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AUSTRALIAN HISTORY: What lessons can we learn from the 1956 Murray-Darling River floods?

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#AceHistoryDesk – River flows are complex but despite our best attempts to harness control over them, history demonstrates that floods are inevitable.

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What lessons can we learn from the 1956 Murray-Darling floods(Supplied: Alan Whyte)none

With the current inundation threatening the border towns of Echuca, Moama and Kerang, there are concerns about how the Murray River system further downstream will be impacted.

Looking back at previous flood events along the rivers couldย provide importantย insight intoย lessons learntย from previous disasters, such as the three-month-long 1956 floods that devastated whole communities living along the tributaries.

Men in boat with oranges
The 1956 floods left citrus properties in Pomona as islands in an inland sea of floodwater for months.(Supplied: Patricia Whyte)none

Diaries provide insight into past floods

Retired citrus grower Alan Whyte has drawn many comparisons with previous floods that have affected the Murray and Darling River communities.  

He is the third generation of the Whyte family to farm in the Pomona region of New South Wales, and his family has maintained extensive records of the movements of the Darling River dating back to the 1890s.The Whyte family farmhouse in Pomona NSW had floodwaters lapping at the doors during the 1956 floods.(Photo:  Patricia Whyte)none

It is his grandfather’s diarised daily accounts of the rise of the 1956 floods that provides a valuable insight into how the community prepared for and coped with that devastating event.

Diary entries from Verco Whyte describe how the township rallied together to build levee banks and sandbag walls that saved essential town electricity supplies and the Wentworth District Hospital from inundation. Verco Whyte’s diary provides a daily account of living through the 1956 floods.(Supplied: Alan Whyte)none

During that time farmers were stranded for months, and they used boats to harvest and transport citrus to town and to buy supplies.

“The only way in and out was by boat, so my grandfather would take a load of fruit into town each day between working on the levee banks,” Mr Whyte says. 

The town of Wentworth sits at the junction of both the Murray and Darling Rivers in far south-west NSW. While the town had ample warning of the high flows expected from both river fronts, residents were not prepared for the degree of flooding, the duration or the scale of the clean up.

While the 1956 floods were not the biggest to hit either the Murray or the Darling Rivers, the severity of them was a result of both rivers flooding at the same time. Oranges were taken by boat to market during the floods.(Photo: Patricia Whyte)none

As the first rains hit, farmers from the nearby towns of Mildura, Red Cliffs and Wentworth rallied together to build levee banks using their little grey Massey Ferguson tractors to protect the town’s hospital, power stations and major infrastructure.

“There’s a lot of things people could learn from what’s happened in the past,” Mr Whyte says. Retired Darling River citrus grower Alan Whyte has been researching Murray Darling Basin water issues for decades.(ABC Mildura Swan Hill:  Jennifer Douglas)none

Mr Whyte is concerned that the region’s towns are not prepared for a large-scale flood event.

For decades, he has been an active spokesperson on the area’s water issues. In 2019 he provided evidence to the Royal Commission into the Murray Darling Basin Plan on behalf of the South West Water Users Group.

He says with water catchments at capacity, ground moisture high, and a fourth year of La Niรฑa, the community needs to be on alert to the potential for another big flood event.

“We haven’t had a decent flood since the mid-1970s, and it’s well and truly time we had one,” he says.The grey Fergie tractors proved their versatility during the floods.(Supplied: Patricia Whyte)none

New housing built on flood plains

Mr Whyte said one of the greatest concerns was the housing developments that have been built on the flood plains, which were essential for dispersing excess rainwater.Multiple catchments, rivers and tributaries feed into the Murray-Darling Basin.(Supplied: MDBA)none

” If floodwater can’t spread out as it used to on the flood plains that are now developed, towns along the river around Mildura and Wentworth are going to see much higher flood levels,” he says.

Mr Whyte says floods are inevitable as they are a natural river process, but the height of the river can be influenced by the built environment.

“How high the flood level will reach is difficult to forecast, but it’s not a matter of if it will flood again, but when,” he says.Citrus growers used boats to harvest and transport oranges through floodwater to town.(Photo:  Patricia Whyte)none

Preparing for today’s floods

Helen Dalton is the member for Murray. She is also concerned about the potential for flooding and the impact on her community along the New South Wales side of the Murray River near Wentworth.Ms Dalton says there’s no doubt the rising water is putting pressure on the river system.(Supplied:  Helen Dalton)none

“With all the water moving down the Murray, then you add water coming in from the Darling, it’s going to create a lot of pressure on Wentworth,” Ms Dalton says. 

Ms Dalton echoes the concerns of Mr Whyte on the impact of housing developments and infrastructure on low-lying areas along the riverbanks, and how that may influence floodwater movement.

“There’s been a lot of development. It could change the whole course of where the floodwater goes,” she says. 

“We’ve seen it in other places where there are housing developments, with people forgetting that back in the day, they were low-lying and they were susceptible to flooding. I think people have short memories and that’s a real concern.”

Ms Dalton has been watching the recent weather forecast and river flow projections closely, as further heavy rain is expected for the region this week.

“We’ve also got an La Niรฑa forecast, that’s going to add another complexity to what’s already going on,” she says.

“All the tributaries and creeks are full and flowing into the Murray and the Darling in addition to the outer rivers, too. These big flows into the Murray and the Darling are going to create quite a problem.”

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