The full lake was front page news in The Weekend Australian, 22-3 May 2010. It’s a good news story in this town of 700 residents 16 kilometres from Swan Hill.
The optimism and sense of renewal spills over to the 25 members of Lake Boga brigade. “It’s amazing how uplifting a body of water can be for a community,” says Captain Michael Tempini. “The lake had been dry for about two years and it was just a dust bowl. That has an emotional impact on people. A few years ago we had gnats and then midgees breeding in the drying mud. You wouldn’t believe how thick they were. You had to move them out with a shovel and you tried not to turn any lights on.
“Another time we had rotting fish and you couldn’t run your air conditioning because it sucked in the smell. We had to pay $1200 for a megalitre of water at the time. You walked around and no one had a smile on their face."
Despite all this, the local community organised a lake clean up day. “We did the slashing and burning of tumbleweed which grew close to shore," continues Michael. "We identified it as a potential fire risk because once it dried up it would have rolled alongside sheds and houses.
"We were visible. There’s no point in telling people what you do. They need to see it."
DSE, Swan Hill Rural City Council, Goulburn-Murray Water (G-MW) and the community liaison body Lake Boga Inc also worked to clear the lake of tamarisk trees which are notoriously difficult to kill.
“We have a good relationship with DSE. We did a joint prescribed burn, had a barbecue together and talked about some environmental projects around the lake. Same with G-MW. We’ve rung them about water supply issues and the tumbleweed and always had a good response; they’re more than willing to help.
"It’s the way of country people doing business. You tell them where you’re coming from.”
Once Lake Boga was full it was classified as an irrigation and storage system.
The fortunes of the lake have played a significant role in local history. The ready supply of fresh water attracted 19th century farmers, as did the small irrigated plots. A Royal Australian Air Force flying boat (Catalina) maintenance facility was on site during World War II along with an underground communications bunker. “It was strategically important,” says Michael. “Americans were based here and planes could fly in from any direction because the lake was so round. It was a thriving town back then.
“Growing up here in the 1980s, you couldn’t get a parking spot around the lake. It was packed at Christmas time. The hotel would be packed for counter teas. People were brighter when the water was in. A local yacht club folded but is reforming now and there's the Sea Scouts.
“Now we’re back fishing, speed boating, sailing. The lake means leisure time that people can afford.”
The urban brigade formed in the early 1950s. Today members range from stone fruit famers such as Michael to nurses, police officers, mechanics, engineers, builders and include CFA trainer Lindsay Birch and North West area General Manager Pat O’Brien.
“The nine-to-five is a concern but we’ve never not made a job,” says Michael. “We’ve got seven new members in the last two years and some of them were experienced members who moved from other brigades. We poached them! Over 50% of our members are in the 20-40 age group now so that’s a real turnaround, and we have five women members.
“We had about 40 incidents last year and used water from the channels. We used to have about 80-plus a year but the lack of vegetation and no boat fires has made it quieter. Three years running we had hayshed fires very close to the Little Murray that were 24-hour jobs.
“We’re an active back-up brigade. About 50% of our calls are assists for Swan Hill and surrounding areas. We’re also active in terms of training and the lake has been the main site for that. We’ve always had that focus on maintaining skills.”
The brigade has benefitted from the hard work of members such as Barry Boys who has been the brigade's Fire Equipment Maintenance (FEM) officer. He travelled as far afield as Woomelang and Hopetoun in the past, and groups all the jobs together over a two-month period to just get it done. Don Witney will take over the position in July.
“We’ve always been a self-sufficient brigade,” continues Michael. “We’ve made enough money from FEM and cleaning up at the local races for eight years in a row to put up our own shed. That’s a huge saving: we paid $70,000 instead of the $250,000 it would have cost CFA. Members donated their labour and time and we made it happen. The captain at the time, Lindsay Birch, showed us what was possible.
“We’ve spent more of our funds on our outdoor barbecue area. We all had our own ideas about what we wanted to do and found some common ground. Now everyone has ownership. We’ll have a barbecue every three or four months and some community days as well.
“We’re a really interlinked community. The next thing we’re planning is to turn the old engine room into a multi-purpose room. The CWA and Red Cross currently use the station and would really benefit from a separate room.”
Despite all the good news, one dark cloud looms overhead. “We think it’s going to be a wet winter. Sure, we have more water security – although it’s not guaranteed – but now we have the locusts hanging over our heads.
“We’re in the food bowl area. The largest amount of stone fruit in Australia is grown around here and it takes three years to get a stone fruit crop. You don’t have it made after just one good year. People are definitely worried about what will happen with the locusts in the spring."