The flood which arrived at Wagga Wagga on Friday, 30 August 1974, has long been remembered by Wagga residents as the first major test of Wagga’s levee bank. In fact, 1974 was quite unique in that a total of five floods, all over 8.92m (28 feet 9 inches) in height, hit the town between April & October.
Wagga has had a long history of floods dating back to the very early days of the village in the 1840s. Amazingly, since 1844 there have been a total of 80 recorded river peaks 8.23m and over (26 feet 6 inches). Since 1891 official river heights were recorded from the Hampden Bridge gauge.
The decision to build the levee bank on the Murrumbidgee River was taken by the Wagga Wagga City Council after the large floods which inundated Wagga in 1950 and 1956. The former led to 1300 buildings being flooded as floodwaters up to 2.48m deep (eight feet) submerged parts of the city, and a total of 1800 people were evacuated.
Work on the levee bank commenced in 1960 and was completed in early 1962, however its construction was not without controversy. North Wagga and the eastern industrial suburbs of the town were not protected by the levee bank, which resulted in many residents signing a petition to protest their exclusion. Temporary levees had been in place around North Wagga since 1936, but it was not until 1990 that an upgraded levee was erected around the suburb.
The new levee bank was built to withstand a flood of 11.16m (36 feet), but as The Daily Advertiser of 30 August 1974 reported, “You never know how good something is until it’s been tested…and they have never been tested by a river height of this magnitude.” Mr Colin Knott, City Engineer, confidently informed reporters that there was no doubt that the levee banks would hold the river.
The Wagga Flood Warning Association kept the public informed through regular radio broadcasts and updates. It was expected that the river peak would take between 30 and 36 hours to travel from Gundagai to Wagga Wagga and by Thursday evening the river was reportedly rising 2 feet every hour. The Wagga Rescue Club, the Wagga State Emergency Service and the Civil Defence Unit all moved into action by ferrying people to and from North Wagga and by operating a mobile food unit which provided snacks and hot drinks for more than 100 workers in the flooded areas.
The Murrumbidgee River finally peaked at a height of 10.74m (34 feet 8 inches) at 9pm on Friday, 30 August 1974, making it the biggest flood to hit Wagga Wagga during the 20th Century. Despite this the 1974 river height ranks only third on the list of heights recorded since 1844. The floods of October 1844 (10.97m) and July 1853 (10.90m) were reported to have reached a higher point, however it needs to be remembered that all recorded river heights prior to 1891 were estimates only.
As predicted the levee banks did hold, however there were several anxious moments including the discovery of a weak point in the levee at the site of the gasworks near Marshall’s Creek. Other weak points, seepages and areas of concerned were manned throughout the night and thousands of sand bags were flown in to Wagga on a RAAF Hercules plane from the Richmond Airbase and filled to reinforce the levee bank.
Approximately 200 homes were evacuated at North Wagga and The Daily Advertiser reported that most of the houses there had between 1.55m – 2.48m (five to eight feet) of water pouring through them.
As a direct result of the August 1974 flood the levee bank was upgraded in the late 1970s and again in 1983 to rectify some of the issues that had become apparent in 1974.
This major emergency brought the people of Wagga together. Mr Dick Gorman, the Secretary of the Wagga Flood Warning Association, was recorded as saying, “There has been a tremendous display of community service throughout the whole Wagga area. Many farmers stayed up on Thursday night and kept readings coming into the flood warning office.” Mr Gorman also praised the townspeople, the emergency services and the RAAF and Army personnel who assisted throughout the flood. The Editorial from The Daily Advertiser on 31 August 1974 congratulated all those who answered the call for help. “It was a display of community spirit of which Wagga can be proud.”
The Daily Advertiser 29/08/1974, 30/08/1974 & 31/08/1974; ‘Wagga Wagga – A History’ by Sherry Morris, p.237-238, 1999; ‘Remember the 1950s, 60s & 70s in Wagga Wagga’ by Patrick Byrnes, p. 308-309, 1998; ‘Murrumbidgee Rive & Floods’, Wagga Wagga City Council – Murrumbidgee River and Floods