The ups and downs of a global pandemic and the importance of waterways
The Wimmera River is considered the lifeblood of the Wimmera Southern Mallee community, and this connection has only been further reinforced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Surveys have repeatedly shown that the Wimmera River is the most popular visited waterway for recreation across the Wimmera Southern Mallee region.
Environmental flows provide critical life support for the Wimmera River, particularly during dry years when it is often the only water in the river. Without the environmental flows delivered in late spring 2020 through to winter 2021, the Wimmera River water levels and flow rates would have diminished significantly due to the dry conditions.
While the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the busy calendar of events centred around the Wimmera River in 2020, it also saw the community adapt to deliver these events in different ways and reinforced the value of the river as a natural space to visit, relax and recreate. The Wimmera CMA provided ongoing support to community events centred around the river throughout the year, including through provision of environmental flows to ensure the river stayed as healthy as possible and those events able to proceed were not affect by low water levels.
The Horsham Fishing Competition 2020 held on the March Labour Day Weekend took place successfully just before conditions came into force prohibiting public events to contain the spread of COVID-19. The Jeparit Easter Fishing Competition 2020 was unfortunately forced to cancel their event and instead conducted the world’s first and perhaps only virtual fishing competition where participants (who were required to isolate) submitted short video clips of them ‘fishing’ in their homes or backyards.
The Peter Taylor Memorial Barefoot Water Ski Tournament, scheduled for Dimboola Weir Pool in late March and forecast to attract 1,800 spectators and generate $280,000 for Dimboola, was also cancelled. It was intended that it would serve as the lead in event to the IWWF World Barefoot Waterski Championships in Sydney in April. The Dimboola Fishing Classic, Rowing Regatta and Horsham Triathlon were also sadly cancelled and the modified Kannamaroo Festival was not able to incorporate river-based activities.
Whilst the community events calendar was heavily impacted, Wimmera waterways provided other benefits during the COVID-19 lockdown. With people confined to their houses except for essential reasons and for exercise, the Wimmera River became an even stronger hub of activity with people taking advantage of the great access via the tracks along the Wimmera River at Horsham, Dimboola and Jeparit. In Horsham, during November 2020 new tracks and water regulators at Langlands Anabranch were officially opened which enabled people to access the southern bank of the Wimmera River between Horsham Weir and ANZAC Bridge and created additional wetland habitat.
With the decreasing prevalence of COVID-19 within the community in early 2021, river-based events started to return to the Wimmera calendar. The 2021 Horsham Fishing Competition took place on the 7th of March with a cap on numbers of 1,000 entrants and new protocols around event logistics. The Jeparit Easter Fishing Competition also took place in April. After a hiatus of 10 months, the Wimmera River Park run in Horsham restarted in January, with typically 90-120 participants of all ages and abilities enjoying exercise along the Wimmera River on Saturday mornings.
The benefits for the community along the Wimmera River system since the return of regular flows in 2010 have been enormous through increased recreation opportunities and tourism as well as the sense of wellbeing that comes through natural spaces: seeing water in a waterway and the life it brings. While the pandemic impacted many events, the river remained an important focal point for the community through a tough year, with environmental flows being able to support community wellbeing by providing a critical foundation for enjoyment: water in the environment.