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How two men helped keep the flood-prone town of Goondiwindi dry for 65 years

Saturday April 17, 2021 - 23:12 EST

Residents of Goondiwindi didn't run for higher ground when floodwaters reached major levels in the Macintyre River this month.

"Everyone headed down to the river!" laughed Rick Kearney, chairman of the local disaster management group.

Ask an Australian over the age of 50 what this Queensland border town is known for and they'll more than likely name a champion racehorse of the 1970s. Ask a local and they'll probably point to an extensive bit of civil engineering.

"As we like to say, Gunsynd put Goondiwindi on the map," said Mr Kearney. "And our levee has kept it there."

Goondiwindi sits on the banks of the Macintyre River in the fertile floodplains at the headwaters of the Murray Darling Basin.  

For decades the river would break its banks, inundating the town, but after three successive floods in 1956, council engineer Vern Redmond and his foreman Bill McNulty set out on a mission to hold back the water.

"My father would be out with a torch in a small rowboat, marking the flood levels on trees with an axe," recalled Margaret Manton, Mr McNulty's daughter.

"I remember dad would work all day and then head back out. He'd come home at 2am.

"Mum was concerned with them being on the river but they were determined to do something."

The plan was to build a levee bank higher than the markings on the trees.

"After they built the levee, the water never came back to lapping up the steps of our house ever again," Mrs Manton said.

The construction was not without controversy.

"There were dwellings along the riverbank just out of town," Mrs Manton recalled.

"It was dad's job to go and tell the people who were living there the levee was going in and the dwellings had to come down. 

"There were nearly fights at the pub over it. Dad was bailed up many times at the hotel.

"There's even a story that someone threatened to blow it up!"

Sixty-five years later, the levee has become part of the town, Vern Redmond has a park named after him and Margaret Manton has regular reminders of her family's connection.

"Even last week, someone came up and said, 'Gee, we were lucky to have your father on council all those years ago'" she said.

"You've only got to see what happened down south with all the water going through homes recently, while we've stayed dry."

The levee was built in 1956 at a cost of 57,000 pounds.

"We have to continually survey the levee to ensure the height is still adequate," explained Mr Kearney.

"We do flood studies to ensure we know what the volumes of water will pass us will be.

"During a flood event, we have to ensure the integrity of the levee is maintained.

"There was a breach in 2011 to the west of the town area, but we had sufficient heavy equipment to be able to block the hole and maintain it."

That year, the river reached its highest level on record.

"In the 2011 flood, to get the extra water required to top the levee, it meant twice the capacity of water that was in the system at the time going past," Mr Kearney explained.

"So even though it was getting close, we needed a hell of a lot of more water to top the levee."

Not a 'one-size fits all' solution

A word of warning comes to other river towns before they decide a levee is the answer to their problems.

"Technical solutions alone will not solve our flooding issues," said University of New England river scientist Professor Martin Thoms.

"Flooding is a natural part of what rivers do.

"We need to be looking at other flood preparedness activities, the nature of the floodplains, the nature of the effluent banks, plus the preparedness of the communities themselves and how well they can adapt.

"Levees are only one weapon in a whole broader arsenal of tools we can be using around being better prepared for floods."

He said climate change would mean larger floods in the future.

"The likelihood of getting a 11m flood at Goondiwindi will increase. You could keep building the levee up and up, but without other measures are you lulling people into a false sense of security?" he said. 

"You can do protections within protections; raise buildings inside the levy, and then you look outside the levee. 

"The most obvious things for the Macintyre is to make sure all the effluent creeks have no restrictions in them. We need to make sure that main flow paths are also maintained to allow floodwaters to move through unrestricted."

In Goondiwindi, it means the council has looked at routes for the controversial Inland Rail very closely. 

Professor Thoms said all levels of government need to work on a broader flood management strategy right along the Murray-Darling system.

"We have to adapt when living on floodplains. A lot of the farmers already do with houses on stilts or mounds, but we need to be looking at a future where flood activity may change," he said.

Since 1956, floods in Goondiwindi have been relegated to history.

"I'm sure some towns are envious of us," said Diane Cairns, from Goondiwindi's Customs House Museum.

"While they're cleaning up, we're nice and dry.

"At the museum we point travellers to the photos of the old floods we have on the walls and then we point to the levee outside. It's now an important part of the history of this town.

"There's such a cost after a flood, so I think we're really lucky Mr Redmond and Mr McNulty had the foresight to design such a levee.

"It's one less thing for us to worry about."


© ABC 2021

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