Living on a flood plain? Surely, it can’t be any plainer than that!

It’s as familiar as City Hall or cockroach races, but the Brisbane River has many hidden secrets along and within those muddy banks, writes David Fagan.

Jun 10, 2024, updated Jun 11, 2024
Heat waves, flooding and freakish storms - these things will become the new normal weather patterns, experts warn.. (PHOTO: Brisbane City Council)

Heat waves, flooding and freakish storms - these things will become the new normal weather patterns, experts warn.. (PHOTO: Brisbane City Council)

The description of Brisbane as a “river city” rolls so easily off the tongue that it’s also easy to overlook that the city end is just a small part of a river that meanders hundreds of kilometres before reaching urban steel and concrete.

And that means it’s also easy to forget the importance of taking care of the health of the river upstream if we want it flow cleanly by the apartments, offices and restaurants that now line the most-used parts of the riverbank.

Simon Cleary has applied a novelist’s powers of observation with a barrister’s powers of analysis to produce a reminder of the full body of the “brown snake” that so defines our state’s capital.

And he’s done it the hard way. His newly released “Everything is Water” is the fruit of several years’ research and a month-long trek of as much of the river as his legs could access during May 2022.

What a wonderful and living creature this river is. Cleary describes its waters right from an origin he and his backpack could leap over as well as its banks, the native and intrusive vegetation, its bird and insect life, the geology which shaped it and the people who share its aura and hold its stories.

It was a 344-km journey for Cleary and friends who joined him for days at a time. And like many things about this river, the journey produced its surprises.

The month of May 2022, for instance, was the wettest May on record, meaning the river flooded making many banks inaccessible and diverting Cleary and his fellow travellers from their planned path.

Two years on – and forever perhaps – Cleary has given us a reminder that our river might appear to have a constant path from mountain to mouth but its true path is guided by natural forces we only assume we can control – and not just flooding.

“We are good at forgetting,” he writes. “We forget that we live, many of us, in a river. For that is what a flood plain is. We forget that from time to time the river will need to make itself known, and woe betide our forgetting. We forget also that from time to time the dry comes, dry upon dry, season upon season, accumulating like beads of bone on an ancient abacus. We cannot conceive , that the water might slow. That a river might run dry until it does.”

Flooding over the past dozen years makes it easier for us to forget how close this city came to running dry in the first decade of this century, a period Cleary notes in which we reused less than five percent of the water we consumed.

This is a reminder to us all of the value of this natural asset in a city and region with a growing population where, as his book is titled, “Water is Everything”.

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His is not the only recent book which puts the river front and centre (and that’s not including Trent Dalton’s Lola In The Mirror) which lives around the inner Brisbane reaches of the river.

Another barrister, David Topp, turns his mind to flooding in Brisbane Breached – The Story of a Drought Defaulted Floodplain.

Like Cleary, Topp highlights the contrasts of a city that can almost run dry and then be inundated twice in just over a decade. He draws heavily on the legal actions that spun out of the 2011 flood and its class action which gave false hope to property owners but ultimately cleared the operators of Wivenhoe Dam of culpability for the inundations which swamped them.

He draws together the other conflicts – not just those of the climate but the conflicts between building enough affordable housing for a growing city and keeping land clear to allow for flooding, of capturing the water we waste and of balancing the politics between those whose only answer is to keep building dams (but who knows where) and those who would encourage conservation and recycling.

The issues our river creates, like the river itself, will endure. It’s been said that we are a city with a river problem although another author, Dr Margaret Cook, cleverly contextualized this a few years ago with a book based on her thesis, A River With A City Problem.

It also explores the conflicts and digs into the history to showcase some of the solutions considered and (thankfully abandoned) – a channel direct from the Oxley Reach of the river to the bay being one of them; a channel directly from the Botanic Gardens to the New Farm reach (making Kangaroo Point an island) being another.

Understanding how our city works is an important tool in the kitbag of being a good citizen. That involves both listening and reading. A few days lost in these river books is a good start.

(Everything is Water (2024) and River with a City Problem (2019) are both published by University of Qld Press; Brisbane Breached (2023) by Connor Court Publishing).

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