A levee bank holds back the floodwaters in Perricoota Forest.
‘I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rain.’
Dorothea Mackellar’s words have been used for decades to describe the quintessential Australia, but the stark reality is anything but romantic.
The sweeping plains are flooded. The third La Nina in a row for eastern Australia has turned the heat and horror of the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires into an ironic memory as homes, towns and farms are submerged under staggering rainfall totals.
Rivers have not only raged, but they have also burst their banks, spread for kilometres and covered the landscape in a mess of mud and refuse.
Echuca Moama and district has not been immune from the onslaught of water. October 2022 will be remembered as the worst floods for 150 years, the Murray River rising to 94.94m above sea level. The only two recorded floods higher than this were in 1867 and 1870 at a time when the river was unregulated.
To add to the woes of the Campaspe, Goulburn and Murray rivers flooding, the district was swamped with record rainfalls.
Officially, 90mm fell at Echuca on October 13 and 14 which set off the floods as the Goulburn and Campaspe catchments were hit with even more rain. Eppalock spilled and poured down the Campaspe, inundating Rochester and surrounds before careening into Echuca.
Shepparton was hit not long after, the Goulburn raging down her water course before filling the Murray River and setting off the long wait for residents who frantically prepared for the tidal wave of water.
It was inspiring to see the efforts of the community who spent the week building levees and filling 400,000 sandbags, not to mention the myriad preparations which went sight unseen – feeding the hordes of volunteers, clearing houses of furniture and helping evacuating hundreds of people.
Stories have emerged of the selfless acts people showed in trying to save houses of people they didn’t even know, which is truly humbling.
The joy of saving homes after countless hours of lugging sandbags, monitoring levee banks and pumping rainwater (because on top of this, the rain just keeps falling), is heart-warming, but with the highs comes the lows as we hear of homes being inundated despite the back-breaking efforts gone into saving them.
While the focus has been on Rochester, Echuca Moama and Shepparton, there is another story which should not be forgotten – the rural communities.
To say farmers are doing it tough is an understatement.
The cropping families have watched the season unfolding with a delight they haven’t experienced for a long time. A perfect autumn break sparked the optimism and, despite the winter being a little dry, unusual September rain had the crops looking magnificent.
Bring on October, with most areas experiencing rainfall totals anyway up to half of their annual rainfall, and the optimism began draining away.
Echuca officially recorded almost eight inches (196mm) of rain in October. Other areas had far more.
If you drive around the districts, many crops still look fine, but what you can’t see is the amount of water the crops are standing in. With nowhere for the water to go, the paddocks are waterlogged.
In areas around Deniliquin, stories have emerged of farmers using a tinnie to transport sandbags to their homes 10km away – and all that is from the rainfall lying in paddocks. For many cropping families, this season could be a write-off. And for those who might get the header into the paddock, transporting grain on water-damaged roads with heavy trucks is going to have its own set of problems.
Spare a thought for the dairy farmers who have had to pour thousands of litres of milk onto the ground because it was too wet for the milk tankers to get to their farms. Others have had to find agistment for stock because their farms are under water. The hay and silage which is needed desperately for these animals is lying, ruined, strewn across the waterlogged land.
Sheep producers have been unable to shear their animals because it’s been too wet. Unshorn, wet sheep are at high risk of fly strike. One Womboota family had to helicopter portable yards to an island where sheep were stuck before boating in to treat them.
To top off the anguish, October is silage and hay season. Any farmer with stock needs silage and hay to get them through the drier times and, with inches of water sitting on hay paddocks, the financial cost of sourcing hay could be crippling if they can’t make their own.
Many farmers have levee banks holding back the water from their land and, just like Echuca Moama as it waited, so too do the farmers wait to see if their levee holds or whether their livelihoods are swallowed.
Everybody’s stories from the floods are different. Some are more dire than others and for the lucky few, it hasn’t really affected them except for minor inconveniences like road closures and supermarket shelves looking a little bare. For me and my husband, the rain has been a disaster – dragging shearing from a week’s work into a two-month ordeal which involved getting sheep in and out of sheds as shearing contractors reassured us they could come, only to pull the pin the night before, to monitoring for fly strike and generally causing a huge amount of stress to the animals and us.
We also live against Perricoota Forest and, along with a lot of other people, we’ve waited nervously to find out if our levee will hold. While hoping for the best, but being prepared for the worst, we’ve moved stock and equipment and enacted a flood plan just in case – all during one of the wettest Octobers ever recorded when moving equipment involves towing trucks through quagmires with tractors and relocating sheep through knee-deep water.
To top it off, many roads in Murray River Council are unpaved and we are no exception, meaning getting trucks in to transport stock has been impossible. Even getting into town for groceries has its challenges.
With October now over, we can only hope November proves a little drier, although the long-range forecast does not have us out of the woods just yet.
The road to recovery will be long and, coming on top of bushfires and the pandemic, many will be thinking how many times do we have to keep getting up after being knocked down? We don’t know the answer to that, but appreciating how tight-knit the surrounding communities are gives us hope that we can make it out the other side. It is humbling that our unity under duress has not only stood up to the test, but our sense of community has never been stronger.
Days of torrential rain in October saw paddocks turn into lakes.