Droughts and Floods along the Darling River
Boom and bust
Apart from the traditional owners, it was the riverboat captains who first discovered the vagaries of the Darling River’s floods and droughts. In fact, riverboat trade on the Darling was a ‘boom and bust’ affair, more so than on the Murray River.
Within a year of the commencement of riverboat trading, the river was too low for steamers, yet within a few years, the river was in flood and paddle steamers could go almost anywhere. There are records of riverboats leaving the main river channel to deliver stores to flood-bound stations, some many kilometres from the river.
The Jane Eliza holds the record for the longest time a river boat was stranded in the Darling River, a period of three years.
Many older citizens can still recall huge floods when the Darling’s river channel was only recognizable by the tops of the fringing River red gums.
Living with the river
Early settlers and pastoralists had no choice but to learn to live with the droughts, floods and natural rhythms of the river. Graziers benefited from the sporadic floods that inundated thousands of square kilometres of floodplains. They also learnt to survive the drier periods and droughts. They used the floods and high rivers to send their wool to market and have stores delivered.
While these cyclical events caused great inconvenience, what early settlers and riverboat captains did not understand at the time was that these floods and droughts were vital for the ecological processes along the waterways. It is only in recent years that we have started to understand the importance of floods and droughts on river and floodplain health.
Historically, most floods in the lower Darling River system occurred in winter and spring after winter rainfall in central and north eastern NSW. Floods also occurred in autumn after summer monsoon rainfall in the Darling’s tributaries that drain southern Queensland.
The largest flood recorded along the Darling River was in 1890. The first half of the 20th century was very dry with few small floods – in 1917, 1921, 1931 and 1941. The second half of the 20th century was much wetter, with big floods in the 1950s, 1970s, 1983 and 1990.
The largest flood in the 20th century was in 1956 when both the Darling and Murray rivers were in flood. This caused towns from Brewarrina to Wentworth to be isolated for months. Wentworth itself was nearly inundated.
In two out of three years, there were small floods in the upper reaches of the Darling that flowed into the Menindee Lakes, northern anabranch lakes and Darling River billabongs. One in 10 years, there were moderate floods that spilled onto the floodplain and filled the southern most lakes and wetlands for months to years.
Floods in the lower Darling River tended to occur in clusters with a second or even third flood much more likely to occur in the years following a major flood.
The cycles of floods and droughts are influenced by the semi-arid climate and sporadic rainfall across most of the catchment. The historic flood pattern is highly variable, especially in comparison to the upper reaches of the Murray River.
Explorers and squatters were well aware of the incidence of droughts along the Darling. Unfortunately, some also held an unfailing belief that improving the land could somehow improve pastoral opportunities. When serious drought gripped the catchment in the 1890s, there was widespread apprehension that European grazing practices may have caused the droughts. We now know that while grazing did not cause the droughts, neither did droughts cause land degradation.
During most summers, the Darling River would typically dry back to a series of deep waterholes. Similarly, the lakes at Menindee and on the Great Darling Anabranch would dry up for many years between floods. From 1890 to 1961, water flowed the complete length of the Great Darling Anabranch to the Murray River only nine times.
The Darling River at Menindee ceased to flow 48 times between 1885 and 1960, and the river did not flow for 364 days in the 1902–3 drought.
Today, floods and drought are seen as a normal part of the landscape. Landholders manage their land accordingly and communities learn to adapt.
A DVD of the 1956 floods can be purchased by contacting the Murray Darling Environmental Foundation, Murray Darling Association, Albury by phoning (02) 60213655 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or our Adelaide office on (08) 82264407 or email Ray Najar email@example.com.
Recollections of Life on the Darling River from Len Hippisley
My grandfather, John Hippisley, had a store on the Darling River 100 metres upstream from the Burtundy Homestead in 1872, until he bought the first section of Tulney Point freehold in 1878.
He later bought three more sections plus leasehold land which he held until his death in 1925. He owned Burtundy Hotel on two occasions, as well as the Maid and Magpie Hotel.
His first house, at Tulney Point, was upstream from Burtundy. This was flooded out in 1890. He built it again on high ground three kilometres upstream.
My father, Joseph Albert Hippisley, took up land at South Merbein and started clearing it in February 1912. He planted two acres or grape vines and four acres of citrus trees. My mother’s maiden name was Florence Amelia Weaver.
My sister Ivy and I grew up here and went to South Merbein State School. Ivy married Allan Broardstock.
I married Joyce Blaby in 1953. We had two children, Robyn and Philip. Philip died at the age of 12 years from a severe asthma attack. Robyn married John McGregor from Reedy Point in 1979.
We sold Tulney Point to Laurie and Kaye Strachan then moved to Irymple on 3 January 1963.
In the early 1940’s, the Darling River stopped running many times. The longest was around 114 days. One year it stopped for almost five months – 419 days. For a good part there was not enough depth of flow to run the irrigation pumps so water for the young orange trees was carted by horse and dray.
In October 1940, the Darling River was again dry. An earth wall, 450mm high, was constructed on the exposed rock bed at Burtundy Rocks to allow water to pool up for the survival of Tulney Point, a river block producing irrigated citrus fruit owned by the Hippisley family. Tulney Point is on the western side of the Darling River, on the east side is another river block, Burtundy, which also served as the local post office.
The first efforts to control water here worked well enough. However, as it was only an earth wall, as soon as the river ran again, the wall was washed away.
On 24 January, 1941, Len Hippisley started officially reading The Burtundy Gauge
On 8 January 1942, the Darling River ceases to flow. The construction of a weir (0.458 metres) is started. This time the wall is to be constructed using cement, local river stones and sand, aggregate taken from the rock bar, hand-mixed with 12 bags of cement supplied by the River Murray Commission. This mix was held in place with chicken wire and joined to the rock bar. Labor was supplied by the locals as always in these circumstances, a fine bunch of river pioneer people.
A gauge pole was erected and levelled into an existing river height survey mark (bench mark). A second pole was erected opposite the house at Tulney Point. The river levels transferred from the weir gauge so that the readings could be accomplished with a pair of binoculars from the house mainly at high river times. Binoculars were provided by courtesy of the River Murray Commission. So came into being the first permanent weir at Burtundy.
With a good flow of water under her and travelling down river towing a barge loaded with sawn logs for Anderson’s Sawmills, The Rothbury, negotiating the bend at Tulney Point at speed, became slightly out of control allowing the barge to strike the rocks. It sprung a plank then sank opposite the house. A rescue and repair was carried out over the next few days, then away again. Nothing was too hard for the river pioneer people to lend a hand to.
At these low flow times in the Darling River, the water was clear, and the Murray cod would bite on spinners. Fish could be seen swimming from waterhole to waterhole. Catfish could be observed swimming around, guarding their nests. Yabbies were clearly visible on the edges off the river. Professional fishermen worked the river and I have been told by a few that they had seen the cod take young ducklings.
Our first recorded flood experience at Tulney Point. At around 18ft of flow (5.48 metres), billabongs and backwaters start to fill and this off-take slows the rising river. Following this, the gauge starts to rise once more. When the recorded height reaches around 24ft (7.316 metres), the river breaks its banks upriver and the water flows out round the back of Tulney Point.
This flood flow peaked at Tulney at 28ft with 29,900 mega litres per day travelling down. At this stage, the Great Darling Anabranch, a parallel river course, is flowing at roughly a similar amount.
Raging floods, piccaninny floods, mini-peaks, steady flows, low rivers, no flows, and water holes are the makeup of our Darling River system. Charting clearly shows that during the 1940’s and early-1950’s, when comparatively very little water for irrigation was removed from the river, irrigation itself could not be blamed as the cause of dry rivers. If there is no rain falling in the catchment, or the water gets harvested, then the river fails.
The Microscopic water flea disappears for evermore. Government blokes say it never existed. They have no scientific evidence. I believe that they were the food for newly-hatched fish and crustaceans. It seems to me that from about this time on, fish numbers started to taper off. European carp didn’t come into or up the river for some years yet.
Big rains, high rivers and a crop of onions was ready for market. In those days, they were picked by hand and bagged. The cartage contractor, because of local flooding, was unable to reach Tulney Point via the normal access road on the west of the river. So after picking, the onions were loaded onto a horse drawn trailer, and carted to the flooded river. They were unloaded onto a small punt and rowed across the river, then loaded again onto a trailer and carted to the truck nearby, on the east side. They were then loaded onto the semi for a long trip to the Melbourne markets, mostly over dirt roads. That harvest produced 92 tonnes of onions.
The river is nearly empty once again, Burtundy Weir is raised two feet (0.610m), and the total weir height was now 3’6” (1.610m). Half-way across the river was completed on the 26 January and the other on 28 January.
The Parliamentary Act of 1949 allowed for the construction of the Menindee Lakes for storage of water for irrigation in dry times. Construction was now started and continued until completion in 1960. The river system was about to change forever, for better and/or for worse. It would seem to be for the betterment of the big irrigators, to the detriment of the environmental river flows. This supports everyone and everything. Figures show 47 percent evaporation from the lakes shallow depth storage area.
January 1960 saw the Menindee Lakes Storage Scheme officially completed and declared open.
Around 23 May 1962, the regulator at the Cawndilla outflow was dislodged or washed out and all the water from the lakes headed south at an estimated 92,000 mega litres per day.
Around this time, I began to notice that fish seemed to have stopped breeding. European carp were still around 11 years after coming up the Darling. Maybe the disappearance of the water flea was the problem, or was it the management of water flows in the river?
During the dry river times, the water remained clean with no sign of the blue-green algae (which had proved to be such a problem later in the 1990s). This would seem to suggest that there was an introduced problem, eg. Larger amounts of nutrients and fertilizers present in the water. How did they get there? Possibly leached out of the cotton and other bad farming practices. Huge tracts of land had been cleared up the river for planting cotton and rice. I think that their collective effect had this devastating effect on our waterway, our river of life.
There was a problem around this time with a green slime blocking irrigation foot pump valves. These large selective farming projects, in which politicians had invested many dollars, seemed to disregard common-sense farming practices that had been around and proven for many years. It was preferential farming politically.
The Darling River was now under fractured control by many different government and non-government agencies. What a mess!
(Information supplied by Rachel Strachan, Tulney Point)