‘Floodplain Manager’ Editorial, Powerhouse Parramatta – Steven Molino

Floodplain Manager Editorial by Steven Molino, 3 August 2020

Floodplain Manager is a publication provided by Molino Stewart, Environment and Natural Hazards specialists, to connect and inform floodplain managers throughout Australia and the world. See: https://molinostewart.com.au/floodplain-manager/ 
For this editorial see: https://molinostewart.com.au/editorial/floodplain-manager-july-2020/

See also: Kylie Winkworth, submissions to Select Committee Inquiry, No. 137a Ms Kylie Winkworth  and  No. 137b Ms Kylie Winkworth (Supplementary submission to 137a from Kylie Winkworth, museum and heritage expert; and  Molino Stewart, Parramatta Powerhouse EIS Flood Risk Review, July 2020.)


This edition of Floodplain Manager has the usual mixture of interesting national and international news items, a greater than usual list of resources, and reports of significant flooding and losses throughout Asia during this monsoon season. However, what I have chosen to devote this editorial to is something which is not reported in this edition but which I think is worth discussing as it highlights how far we still have to go in this country to properly consider flooding in our planning of key community assets.

I was recently requested to undertake an independent review of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed Parramatta Powerhouse Museum with a particular focus on how flooding has been addressed. I would not normally discuss one of our commissions in any detail but as our report will be on the public record I do not see any problem with doing that. I certainly don’t want to enter into any debate about the cultural, social or economic merits of the museum proposal or the politics and controversy surrounding it of which there has been plenty.

To provide context for our readers who are not privy to Sydney or New South Wales news, the NSW Government announced a few years ago that it would move the Powerhouse Museum, the largest campus of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, from its Inner Sydney, Ultimo site to a new purpose built building in Parramatta in Western Sydney. Although the Government has recently announced that it will retain the campus at Ultimo, it is pressing ahead with the proposal for a new museum at Parramatta as well and released an EIS for comment.

The museum collection includes a diverse array of unique small and large items (the largest being a steam locomotive and carriages) of scientific, artistic and cultural value and interest. Many of the museum’s items are irreplaceable and most of them are currently housed in buildings which meet AA class climate control for museums which requires narrow ranges of temperature and humidity to be maintained to ensure items do not rapidly deteriorate.

The new, purpose built, state of the art museum building proposed for Parramatta will meet that climate control standard and house thousands of the museum’s unique and irreplaceable items. The site chosen for the museum, however, is on the banks of the Parramatta River and is affected by both riverine and overland flooding. What I have been disappointed with in my review is that virtually no consideration has been given to the implications of flooding above the 1% AEP flood level. The ground floor plane is to be fixed at 0.5m above the 1% AEP flood level and the power supply to the building will also be at this level.

The EIS does not discuss what happens if a flood exceeding the 1% AEP flood is experienced, and the building design does not seem to cater in any way for such a possibility. There is no consideration as to how thousands of building occupants would be made safe in such an event, how collections would be protected from direct contact with floodwaters nor how the climate control would be maintained for protecting the rest of the collections from the increased humidity in the building considering that the power supply would be taken out by such a flood.

The Secretary for the Environments Assessment Requirements, which set out the scope of the impact assessment expected by the Department of Planning Infrastructure and Environment to be reflected in the EIS, focus on assessing and mitigating the heritage impacts of constructing the building on that site. They do not require an assessment of the operational impacts of placing items of high cultural heritage value in a location where they can be irreversibly damaged by a known hazard.

It may be that the museum can be designed to provide an appropriate level of flood protection to the collections but to suggest that they should be afforded the same level of protection as the carpet and furniture in the office building next door shows that we still have a long way to go in properly considering flooding in the design of community assets.

Written by Steven Molino, editor