Hawkesbury River County Council

Why you should be angry about reckless election-season posturing

If there was any doubt that the election silly-season is upon us, this week's Council meeting should leave you in no doubt.

Two things in particular stand out – variations on the same theme, one might say.

Two motions came to Council, calling for us to abandon our relationship in two regional bodies, WSROC and HRCC  - one of which  we have been a member of for 73 years. I regard this as lazy, reckless vandalism parading under the patina of 'reform'.

This subject matter may feel obscure, but it's really important to understand. Here's the shortest explanation I can give you:

The Problem

In the scheme of things, Hawkesbury is a small-ish Council. Huge in area, yes, but our revenue base is only one-third of that of our neighbours, like Penrith and Hills, and less than a fifth the size of Blacktown (source data). That means that there are times where it's better to band together with others to achieve good outcomes for our community.

Sometimes we do that to save money. Shared-service models are a proven way to achieve economies of scale in procurement, insurance or service delivery. In other words, bigger is better.

Sometimes, it's because there are some issues that don't stop at Council's borders, and good sense requires a regional approach, like ensuring the health of the Hawkesbury-Nepean river.

And sometimes, we do it to stand with other local governments and speak with a common voice. When bullies (usually other tiers of government) shift cost burdens to ratepayers, overlook the concerns particular to western Sydney, or issues are more appropriate for local governments to take the lead, then it's good to have friends.

All these reasons, among others, were why our Council has long maintained membership of HRCC and WSROC.

WSROC, the Western Sydney Organisation of Councils was created in 1973 and Hawkesbury may be a founding member. If so, we've remained associated with it for 48 years because it has been strongly in our interests to do so. Councils come and go over the years based on shifting assessment of value, just like it's always been an evolving patchwork quilt of political views. But for Hawkesbury, it remains a valuable relationship for us because of our size. Our former Labor Mayor, Councillor Barry Calvert is the President of WSROC, and I am our Council's other delegate and Director, so I'd say we represent non-partisan representation. The positions are unremunerated.

Similarly HRCC, the Hawkesbury River County Council was founded in 1948 and looks after weed control and waterway health across a four Council area including Hawkesbury, Penrith, Blacktown and Hills. It's one of those bodies most people have heard of but know little about, despite the fact it serves over 830,000 western Sydney residents. It's a fully constituted Council in its own right and governed by the same legislation as other larger Councils. It just overlaps the jurisdiction of municipal Councils and has a particular focus – these days governed by the Biosecurity Act. I have been a member of the HRCC Board since 2016 and Chairman since 2019.

Hawkesbury River County Council

What HRCC does is an unalloyed good. In 2004 the Hawkesbury Nepean River was hopelessly choked with weeds. New resources allowed HRCC to clear it and another outbreak of that scale has never happened since. Recently, we kept the river clear of weeds so that our Olympic rowing team could train on the river at their facility at Penrith - and Rowing Australia have been strident in expressing concern and support for us while we've been wrangling with the State Government who have cut our operational funding for weed activities on the river. I've taken that the fight directly to the Federal Assistant Environment Minister, Trevor Evans.

There's so much good that HRCC and its staff do: It has been in the vanguard to sponsor bush regeneration schemes, like the Blue Mountains Shale Cap Forest Project I launched at Bilpin last year. I've raised awareness of its Landcare and creek health initiatives for years. Here's a lovely example of an Echidna spotted by HRCC staff working near the Friendship Bridge over Bardanarang Creek at Pitt Town, a location I've helped clean up myself, and hopefully evidence of improving ecological health.

However, at this week's Council meeting, Labor Councillor Amanda Kotlash brought a motion to Council which proposed, in part to "ask the Minister to dissolve HRCC as a County Council but keep its structure and function and annex it to one of the constituent councils."

HRCC, headquartered in the Hawkesbury at South Windsor

I think that's an absolutely irresponsible proposition, and profoundly counter to our interests. Here are the facts:

Hawkesbury Council contributes ~$200,000p.a. for membership of HRCC - about 0.2% of our income. The four Councils contribute equally despite the fact that the Hawkesbury comprises 73% of the area covered. The County Council is headquartered in the Hawkesbury (in Walker St at South Windsor). Arguably we get the lion's share of benefit from this arrangement, to which the four member Councils are bound by legislation.

These membership dues make up roughly half of the HRCC's income, the rest coming from grants and funded programs. A report we received in April stated that works undertaken in the Hawkesbury LGA in the F.Y were valued at $471,510. Further, if we were to "go solo" and become our own "Local Control Authority" it would cost Hawkesbury over $610,000p.a. to get the same results, given that HRCC has significant economies of scale, unique plant and equipment, and access to grant funding.

In short: We get massive value, hugely in excess of our membership fee, for this long-standing relationship. It works, and it works well.

HRCC's successful model for service delivery has been confirmed and reaffirmed over and over: By a NSW Independent Local Government Review in 2013, by a NSW Weeds Review in 2014, in part by the 2015-2017 "Fit for the Future" process, and now through our own Council's assessment of the costs of exiting the partnership.

Dissolving the HRCC and gifting it to one of the member Councils (she doesn't suggest which), would break the very co-operative model that has grown up between the four Councils over many decades. I can attest that the Board I lead is, with this exception, ecumenical, friendly, and supportive. The proposition to dissolve HRCC has, at time of writing, zero support from the other member Councils.

I labelled the motion reckless because the debate simply sailed straight past these facts - even the report commissioned specifically from our own staff that showed this partnership delivers outstanding value. Not a word was said that attempted to negate or contextualise that data as so wrong that breaking up HRCC after 73 years is the best option.

I'm not shy about questioning long-standing arrangements, and I have been very critical in this term of Council to ensure everything we do has an adequate justification and delivers value. There are no sacred cows for me. Why is my favourite question. HRCC wrestles with an increased regulatory and reporting burden, and like any organisation, balances the tension between admin overheads and front-line staff. But the motion suggesting that dissolving HRCC will release 'wasted' overheads for other uses is just not true.

This motion was, in my opinion, lazy and misguided. However, the motion passed. It is unlikely to result in the dissolution of HRCC given the zero buy-in of the other Councils and the legislative hurdles to unravelling. For those interested in such things, the other Liberal Councillors voted against me.

WSROC - The Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils

Five years ago, Council commissioned a report about whether Hawkesbury should remain as a member of WSROC. Frankly, that boggles me. Five years. Why this report has taken this long arrive was not explained.

Whatever the reason, the report laid out the case very well. WSROC membership costs Hawkesbury $92,000p.a, or 0.08% of our total income. Membership has allowed us to access annual joint procurement savings which exceeded $2.9M across the member Councils.

Hawkesbury specifically saved $87,000 over two consecutive years through one initiative alone - the Western Sydney Energy Program (a program that saved Councils a cumulative $15.8M over its lifetime and saved the emissions of 380,000 tonnes of CO2), and we saved a cumulative $145,196 through participation in the Light Years Ahead street lighting scheme.

Meaning, our membership easily pays for itself, to say nothing of the ability for Hawkesbury to punch above its weight as part of a larger voice for western Sydney.

WSROC has pioneered a number of initiatives involving urban heat, reducing the waste going to landfill and into waterways, hosted 48 forums on regional co-operation, met with Ministers over a dozen times to represent regional concerns, secured $413,000 of funding beyond membership dues to deliver on strategic priorities, and led conversations with government over sustainability and resilience, including with Resilience NSW Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons.

WSROC Directors with former RFS, now Resilience NSW Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons.

 

Given these focus areas, I am baffled that the Greens and left-leaning independents would vote against ongoing WSROC membership. There is simply no better vehicle for our Council to pursue issues like urban heat, climate change, energy efficiency, resilience, sustainability, and waste than WSROC. But they were happy to throw it all away to score a political point.

Despite the findings of the report, Councillor Emma-Jane Garrow brought a motion to discontinue our membership in WSROC, effective immediately.

Clr Garrow never approached myself or Councillor Calvert to ask us if we felt our membership still represented value. She's never attended a WSROC meeting. She didn't address a single word to the report that Council staff wrote to cast doubt on its statistics laying out the cost-benefit of our membership. Vague sentiments were offered about our Council being able to participate in some of WSROC's initiatives in an ad-hoc fashion as non-members, but this was not backed with any data as to which, how, or why this would be a better option for us. Clr Peter Reynolds said that WSROC has an "East-West" focus when what we need is a "North-South" focus, when that's precisely what WSROC have been pivoting to, especially in relation to the airport rail link.

Those who supported Clr Garrow's motion offered ill-informed opinions, but no facts. Thankfully the motion was defeated, with a replacement motion tasking Council to write to WSROC to ask them to re-iterate the financial and other benefits of our ongoing membership.

Those who voted to withdraw from WSROC were Clrs Garrow, Rasmussen, Lyons-Buckett, Wheeler, & Reynolds. Supporting retention were myself, and Clrs Conolly, Calvert, Richards, Kotlash, Tree and Ross.

Lazy, reckless, ill-informed decision making

I am sick of Council meetings where Councillors make decisions based on whims and personal antipathies rather than hard data. Sometimes, it's obvious they haven't read (or don't like) the data that Council staff include in the reports that come to Council. Just like I'm sick of Council staff holding workshops and briefings on key issues and finding I'm one of only 3 or 4 Councillors that turn up. This week we held the latest of eight different workshops for us to examine the decade-overdue revamp of our planning instruments (our DCP and LEP). It's a massive job, and the most consequential thing I'll do in this term of Council. I've attended all of them. Most, including this week's workshop had four Councillors in attendance for the bulk of that time. Not good enough.

In my view, this twice-delayed election can't come too quickly.

The audio of the debate that encompasses the two motions I discuss are at Council's SoundCloud account. The Business paper for the Council meeting is here.

 


Helping Bushland Regeneration in Bilpin

I was pleased to launch the Blue Mountains Shale Cap Forest Project at Bilpin today, as the Chairman of the Hawkesbury River County Council

The Shale forests stretching across Berambing, Bilpin and Mountain Lagoon are State listed endangered ecological communities, even more threatened in the aftermath of the fires. They are typified by an unusually rich diversity of plant, insect, and vertebrate species.

People forget that the Hawkesbury has more of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area within its boundaries than the Blue Mountains LGA.

My first paid job as a teenager was at Dutch's farm at Mountain Lagoon. I still remember being captivated by the size of the huge Angophoras fringing the property. It's satisfying to now lead an organisation working for their preservation.

This initiative is funded over a multiple years to identify and map the ecology, educate and incentivise landowners, provide on the ground help to assist in bush regeneration, conduct weed control, and track progress.

The project will aim to found a dedicated Bilpin Landcare group to carry the work forward, and the locals who attended today were curious and positive about it.

This grant (over $100K) is the first-time a private property engagement that focuses on conservation and land management has been done on this scale. Over 400 private properties have been contacted covering over 2,835 hectares in the Hawkesbury.

It's also great to see this is a team effort between Blue Mountains City CouncilHawkesbury River County CouncilHawkesbury City Council, the Hawkesbury Landcare NetworkGreater Sydney Local Land Services, and the NSW Environmental Trust.

If you want to get on board, contact HRCC.

 

 


Elected Chair of the Hawkesbury River County Council

With HRCC General Manager, Chris Dewhurst, Hawkesbury MP Robyn Preston, and outgoing chair, Clr. Karen McKeown from Penrith Council.

Tonight I was elected as the new Chair of the Hawkesbury River County Council, after serving for the last 12 months as Deputy Chair.
This is a great honour. I am the first Hawkesbury Liberal Councillor ever to be elected to this role.

The HRCC covers 3,823sq.km over four municipalities (Hills, Blacktown, Penrith and Hawkesbury). It has responsibility for waterway health through the control of weeds, and increasingly takes a role in terrestrial weed control as well under the Biosecurity Act. In this last year alone it conducted 2,014 property inspections. With its specialised assets like weed harvesters, and using new and innovative techniques like biological control (Salvinia eating Weevils, anyone?), it plays a major role in caring for our local environment.

Robyn Preston MP - Member for Hawkesbury was elected as my Deputy! Considering she's my boss in another context, this was regarded with great mirth.

I'd like to thank the outgoing Chair, Councillor Karen McKeown for her steady hand over the last year, and our indefatigable General Manager, Chris Dewhurst.


Get involved in the good work of bush regeneration in the Hawkesbury

Our local Landcare groups and their volunteers do a magnificent job around our district. The Hawkesbury Landcare Network will be running bush regeneration weekends on the weekends of March 10-11 and April 14-15 targeting Scheyville National Park, Cattai and Mitchell Park. New volunteers are always welcome.

As a reward for the work, guided bush walk tours will be carried out with local experts, followed by a fully catered dinner, and, in the evening, you can spotlight to see the threatened Yellow bellied Glider, found in the old growth trees of Mitchell Park (pictured).

Let me commend the good work of Landcare, the Hawkesbury Environment Network (HEN), and the Hawkesbury River County Council (HRCC) for what they do to keep our bushland healthy.

Details about the bush regeneration weekend are available at the link below:

Mitchell Park WWW_feb 2018

(Right click HERE to download the PDF directly)


The Health of Currency Creek

The health of our creeks and other waterways should be important to us all. The river and all its tributaries are jewels in the area's crown.

In our city, responsibility is shared between Hawkesbury City Council, various statutory bodies such as National Parks, the EPA and Sydney Water, and another body you may not have heard of, Hawkesbury River County Council. I was pleased to be elected in 2016 by my fellow Councillors to one of the two positions as delegate from Hawkesbury council to the County Council, which is a joint effort covering the LGA's of Hawkesbury, Penrith, Blacktown and the Hills Shire.

The County Council's responsibility is largely related to weed control in and near our waterways. Since coming on board, I've been impressed at the practical and professional approach shown by its leadership and workers. My perception is that it's a tight ship, and the people know and love their jobs.

Recently, a Hawkesbury resident approached me and expressed concern about the health of Currency Creek. The creek runs east from Tennyson, through Glossodia, Ebenezer and Sackville where it joins the river.

The picture was alarming:

Concern was also expressed on social media:

I took up the issue at our HRCC committee meeting last night.

I was informed that upper sections of the 15km length of Currency Creek are frequently reduced to a series of standing ponds. Sometimes 200 or 300m long, sometimes shallow and sometimes 6-8 feet deep. The green scum is Duckweed, and blooms of it can cause the underlying water to become anaerobic "black water".

Low flows in the upper reach of creeks are a natural consequence of rainfall patterns. It was not the opinion of HRCC staff  that nutrient levels here are higher than normal because of identifiable agricultural runoff. The presence of dead fish (mostly Carp) arose from the combination of low oxygen and warm water.  Carp like cool conditions. In weather like this, they "cooked".

In terms of what might be done, HRCC's mandate concerning weed control is limited to waterways traversing non-private land. Any waterway on freehold land is not subject to HRCC control. Spraying is not advised in this case because the subsequent biomass decomposition would exacerbate precisely the conditions causing the fish death. Many water plants such as Azolla (which, for example, my neighbour's dam is full of where I live in Oakville) fix Nitrogen directly from the air, and return nutrients to the environment on decomposition. In fact, this is a strategy actively used by the Chinese to fertilise rice paddies for centuries. The Duckweed is not something that can readily be reduced, either mechanically or chemically.

However, there's good news: This section of creek, although less than healthy now, is isolated and a single rainfall event will flush such blooms out. Here's a picture taken recently of the same creek only 5km further downstream.

Here, the water is clean and healthy, and shows the spectrum of biodiversity of a healthy creek. The whole creek isn't sick, just small sections. It's the height of Summer, and no creek flows freely at all times and places.

Concerned locals should also note that groundwater monitoring occurs continuously in the same are. The monitoring station pictured below is very close to the location of the concerned resident's video, and the health of our waterways are always under review.

In my new role at HRCC, I have been pleased to witness a new GPS-based logging and reporting system that has seen the number of property inspections for weeds rise through 2,500 per year and keep increasing. This requires a data sharing arrangement with member Councils and I have been supporting the dialogue required to make this happen. The HRCC makes good use of  volunteer and vocational programs for its on-the-ground workers, and gains an increasing share of its income from commercial activities and government grants, placing a smaller burden on contributions from member councils.

If the concerned resident was worried that "no one cares" when he comes across the distressing scene of a sick waterway and posts video of it on Facebook, then I can assure him that the HRCC noticed, and discussed the matter at length within 48 hours of his post. The HRCC must operate within its' mandate, but if other environmental agencies need to be engaged, then they will be.

If you're a Hawkesbury resident and are concerned about the health of a waterway in your area, or about a noxious weed control matter that may fall within HRCC's remit, contact me and I'll forward your concerns.

-Clr. Zamprogno


Elected to Hawkesbury River County Council

At the Council meeting held on October 11, 2016 a preferential ballot was held to elect the Council's delegates to the Hawkesbury River County Council. I am pleased to say I was elected as one of Council's two delegates for the four year term.

The County Council operates effectively as a Council body in its own right, and its elected representatives are sent from the Councils in Hawkesbury, Blacktown, Penrith, and the Hills.

The Council's remit is largely concerned with weed management in the waterways of the Hawkesbury Nepean river and its tributaries. I am proud to be one of our community's representatives to this body.