Beef farmer Geoff Johnston’s river flats property has been inundated by Mitchell River floods ever since he can remember. But he’s still determined to work with nature, not against it.
Geoff’s property has been in the family since 1917 and is characteristic of the lush farms that abound the Mitchell River’s banks. The house sits on a grassy hill that stretches down on to the river flats, meeting the stony banks at the water’s edge. But a property with such a view pays a price. Bordered by the Mitchell River on three sides, Geoff has felt the impact of floods for years, especially in 2007 when giant stumps and logs were swept downstream, gouging large channels and holes in his river front paddocks.
The sound and sight of a charging river would be enough to scare most people half to death. But not Geoff. It seems the floods have become a regular part of his life and farming existence.
“It’s not scary but you have to have your wits about you. We pull the pumps out and move all the stock to a place where we can get to them easily because the water backs in from both ends at this property and you can get cut off very quickly,” he says.
“It’s taken me months to clean up after the last floods, and I’m still going…but I love the place. When you look out over the hill…it’s just beautiful. If the river wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be here. It’s the lifeblood.”
Geoff remembers the river as a boy: crystal clear with a sandy bottom full of fish.
A lot has changed since then and Geoff is struggling to maintain the weeds and the willows in an effort to keep his patch of the river healthy.
“During my great grandmother’s time, the men would go down to the river in the winter time and break off small branches from the willows and stick them in the mud. The willows used to grow from these sticks and then the men used them as food for their stock in the summer time when things got too dry. They also did it to save the river bank from eroding away.”
Today, Geoff agrees that it is vital to keep the river clean from willow branches because they block up the river and force the water to roar through, eroding the banks or creating stagnant ponds when the water gets blocked off altogether.
“It has made a lot of difference taking the willows out. The river is a lot cleaner pollution-wise and turbidity-wise. While the willows were here, we used to get a lot of ponds and not even the cattle would drink [the water].”
Weeds are another major problem for Geoff, a problem made worse by the floods which bring more weeds downstream.
“We need more people on the ground to control the weeds; otherwise, we’re going to lose control.
Essentially, Geoff would like to see more people do their bit too to ensure the river remains healthy.
“I think there should be more of a community effort into looking after the river’s health. It’s a whole of catchment effort. People don’t necessarily understand how important the Mitchell is, they forget about the [drinking] water and think they don’t get anything from it.”