Residents of Sydney's north-west say swell in development has made flooding worse

“Where do they think the water is going to go? It’s not 1960 any more.”

Shaun Boland was furious on Tuesday and it wasn’t because live power lines had blocked him from accessing, by boat, his two-storey house at Pitt Town Bottoms in Sydney’s north-west. His home, like dozens of others nearby, was drowned and blending into the Hawkesbury River.

“You can’t just have thousands of acres of grass and rezone it for thousands of houses and new roads and not expect all the rainwater to run down into the river,” Boland told Guardian Australia.

After intense rain over the weekend caused Sydney’s Warragamba Dam to spill over, increased river flows triggered “waves so big you could surf them”. They crashed against his 120-year-old home that was eventually submerged. It had previously seen off significant floods in the area.

Locals ventured out in private boats, canoes and jetskis on Tuesday as the State Emergency Service performed rescues and delivered medicine to communities that had become islands. The Australian Defence Force had joined the disaster effort too.

In Pitt Town Bottoms, Boland expected it would be weeks before he could return to his house with his wife and two children. They were in the process of moving into another property nearby – so they had somewhere to stay – but like all residents along the Hawkesbury he’s worried about the growing risk of floods.

The plumber was critical that decisions to release water from Warragamba Dam upstream don’t appear to take into account increased development in the area.

“All the water is coming down into the river from all the new estates around us,” Boland said. “How can they not expect flooding to be worse than it’s been before?”

Boland said previously there would be a few days before intense rains saturated the ground and it could no longer absorb additional water. Then there’d be a rise in the rivers that flooded the suburbs. But this week, he insisted, the flooding happened far quicker.

He backed the NSW government’s push to raise the height of the dam wall – but also wanted politicians to consider the impact new housing developments have on the flood risk.

At the Bird In The Hand Inn in Pitt Town, displaced locals gathered for dinners they couldn’t eat in their homes. Op Dinsdag, they were discussing how the Bells Line of Road – which was at the centre of fires that ravaged Sydney’s far west and lower Blue Mountains in December 2019 – had now been closed because of the floods.

Residents also exchanged stories of the homes that had dodged previous floods but succumbed to the weekend rains.

“All these estates have sprung up around us – where do they think the runoff is going to go?” the publican said.

In Box Hill, near Pitt Town, several new housing estates surround what in the future will be the Box Hill City Centre. Op Dinsdag, the construction site was flooded.

The scene was common across swathes of western Sydney in suburbs along the flood plain. At the entrance to Pitt Town, a sign advertising the final release of new houses was submerged this week.

In between ducking to avoid live power lines and guiding his boat away from red-bellied black snakes floating on debris, Dane Kemp pointed out the homes and the horse paddocks submerged below.

Kemp has lived in Pitt Town for most of his life, and his dry family house is less than 100 metres from the end of his street, which has become a makeshift marina for residents taking boats out to supply friends whose properties “have become an isolated island”.

“It’s so bloody dangerous out here, I don’t like doing it,” Kemp said of the risk of taking a boat out among the power lines in order to check on his neighbours’ livestock.

The 33-year-old said his family “has had a few sleepless nights ourselves” since waters sharply rose about 2pm on Sunday. He knows that while his house narrowly escaped the flooding many others did not. “Every house out there that’s gone under is just totally ruined," hy het gesê.

In the boat, looking out at the waters above the Lynwood Country Club golf course, Kemp’s head almost brushes the globe of a street light.

The civil industry worker points out that people, including his family, had lived in the area for a long time before the recent swell in development on the Hawkesbury-Nepean floodplain. He believes the scale and type of development is affecting the flooding.

“Australia keeps growing and people have got to live somewhere," hy het gesê. “But with some of the new places here, it’s more roofs, it’s more pavement, and when the rain falls it’s got to go somewhere. Even if it’s not flooding those homes because they’re built higher it might flood somewhere else.”

He understands it wasn’t a straightforward option to just release water from Warragamba Dam in anticipation of the rain that ultimately caused the dam to spill on Saturday afternoon.

“It’s a tough one, yes they could have released the dam, but if the rain didn’t come, everyone would have blamed them for wasting water, and this is an area that was in drought for years.”

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