Thursday, 1 April 2021

The story of a little town in the Clarence Valley and a growing problem


There have been people living on this coastal land since time immemorial - fishing, hunting, gathering food and raising families.

In 1799 the first people who did not belong to this little settlement at the mouth of the Clarence River in northern NSW turned up unexpectedly. They didn’t stay more than a day or two and sailed on.

However in the 1800s a lot more people came to the area to cut timber, farm and fish. Many of them stayed.

The little settlement was given a new name taken from the newly re-named river. It was called Clarence Heads.

By then life had become harder for the families who had lived there from time immemorial because the new people kept taking their land and moving them on. But they never went completely away and proudly live there still as valuable members of the community on land they now hold Native Title over.

By 1864 the settlement had been proclaimed a town called Yamba and in the 1930s the one dirt road leading in and out of the little town slowly began to be sealed.

Eventually a bridge and two causeways were built along that long main road, because fingers of the Clarence River had always meandered around and through the land on which the town was built.

In fact if one looks at a map of the Clarence River estuary it is easy to see that only a thin strip of land less two kilometres wide at is narrowest point stops Yamba from becoming an island.

Over the years the town grew and grew until by about 2016 it had spread to where the town limits encompassed 1,692 hectares with a population of almost four people per hectare.

The 2016 Australian national census shows that there were 6,342 men, women & children in Yamba on Census Night, with 6,076 being local residents living in 3,820 dwellings with an average household size of 2.09 persons.

That census also confirmed what had been known for some time, Yamba was a retirement destination and almost 37 per cent of all residents were 65 years of age and older.

The town by then not only had a long-established fishing fleet, two mixed shopping & cafe precincts and a small industrial area, it was also a popular tourist destination with a constant stream of visitors throughout the year culminating in a Christmas rush which sees the town’s population roughly double for the duration of the holiday period.

In 2019 the estimated resident town population was 6,228 men, women and children and, plans were well underway to develop land on the edge of the town limits which would grow the town's total population to 9,476 people aged from babies under 1 year of age to older people aged 85 years and older.

Not all town residents lived in family groups – est. 865 lived alone. Not all had their own transport – est.166 households had no car.

The story so far is typical of many coastal towns in northern New South Wales.

However there is a nasty worm in the middle of a still welcoming Yamba.

Remember the almost-an-island, surrounded by ocean, river, channels and lake, town with only one road leading out to the wider world?

Well that scenario holds the answer to the nature of this nasty worm. Flooding.

Approximately every three years it floods somewhere in the Clarence River catchment area and sometimes that flooding flows all the way down the Clarence River and Yamba gets its feet wet.

Historically, that’s all that usually happens because even through much of Yamba is only around 2-4 metres above sea level, within and just beyond the town limits is 620 hectares of flood storage land which soaks up most of the flood water before it enters the more heavily built-up sections of the town.

Or should I say the town did have a 620ha buffer zone, because right now developers are beginning to fill 127.4ha of that zone to house those 3,250 additional men, women and children who are expected to increase the town’s population to 9,476 souls over the next 25 years or so. 

Yamba is now spread so wide and has so many residents that any change to where flood water can safely flow is bound to have a knock-on effect. Because water has a will of its own and doesn't always follow the dictates of flood modelling.

If readers don't believe me ask NSW Transport - there's at least one cloverleaf interchange not far from here and another new bridge about halfway down the state which are  evidence of human hubris.

Yamba is already a leaky boat in flood events over the 1 in 5 year flood depth.

Its one road in and out gets cut at multiple points even near the centre of town, a number of its smaller streets often have water over the road which is sometimes to a depth that closes them to traffic.

Inundation within the town commences in earnest once floodwaters pass 2.40 metres in depth.

In floods stormwater becomes more than a nuisance when shallow open drains overflow and underground pipes backflow so that water lies over footpaths and enters peoples yards. Another trap for the unwary is that flood water covering Yamba land is often strongly tidal and can sweep a persons feet out from under them even when its less than than a metre deep.

In a 1 in 20 year flood 122 houses are at risk of having water enter part or all of their rooms, in a 1 in 100 year flood that number builds to 1,223 houses and in an extreme flood it is expected that 2,144 of the up to 4,351 houses currently in Yamba will be flooded.

So Yamba already has around 49% of its houses at some degree of risk during a time when reputable scientists, along with federal, state and local government, are telling its residents that climate change is occurring. That this change is likely to alter seasonal weather patterns and see natural disasters such as major floods increase in severity.

To make matters worse, the only really high ground in the town, Yamba Hill, in prolonged rain events combined with strong seas - conditions that are often seen in times of flooding - is destabilised over a large part of the hill and at risk of land slippage. Particularly in parts of the hill where people might congregate as flood water rises elsewhere in the town.

Of course town planners and land developers don’t always look at the bigger picture and in 2021 Yamba finds itself in an uncomfortable position. Land owners - in that 127.4ha of the flood storage area due to be drained and raised in height by approx. 1.8 million tonnes of landfill – are pushing the envelope as to the number of houses they want approved per hectare.

In other words, the future population in what is known as the “West Yamba Land Release Area” will in all likelihood grow beyond the number originally anticipated and, that one road in and out of town I keep mentioning will now be expected to perform emergency evacuation miracles in a major flood event in Yamba.

It has been obvious for some time that the correlation between our town population size, the physical impacts of natural disasters and evacuation requirements is something all levels of government have studiously avoid considering in any depth.

The Yamba Floodplain Risk Management Plan was created in 2009 and is still displayed as current on Clarence Valley Council's website. It contains a wish list of matters to be considered by local government & emergency services but no concrete evacuation plan.

Apart from a small SES leaflet indicating a short evacuation route within the town - running along Yamba Road from its T-intersection with low lying Shores Drive to the relatively low lying Yamba Bowling and Recreation Club - along with instructions to assemble at the bowling club, register and "then stay with friends or relatives" and advice to "act early before roads and evacuation routes close".

There is silence about the logistics of evacuating via at least 3,587 vehicles taking to a narrow two-lane road to get across a bridge and two causeways before Yamba Road closes. There is also silence about where this caravan is to go, given by then much of the Lower Clarence is beginning to flood.

Authorities turn the fact that realistically this town cannot be safely evacuated during natural disasters into the 'virtue' of an ad hoc policy which effectively says that, with the exception of assisted medical evacuations, early self-evacuation by residents is preferred but shelter in place is advisable if water isolates your home.

It’s been many years since local councillors would amusingly talk about “vertical evacuation” in Yamba - meaning residents could climb the stairs to their second storey or climb onto their roofs during a major flood - and about the same amount of time since SES members joked that the only thing they could do for Yamba residents in times of major flooding would be “to take the flood boat out into the middle of the river and toss life jackets to you all as you float out to sea”. 

Times change, or so do they? The year 2021 finds Yamba residents facing the same basic attitude towards their safety and wellbeing. 

Yamba is becoming a trifle nervous about its future and, some are voicing concerns not just about potential property loss but about the more confronting potential for loss of life as the town's population grows.

Sometime towards the end of this month Clarence Valley Council staff are holding a public meeting at the Treelands Drive Community Centre to clarify the progression of development plans for West Yamba.

I have no doubt that council staff too will resist looking at the big picture. Unless local residents go toe-to-toe with them on the need for a population ceiling for Yamba township as a whole and West Yamba in particular. With such a ceiling to be established as a matter of importance and adhered to by way of firm housing density and multiple occupancy residential dwelling limits.

Principal sources:

Clarence Valley Council documents

Port of Yamba Historical Society at

Yamba Community Profile at

2016 Census Quick State- Yamba (NSW) at,up%204.5%25%20of%20the%20population.&text=The%20median%20age%20of%20people,State%20Suburbs)%20was%2056%20years

Google Earth

Historical imagery from 1985

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