Snowy Mountains Scheme turns 70

Max Blenkin
(Australian Associated Press)


It all started with a big bang.

Seventy years ago Governor-General William McKell set off a charge of gelignite in the Eucumbene River gorge initiating the Snowy River Scheme.

Images of the day show the governor-general, with look of steely determination, pressing firmly down on the plunger to detonate this, the first of many more explosions over the next 25 years.

In the nearby town of Adaminaby, a large crowd gathered to mark the occasion and to celebrate their town’s impending death by drowning.

It was to be submerged by the lake created by the new Eucumbene Dam, though that did not occur for almost a decade and by that time the town and residents had been relocated.

Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley declared that he hoped the Snowy scheme would touch the imagination and hearts and enter into the spirit of the people of Australia.

“The Snowy Mountains plan is the greatest single project in our history. It is a plan for the whole nation, belonging to no one state nor to any group or section,” he said.

Chifley, whose government had initiated the Snowy Mountains Scheme, saw little of what was to come.

He died of a heart attack in 1951 and seeing it through mostly fell to his successor, Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies.

It was declared finished in 1972 although work continued to 1974 when Gough Whitlam was PM.

On completion, it comprised seven power stations, 16 major dams, 145 kilometres of inter-connected tunnels and 80 kilometres of aqueducts.

Over more than two decades, some 100,000 workers were employed.

Around two-thirds were immigrants from a shattered post war Europe, the new Australians from 32 different countries who look back with great pride at their contribution to the nation that would become their home.

Short years earlier, some had been fighting each other and chief engineer, New Zealander William Hudson famously declared: “You aren’t any longer Czechs or Germans, you are men of the Snowy.”

The Snowy Mountains Scheme remains Australia’s biggest, grandest and most visionary national infrastructure project.

Although the largest ever engineering project, it’s not the most expensive. In 1949, the 200 million pounds price tag was an enormous sum and at completion in the mid-1970s, the cost was put around $850 million, more than a billion in today’s dollars.

Putting that into perspective, the National Broadband Network cost will likely exceed $50 billion.

The Snowy 2.0 scheme, announced in 2017 to expand Snowy Mountains power output, has a nominal cost of $2 billion, with suggestions it’s likely to be more than double that.

Had the Snowy Mountains Scheme not happened when it did, it’s almost inconceivable that what was done then – damming and diverting rivers, flooding pristine wilderness areas and uprooting established communities – could ever happen today.

Even back in the 1940s, it wasn’t that easy as it involved three states, plus the Commonwealth.

The waters rise in NSW but flow through Victoria and South Australia and each had its own vision.

Victoria favoured greater use of the waters for power generation while NSW wanted more water for irrigation.

The Commonwealth wanted more national electric generation capacity, highlighted by power shortages during the war as more and more factories rose to meet the needs of the defence force.

After power generation, water could always be applied to irrigation.

Hydro-electric power was first generated in Tasmania in 1916 and demonstrated that this new (for Australia) technology was entirely viable. However mainland electricity overwhelming came from coal fired stations.

With no agreement in sight, the Commonwealth prevailed, declaring this was a national security issue and that Australian needed a reliable power supply, produced away from the coast where it could be vulnerable to enemy action.

Seventy years on, that seems a stretch but then the Cold War was just getting under way and Australia had just emerged from a bitter war when the nation had been attacked.

Chifley’s vision was, however, much broader. His government saw post-war construction as a means for Australia to reshape itself as a modern forward-looking nation.

It was also a means to employ Australians and the growing numbers of immigrants.

Chifley resorted to the defence powers in the Constitution to pass the enabling legislation, from which the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority was formed.

The final proposal was presented in November 1948 and actually comprised two separate projects, one in north and one in the south of the Snowy Mountains.

This was enormously ambitious and complex and the finished project has been lauded as one of the finest feats of engineering in the world.

The Snowy Mountains now produce around a third of all east coast renewable energy.

It’s not without ongoing controversy. There’s ongoing debate about adequacy of water flows to sustain the downstream rivers and Snowy 2.0, designed to enhance system capacity, has been branded a costly waste.


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