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Old 20-02-2011, 09:53 AM
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Default How did Queensland fair after the tragic floods and inconvenience

First signs of the unusual weather pattern that is delivering tragic flood outcomes for many property owners across country Queensland began to surface as early as September of last year.

Initially seen at the time as a short term inconvenience, in hindsight it looks to have been the start line for an unprecedented catastrophe that has left the victims stunned by the scale of the ensuing devastation.

That aside, the big question is whether the huge bodies of water consuming vast tracts of central Queensland will dissipate, or further swell in the face of the continuing monsoon like conditions.

It was all so different in early spring when the highly anticipated winter crop harvest was largely on track to deliver healthy returns, a key plank in re building the fortunes of previously drought affected growers.

There had been a rush on urea to top dress nutrient hungry crops after a rainy winter across most of the eastern states and the first reports of a bumper cotton season were beginning to appear.

In fact Cotton Australia chief executive officer Adam Kay believed the industry was on track to top three million bales. The expectation was of "the biggest cotton harvest" since rural Queensland emerged from the drought.

But Queensland Climate Change Centre of Excellence climatologist, Dave McCrae, already was using his weekly column in the Queensland Country Life, to flag a "well established" La Nina climate pattern.

Predicting "stronger than normal" south east trade winds, he warned of the increased intensity of the northern Australia monsoon trough, more rain depressions and the likelihood of tropical cyclones.

But the "game changed" in the first week of September 2010 when grains commentator Brian Bailey noted Central Queensland growers had recorded heavy falls of between 50mm to 100mm, resulting in the first of many paddocks being inundated.

Believing that all rain events translate into opportunities, Mr Bailey also made the point the rain that fell in southern Queensland were not of the same intensity with "no one talking about a downside" and with the grains industry still focused on further wheat price rises.

However, there were growing late year concerns across Queensland's largely coast based cane growers with Queensland Country Life columnist Bill Kerr reporting that an early wet season would be "financially disastrous" for the Australian sugar industry.

The state's sugar harvest had only just edged past the half way mark and mills were reporting they had barely crushed one third of their crops. Cane growers were pinning their hopes on realising good crop yields and strong sugar prices.

The point to make here is the wet season in Queensland traditionally coincides with the spring equinox (September 23) with Queensland Farmers Federation president Gary Sansom cautioning about the effects of flood damage stemming from climate forecast predictions.

Nevertheless, much of rural Queensland remained upbeat, despite the intensifying La Nina weather pattern.

By early October, however, cotton growers like Emerald's Ross Burnett already were ruing the unseasonal rains which had pushed back his planting window in what looks to have been an early taste of what lay ahead.

Central Queensland rainfall records were beginning to tumble with Bureau of Meteorology figures indicating that Orion had broken a 141 year record, scoring 358mm as September gave way to October.

Further south in CRT Killarney Co op representative Bruce Goodwin was involved with organising helicopters in an attempt to apply fungicides to leaf rust outbreaks in the southern Queensland township.

Continuing showery weather then translated into a shortage of pilots needed for combating not only rust in wheat but also fungal diseases in chickpeas, plus the fear was of the biggest locust threat in years.

Alarm bells continued to ring throughout October when Muckadilla producer Gavin Burey said he would like to see "the tap turned off" as he surveyed what he believed would be a bumper wheat harvest.

It was a similar story in Bowen which suffered not only the sabotage of millions of tomato seedlings but also record rains in the previous month.

Queensland Country Life columnist Stan Wallace remained hopeful, however, the season would deliver an abundance of prime cattle as spring turned to summer with the state's bountiful pastures and crops poised to deliver exciting prospects.

Then the mighty Fairburn Dam recorded 57cm over its spillway and with it the realisation its massive water holding capacity would be tested if the early summer rains intensified.

In early November Bongeen producer Peter Bach gave the ‘thumbs up' to a giant Claas 750 series machine equipped with Terra Tracs designed to spread the weight of the machine when working in boggy conditions.

But this new technology could not help the bulk of grain harvest contractors already struggling to combat the problems posed by harvesting equipment weighing well in excess of 25 tonnes. By now the eagerly anticipated grain harvest had already turned into a stop start affair with quality issues starting to surface, principally because the rain refused to go away.

North Queensland cane growers had come to accept the heavy rain had forestalled their attempts to capitalise on a 30 year sugar price high, a desperate outcome for those locked in to forward price arrangements since they could only look over their sodden paddocks unable to support harvesting equipment.

Further south there was a brief respite with Kingaroy district producer Peter Howlett relieved the headers had been and gone on his property and neighbour Gary Truss talking up prospects for his just planted crop of gritting corn.

But growing reports of a season that had turned sour continued to mount with lychee growers in Tully, also Mareeba, reporting almost no crop, attributed to a mild winter which offered little opportunity for flowering.

Frustrations began building in earnest during the first week in December with the state's winter crop facing major quality issues. The spotlight was beginning to fall on the state's summer cropping program too, with the impacts yet to be fully assessed.

For years the focus at this time of year has been on dam capacities which had dipped to record lows after one of the driest spells on record. Incredibly, SunWater's storages topped 90 per cent going in to the last month of the year with about 6,700,000ML in storage, according to spokesman Glenn Pfluger.

By now the Fairburn Dam was about 1.88m over the spillway at sitting at about 120 percent capacity. Further widespread falls across the Central Highlands saw the mighty Fitzroy River catchment being overwhelmed by huge volumes of water.

Suddenly, words like "disaster' and "catastrophe" began to be used by affected growers as the number of farms cut off from roads and markets began to be tallied, along with stock, machinery and infrastructure losses.

The painful irony of the first non drought affected crops in years was of a near ruinous harvest as Australia experienced its wettest year since 1974.

As Christmas loomed, AgForce suggested the rain had cost Queensland growers more than $300m with its grains president, Wayne Newton, noting that prices had been downgraded from $300-t to only $100-t, placing the financial status of many producers in peril.

The latest weather reports suggest the state's on going wet and cool weather pattern could drag on until April with the unremitting rains across southern Queensland moving south earlier this week.

While banks say they are ready to discuss loan restructuring packages with flood affected affected growers, the principle legacy of the great Queensland floods of 2011 will be of the human misery they left in their wake.
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