Farmer recounts forced sale of family land for Lake Eppalock in the 1960s

STILL HURTS: Frank Hill Junior's family farm was bought by the state government in the 1960s to build Lake Eppalock (inset). Picture: DARREN HOWE
STILL HURTS: Frank Hill Junior's family farm was bought by the state government in the 1960s to build Lake Eppalock (inset). Picture: DARREN HOWE

In the early 1960s, Frank Hill Junior was a schoolboy, his formative years spent mainly on the land. 

Despite being a youngster, he could sense something was amiss.

Crippling droughts from 1935-45 required a solution, and a parliamentary inquiry in 1948 resolved to build a lake to service much of central Victoria, which would eventually be named Lake Eppalock. 

Mr Hill doesn’t remember the day his family were told the state government planned to publicly acquire 445 hectares of their farm, but he recounts the angst that followed.

“They planned to take some of the most productive farming land in the state,” he said.

The family hired a top Melbourne-based QC, who also had experience in land valuation, in a bid to get the best value for their land.

The Hills, along with numerous families in the area whose land was sought by the Bolte government, formed the Eppalock Landholders Association in 1960, of which Mr Hill’s father, Frank Hill Senior was secretary.

Many of the 39 families represented in the group objected to the lake. 

Frank Hill Senior felt the idea of a reservoir was flawed. He thought the body of water, which now incorporates 3000 submerged hectares, could not sustain an irrigation system because the of the varied inflows.

Instead, the government pressed ahead with forced sale plans, and the family accepted an offer after being dissuaded from pursuing a court case given the high cost.

“They had to take it, or fight it in court,” he said.

“My memories have been formed by what people have said since then. Many of them were very upset that they lost their heritage.”

The family shifted to land not required for the lake, but their family home was “cut up and removed”.

In 2001, a monument was erected close to the banks of the lake in memory of those who lost their heritage – ‘requiescat in pace’, the plaque reads.

Goulburn Murray Water is responsible for the lake, and its general manager of customer operations Scott Barber said the use of the lake had changed over the years.

Primarily, he said, it was created for water storage used to supply irrigators in the Campaspe River system.

Prosperous farms helped stimulate and create communities downstream of the lake, while the reservoir provided water supply for towns like Bendigo.

A monument was erected close to the banks of Lake Eppalock in memory of those who lost their farms. Picture: DARREN HOWE

A monument was erected close to the banks of Lake Eppalock in memory of those who lost their farms. Picture: DARREN HOWE

In 2013, Mr Barber said the Campaspe Irrigation District closed, selling their water rights from the lake to the government. 

The government is now the biggest single owner of water rights in the lake, which is released at certain times for native flora and fauna. 

“The lake was built was for the economic benefit of regional Victoria – but we're seeing water being taken up for environmental change,” he said.

The public interest of the lake also includes recreational pursuits, with around 33 clubs based there.

The situation faced by the Carter family, whose farming land is sought by the City of Greater Bendigo to build a business park in Marong, echoes that of the Hills, but Mr Hill suggested the council had a choice of location.

“The government will always acquire land in the public interest,” Mr Hill said.

“But in the case of Lake Eppalock they couldn’t build it anywhere else – they (council) can build a business park elsewhere.

The City of Greater Bendigo has considered seven other sites for the business park over the years, but the land in Marong was deemed most strategically placed.

There is a history of public acquisition for waterways in the region. Farms were bought by the state government for the Cairn Curran Reservoir at Baringhup, near Maldon in 1948.

However, the 16-year saga with the Carter family is the first major acquisition of land by Bendigo council. 

Planning minister poised to make Marong decision

The Carter family maintain their land is not for sale.

The Carter family maintain their land is not for sale.

Bendigo West MP Maree Edwards believes planning minister Richard Wynne has received the file relating to the public acquisition overlay the council wants to place on the Carters’ farm in Marong.

“I believe he has received a letter from the City of Greater Bendigo,” she said this week.

Ms Edwards, who has previously distanced herself from the discussion, suggesting it was a matter for council, said she had received a number of emails regarding the Carters’ land.

“I’ve had a few emails. I have to say they weren’t all from Marong, I’ve had emails from people across Bendigo and indeed outside Bendigo as well,” she said.

The Deputy Speaker of the Legislative Assembly could not provide an indication on how long the decision would take, but suggested she would talk to minister Wynne in parliament next week.

The Carters’ sought specialised legal advice this week. If minister Wynne signs off on the overlay, the acquisition will go ahead and there are no avenues for appeal.