700 metres of rubbish: farmers grapple with choked rivers amid Australia’s third La Niña

Graziers and farmers along the Macquarie River say flooding used to be beneficial but has become ‘far worse and goes for far longer’ than it should

When the first floods swept through Kate Mildner’s drought-stricken farm in February 2020, she described it as “beautiful”. But then the rain just didn’t stop.

With 80% of her 4,400-hectare property now underwater and a disaster declared in the Warren Shire, it’s a genuine case of “one extreme to the other”, she says.

Mildner and her husband, Rod, are graziers on the Macquarie River floodplain, 40km north-west of Warren in the Orana region of New South Wales. Being downstream of Lake Burrendong, one of the state’s largest inland dams which almost ran dry during the drought of 2019, they anticipate flooding, although Mildner says they are now experiencing longer, deeper deluges that “naturally wouldn’t have happened”.

“Our budget has gone out the absolute window because a lot of our country has had significant flooding for almost two years,” Mildner says. “So it takes a heck of a long time to recover from that.”

Slider comparing extreme weather conditions at Lake Burrendong from approximately the same position. One picture is of a low creekbed; the other the same lake filled with water

She says they have 1,500 head of cattle on the property, one-third of which have been sold but are stuck on their property “because the water is so high”.

“We can’t do anything at the moment until one of the watercourses that goes through our place drops enough so we can get stock across it,” she says. “The cattle are fine – they’re not gonna die or anything – but it’s just we can’t get any income because we can’t do anything.”

Mildner says they have been managing, but are concerned a bigger flood is on its way. The couple estimates that 95% of their property will be inundated in this week’s flood.

“When it goes on for so long it gets very draining on the mental health.”

‘Striking the balance’

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) issued a warning on Wednesday predicting “minor to major flooding” along the Macquarie River at Warren.

The Macquarie reached 9.36 metres in Warren town, and according to the BOM is likely to remain above the major flood level (9 metres) for the next few days, with further rainfall forecast for Thursday.

Comparisons of an aerial view of Dubbo’s Burrendong Dam comparing a 4.5% capacity shot with exposed lakebed and a 134% capacity shot with a much larger amount of deep-blue water visible

Lake Burrendong has been above 100% since November. The dam’s maximum capacity is 142%; It was at 128% on Wednesday.

As the government body responsible for managing the state’s major supply dams, Water NSW has been releasing water from Burrendong Dam to mitigate the spill threat while minimising the extent of flood damage on downstream communities and landholders.

Tony Webber, a spokesperson for Water NSW, says the “exceptionally wet La Niña weather conditions” have impacted all major Water NSW supply dams across regional areas and the Sydney metropolitan basin.

“The challenge posed by increasing climate variability and extremes is striking the balance between maximising dam water supply for the next drought, while responsibly managing storage airspace in dams during periods of wet weather to ameliorate the impacts of flood to the extent possible,” he says.

‘A massive disconnect’

Mildner’s brother, Tom Walker, says his family has been farming along the Macquarie River for more than 100 years. He was a member of the Macquarie floodplain committee for over a decade.

“Flooding used to be beneficial but the way things are now, it certainly isn’t. Although it’s a floodplain, our flooding is far worse and goes for far longer now than it really historically should.”

All the sheep on Walker’s 10,000-acre farm are trapped and half of the property remains underwater. His lucerne and wheat crops were all wiped out.

“I haven’t even bothered to try and rebuild some of the fencing because with each flood event, they get knocked over again.”

Walker says there is “a massive disconnect” between city and country people, “because the only time we really feature in the news is when it’s extreme: [when] it’s a flood event or a drought event”.

The 366 water gauge by Lake Burrendong

“It creates a very unclear picture of what is happening because people just don’t understand what happens in the interim, it’s not there one week and gone the next.”

When there is a prolonged flooding event, he said the ground becomes anaerobic and sets like concrete; “it kills all the feed that’s there and turns it into to a swamp”.

‘Uteloads of rubbish’

Mildner, who is also the chair of an environment educational organisation called RiverSmart Australia, says a “massive raft” of rubbish, debris and timber has formed in the Macquarie River on her brother’s property.

“It’s huge, like 700 metres long,” Mildner says. “So that’s all stuck now in the river and it can create a choke[point] and huge erosion on the riverbank”.

“There’s so much publicity about plastic in the oceans [but] so little publicity about plastics and rubbish in our freshwater systems, and in a flood you see this.

“Plastics are getting all through our system.”

Mildner said her husband has spent weeks picking up “uteloads of rubbish” after the last major flood because it often gets washed out on to flood country.

According to Walker, during a flood all sorts of garbage, from fridges to deep freezers – even old chemical drums left in “erosion gutters” – are washed down the river.

“It’s staggering”, he says, adding that in places, “you could just walk across the top of the river”.

‘Not been managed at all well’

Aerial view of a ‘rubbish raft’ clogging the Macquarie River.

After “hundreds of thousands of dollars and over 10 years of commitment”, Walker says many of the problems highlighted by the floodplain committee were “shelved and nothing has been done about it”.

“The whole water management and riparian land has not been managed at all well for years. It’s very sad really.”

According to Mildner, there are environmental and agricultural impacts during “very long periods of water release” which affect the Mildner’s country.

“There is a very uneven distribution of that water and there are consequences,” she says. “They choose to affect some more than others and we can’t do anything about that”.

However, Webber says it is “a common misconception” that all river water downstream of dams must have originated from there, “overlooking the role of uncontrolled downstream tributary flow in flood impacts”.

He says storage sites such as Burrendong Dam play a critical role in capturing potential floodwaters and in numerous cases have been “the difference between the moderate flooding experienced downstream, and the potential for larger incidents far more devastating to life and property”.