Floodwaters creep into Coonamble, 570km northwest of Sydney. Australian authorities declared a natural disaster in floodstricken areas on Monday, but rains could be a boon for crop exports after a crippling drought, farmers said. Image Credit: Reuters

Sydney: Authorities declared two flooded farming regions in southwestern Australia natural disaster zones yesterday as residents in one town nervously watched a rising river in hopes that it wouldn't break its levees.

Parts of Coonamble and Bourke districts in New South Wales, several hundred miles northwest of Sydney, have been isolated by floodwaters since heavy rains last week. While meteorologists said the worst of the rain was over, rivers and reservoirs were still rising from the extra water, and Coonamble's Castlereagh River was expected to peak late yesterday.

New South Wales state Premier Kristina Keneally declared the two districts disaster zones yesterday, entitling them to state emergency funds including loans and subsidies.

"That will provide much needed longer term help to residents, primary producers, business owners and councils," Keneally said while on a tour of Coonamble. "It will help them to rebuild."

On Sunday, emergency officials advised 1,200 residents in Coonamble to relocate to safer parts of town away from the rising Castlereagh River. People rode away in motorboats and ranchers herded horses and cattle through the deep water to higher ground. Brown water submerged main roads into town.

The Castlereagh River was expected to peak at about 5.3 metres, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. The levee stands 5.9 metres high in most places" in others it is as low as 5.4 metres.

Some of the 4,900 residents of the district, however, have refused to leave their properties.

"I think they've seen the river up and down the last few days, and people don't believe there is a threat," Coonamble Mayor Tim Horan said yesterday. "Once we get a peak, we'll know what's going on, but as far as we're concerned, the evacuation order is still in place, and we still have to encourage people to stick by it."

But longtime resident Ken Baker said he was confident the levees would hold, and refused to leave his house while his wife and daughter evacuated.

"I know the river quite well," he said. "I've lived here all my life. I'm quite certain in my own mind that I don't need to evacuate."

Bourke, a district with a population of about 4,400, was deluged by some of its heaviest rain in a decade, leaving dozens of properties cut off from roads.