community has a reliable power supply. To help prepare and protect Alice Springs from the destructive power of these storms, Power and Water invests in strategic vegetation management practices and community engagement to help build understanding about why it is needed.
Power and Water Senior Manager Service Delivery South, Gavin Kahl, said, “Trees, shrubs and other vegetation present a significant risk to powerlines, as falling branches or trees can damage them and bring them down.”
“During past storm events, we’ve seen trees and tree debris blown onto powerlines, properties and roads, causing substantial damage and leaving customers without power for many hours while we work to safely bring the network back on.
“To reduce these dangers, clearance standards have been set for how much trimming is necessary, while at the same time trying to maintain greenery, shade, cooling and privacy where possible.”
To successfully deliver the vegetation management program, Power and Water must manage a diverse set of challenges and issues, working closely with the community and peak organisations.
One challenge is managing native trees that seed in sacred or culturally significant sites close to powerlines. To address this, Power and Water works with organisations such as the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) to ensure that any culturally significant trees are identified and managed appropriately.
Alice Springs is home to numerous well-established old trees that create the sense of an oasis in the desert, alongside many species planted as the town has developed that are not suitable to be in close proximity to powerlines.
“Broader community engagement is essential to help educate and notify residents and key stakeholders about the need for vegetation management, while balancing power supply reliability and public safety with the community’s environmental values,” Mr Kahl said.
“This engagement also offers the opportunity for any concerns to be discussed directly with a Power and Water representative before each program of work begins. Local government organisations, environment and community groups, Indigenous organisations and local media are all included.”
Power and Water has engaged an experienced contractor who employs a qualified arborist to assess each tree within a power span (pole to pole). This helps them gauge whether it will have an effect on the power infrastructure or disrupt access to powerlines.
Mr Kahl explained that before works commence near homes, affected residents will receive a card in their letterbox to notify them once the assessment has been completed.
“We also advertise extensively in the weeks leading up to work starting to raise awareness of the program,” he said.
This approach has seen improved engagement with customers and a reduction in complaints from residents about trimming trees and branches around powerlines.
As part of the vegetation management program, a tree replacement project has been introduced using suitable native species sourced locally. An unsuitable species or hazardous tree is replaced with two more appropriate native shrubs and once the saplings are established the original tree is removed.
“This initiative is a progressive and positive outcome for the community and Power and Water, protecting the power network and maintaining the greenery in Alice Springs’ urban areas that are so valued by the community,” Mr Kahl said.
Vegetation maintenance work is conducted every two years in urban areas and every four years in rural areas to prepare for future severe weather events.
In late 2022, Alice Springs was hit by two sudden, successive wild storm cells that left thousands of people without power after trees, branches, debris and roofing materials damaged powerlines.
“These storms were the most severe the town has experienced in recent times,” Mr Kahl said.
“Our crews worked around the clock to repair the damage and restore services within just a few days. “If not for the work delivered through the vegetation management program, things could have been much worse than they were.”