What lessons can we learn from the Murray-Darling River floods of 1956?

River flows are complex, but despite our best attempts to control them, history shows that floods are inevitable.

With the current flood threatening the border towns of Echuca, Moama and Kerang, there are concerns about the impact on the Murray River system further downstream.

A look back at previous floods along rivers could provide important insights into lessons learned from previous disasters, such as the 1956 floods that lasted three months and devastated entire communities living along tributaries.

The 1956 floods left citrus properties in Pomona like islands in an inland sea of ​​floodwater for months.(Provided: Patricia Whyte)

Logs provide insight into past floods

Retired citrus farmer Alan Whyte has drawn many comparisons to previous floods that affected communities in Murray and Darling River.

He is the third generation of the Whyte family to farm in the Pomona region of New South Wales, and his family has kept many records of Darling River movements dating back to the 1890s.

Farm surrounded by flood water
The Whyte family farm in Pomona NSW had flood waters at the gates during the 1956 floods.(Photo: Patricia Whyte)

It was his grandfather’s daily accounts of the rising floods of 1956 that provide valuable insight into how the community prepared for and coped with this devastating event.

Verco Whyte’s journal entries describe how the township rallied to build levees and sandbag walls that saved the town’s essential power supply and Wentworth District Hospital from flooding.

Photo of a page from a diary
Verco Whyte’s diary provides a daily account of life during the 1956 floods.(Provided: Alan Whyte)

Meanwhile, farmers were stuck for months and used boats to harvest and transport citrus fruits to town and to buy supplies.

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

Although the 1956 floods were not the largest to hit the Murray River or the Darling River, their severity resulted from the simultaneous flooding of both rivers.

Men transporting citrus fruits by boat through flood waters
Oranges were brought to market by boat during the floods.(Photo: Patricia Whyte)

The town of Wentworth sits at the junction of the Murray and Darling rivers in the far south west of New South Wales. Although the city was amply warned of the expected high flows on both sides of the river, residents were unprepared for the degree of flooding, duration or extent of the cleanup.

When the first rains fell, farmers from the nearby towns of Mildura, Red Cliffs and Wentworth gathered to build dykes using their small gray Massey Ferguson tractors to protect the hospital, power stations and main city ​​infrastructure.

“There’s a lot people could learn from what happened in the past,” says Whyte.

Man in a hat near the Murray River in front of a pedal boat
Alan Whyte, a retired citrus grower from Darling River, has studied water issues in the Murray Darling Basin for decades.(ABC Mildura Swan Hill: Jennifer Douglas)

Mr Whyte fears towns in the region are unprepared for a large-scale flood.

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

He says with water catchments at full capacity, high soil moisture and a fourth year of La Niña, the community needs to be alert to the possibility of another major flood.

“We haven’t had a decent flood since the mid-1970s, and it’s about time we had one,” he says.

Fergie tractors save the city
Fergie gray tractors have proven their versatility in flooding.(Provided: Patricia Whyte)

New housing built on flood plains

Mr Whyte said one of the biggest concerns was the housing estates that were built on floodplains, which were essential for dispersing excess rainwater.

Murray Darling Basin Map
Several watersheds, rivers and tributaries feed into the Murray-Darling Basin.(Supplied: MDBA)

“If floodwaters cannot spread as before over the floodplains which are now developed, the towns along the river around Mildura and Wentworth are going to see much higher flood levels,” he says.

Mr Whyte says flooding is inevitable as it is a natural river process, but the height of the river can be influenced by the built environment.

“It’s hard to predict how far the flood level will reach, but it’s not a question of whether it will flood again, but when,” he says.

Men in boats with oranges
Citrus growers used boats to harvest and transport oranges through floodwaters to the city.(Photo: Patricia Whyte)

Preparing for today’s floods

Helen Dalton is the MP 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.

A woman in a blue shirt holding a hat standing in front of sheep.
Ms Dalton says there is no doubt that rising waters are putting pressure on the river system.(Provided: Helen Dalton)

“With all the water flowing over the Murray and then you add water from the Darling, it’s going to put a lot of pressure on Wentworth,” Ms Dalton said.

Ms Dalton echoed Mr Whyte’s concerns about the impact of housing estates and infrastructure on low-lying areas along riverbanks, and how this can influence the movement of flood waters.

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

“We’ve seen it in other places where there are housing estates, people forgetting that at the time they were low and prone to flooding. I think people have short memories and that is a real concern.”

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

“We also have a La Niña forecast, this will add another complexity to what is already happening,” she says.

“All the tributaries and streams are full and flowing into the Murray and the Darling in addition to the outside rivers as well. These big flows in the Murray and the Darling are going to create quite a problem.”

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