Mount Beauty is situated at the bottom of Victoria’s highest mountain, Mt Bogong. Traditionally the area was visited by the Dhudhuroa and Yaitmathang peoples who hunted along the Kiewa River (from the Indigenous word meaning ‘sweet water’). Mt Bogong (which is also an Indigenous name meaning ‘Big Moth’) played a significant role for Aboriginal poples, who would come to Mt Bogong each year to conduct ceremonies, perform rituals and to settle disputes. The communities would gather Bogong moths from the foot of the mountain and feast on them.
It is believed that Hume and Hovell visited the Kiewa Valley in November of 1824. The rich fertile land brought European settlers to the area in 1835.
Some of the earliest known settlers were the Richardson, Maddison and Holland families. It is said that Charles Richardson named the town Mount Beauty when admiring the view from the top of a steep spur on his run.
A drought that occurred between 1838 and 1844 saw pastoralists come to the Kiewa Valley with its fertile land and engage in cattle grazing, dairying, tobacco growing and timber harvesting and milling.
Mount Beauty is famous for being a town that was developed by the State Electricity Commission to house the workers during the construction of the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric scheme. Between 1949 to 1974, more than 100,000 people from over 30 countries worked on the scheme. At its peak there were 4,000 workers in the town.
As construction of the Snowy Mountains Scheme slowed down, the houses were sold to permanent workers, and in 1960, Bright Council (now Alpine Shire Council) took control of the township.
When North East Water inherited Kiewa Murray Water in 1994, and with it Mt Beauty’s water and wastewater services, a plan was put in place to replace the 1950s trickling filter treatment plant used to treat wastewater.
Like most things when it comes to treatment of wastewater, it didn’t come cheap; the Mt Beauty Treatment Plant upgrade cost $2,455,000. The state of the art tertiary treatment facility used a combination of screening, biological processes, chemical polishing and UV disinfection to remove nutrients from the sewage water. At the heart of the new plant is a sequenced Biological Nutrient Removal process, which may not mean much to most people, but enabled North East Water to treat up to 4.5ML per day to a standard suitable for on-land reuse (such as farming) or discharge to the Kiewa River (with no environmental impact).
Fire and rain
To best understand the complexities of North East Water’s activities, and the resilience of our communities, look to the township of Mt Beauty.
The bushfires of January 2003 threatened a number of towns in our region – Mt Beauty, Tawonga, Dartmouth, Bright, Harrietville, Beechworth and Yackandandah – and caused a huge jump in water consumption as residents fought to protect their homes. Many of these towns were already on restrictions as a result of a severe drought and systems were further strained as firefighters tapped into town supplies.
When fires were eventually brought under control they had burnt a huge swathe of bushland including several of the catchments our towns rely on for their drinking water.
The entire Kiewa and Diamantina catchments (which supply Mt Beauty, Tawonga and Tawonga South) were burnt out along with about 85% of the Buckland River catchment (Porepunkah) and about 70% of the Ovens River and Bakers Gully catchments (Bright and Wandiligong) also gone.
With so much ash now lying on the ground in these and other burnt catchments, we expected that rainfall would bring much of it into the rivers and streams and severely affect water quality. Twelve of our towns rely on these waterways as the source of their reticulated supply, so we saw planning for a rain event as a high priority.
As a result we conducted a meeting with relevant agencies including DSE, the CFA, Parks Victoria, DHS and bushfire experts to formulate detailed contingency plans for each of the towns we expected would be affected.
And merely a few weeks later, a storm hit.
The storm devastated the Buckland catchment, causing major landslips, flooding in the river and the depositing of a massive load of ash and sediment into the water, transforming the normally pristine river into liquid mud, something no one in the region had ever experienced before.
In these situations, things move fast. North East Water immediately placed Porepunkah (which draws its water from the Buckland River) on stage 4 restrictions, shut down the offtake and switched the town supply to the 4.5 megalitre clean storage.
We placed Bright, Wandiligong, Mt Beauty, Tawonga and Tawonga South on emergency restrictions after substantial rain following the storm caused the Ovens and West Kiewa rivers to run dirty. We supplied towns with the stored clean water for several days until the rivers cleared.
Meanwhile staff were tracking a large ‘slug’ of very dirty water that had entered the Ovens River from the Buckland catchment and was making its way downstream to Wangaratta.
Though the clean-up and rebuild of infrastructure would continue for years, North East Water restored all services within weeks. And Mt Beauty showed both its resilience and grit in riding out the storm.