The Wangaratta area was originally inhabited by the Pangerang People whose hunter-gatherer lifestyle was eminently suited to the broad expanses of the King and Ovens River floodplains.
Much like its neighbours of Oxley, Devenish, Benalla and Milawa, Wangaratta was first identified by Hamilton Hume and William Hovell in the mid-1820s and later put on the map by Major Thomas Mitchell. Originally known only as the Ovens Crossing Place (thanks to the first settler in the area – Thomas Rattray – who established a punt service on the southern side of the Ovens River for passing traffic), Wangaratta grew quickly. Though a handful of pastoralists had been tapping the plentiful water supply for several years, the discovery of gold in the Ovens Valley in 1852 created a influx of miners that the farmers were all too happy to feed.
Within a short ten years, the town had everything from insurance companies to a racecourse. Banks and breweries sat alongside churches for no less than five separate faiths. Much like its neighbouring town of Oxley, water carting became a booming business.
Wangaratta is one of the few towns in north east Victoria that has always experienced a consistently increasing population. And with that came increasingly creative ways to get water to the town.
North East Water
In December 1994, the water and wastewater functions of the City of Wangaratta were incorporated into the fledgling Ovens Region Water Authority, the precursory authority prior to North East Water.
Though the Ovens Region Water Authority absorbed significant infrastructure already in place in Wangaratta, the city’s unique requirements (a growing population, an inconsistent and occasionally unavailable water source, and a variety of industries) meant that considerable work was to get underway.
With the water system at Wangaratta able to provide 100% compliance with WHO standards for bacteriological quality, immediate attention was turned to the wastewater systems. Wangaratta has two – one for domestic waste, and another for trade waste. In 1996, work began on upgrading the former, with a growing concern that the lagoons (a pond with artificial aeration to promote the biological oxidation) were experiencing considerable deterioration of the embankments due to the high volume of sludge being discharged into it. Unfortunately, the lagoons lacked the aeration process, and the Ovens Region Water Authority set about making those improvements. They also purchased 36ha of land for reuse water, replaced a rising main to the treatment plant, installed a new sewer connection to Dominance Industries, and in 1999, built a 300ML treated wastewater storage.
By the time North East Water had assumed control, a new tertiary treatment facility was created to provide a high quality effluent that is both low in phosphorus and other nutrients, prior to discharge to the local waterways. The project removed substantial amounts of nutrients entering receiving waters thus providing significant environmental benefits to the local waterways.
I’ll trade you
In 1996, the trade waste plant was managed by Cleanaway, and although they implemented considerable improvements to the plant’s operations, the total dissolved solids typically found in textile wastes continued to exceed the EPA discharge license limits.
This continued for several years, and by 2009, a business case had been proposed for upgrades to the plant to meet improved environmental outcomes. In 2015, North East Water eventually assumed management of the plant. As of 2018, significant desludging (cleaning) of the lagoons are continuing, as are regular upgrades.
Securing safe drinking water for Wangaratta has always been a priority. This was highlighted in January 2003, when the first of two significant bushfires (the second in 2006) tore through the north east, causing unprecedented turbidity levels in the Ovens River at Wangaratta. Less than a month later, our contingency plans were tested when a severe storm devastated the Buckland catchment, causing major landslips, flooding in the river and depositing a massive load of ash and sediment into the water – transforming the normally pristine river into liquid mud, something the region had never experienced before. A large ‘slug’ of very dirty water that had entered the Ovens River from the Buckland River was making its way downstream to Wangaratta. Sampling of the water showed astronomical turbidity levels in the Buckland River.
North East Water enacted the first stage of the Municipal Emergency Response Plan. Stage 4 water restrictions were applied, and the water treatment plant, overloaded, faced a short-term inability to produce WHO standard water, forcing us to rely solely on storages of treated water within Wangaratta. Following a marathon effort by treatment experts, the plant finally produced WHO standard water but still required residents to keep consumption to a minimum. The episode lasted seven days.
Immediately afterwards, North East Water began work on a master planning program for Wangaratta’s water security. Alongside this 20-year plan, emergency bores were created on Kerr and Faithful Streets. The water treatment plant was upgraded in 2005, which served the community well when the second bushfire occurred in 2006.
By the end of the year, and well into 2007, the region experienced prolonged drought. Touted (at the time) as the worst in history, it included the lowest inflows to the Murray system ever recorded, a record October 2006 consumption, and in another first, blanket water restrictions across the entire region. Most towns reached stage 4 restrictions, and as water reserves depleted, Wangaratta became major a focus. Levels in the Ovens River and Lake Buffalo dropped to alarming lows, prompting Goulburn-Murray Water to begin pumping from the lake to maintain supply to Wangaratta. We further enacted an emergency contingency plan that involved the installation of two additional bores, and works began on a 20ML clear water storage.