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The Snowy Mountains Scheme and More.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme

To my long-suffering, faithful Aussie reader: I heard a wild rumour that a person in England reads these pages so I'm going to try and write the story of the Snowy Scheme as if for somebody who doesn't know Australia and has never heard of the Scheme. There won't be many pictures either, as only 2% of the Scheme's infrastructure is above ground. You are doubtless fully conversant with the story so please bear with me. Let me know of any inaccuracies you spot. Okay, here we go . . .

Imagine the map of Australia. There is range of mountains running from the Cape York Peninsula way up in the north all the way down to the south coast. The Great Dividing Range, as it is called, sits about one hundred kilometres inland from the east coast. Further south it incorporates the Blue Mountains and the Snowy Mountains. Rainfall to the east of the mountains is reasonably plentiful but when the clouds rise over the range they are unable to hold as much moisture so they drop it as rain or snow on the mountains. The farmers on the fertile land to the west of the range, therefore, are in a dry air stream and frequently suffer drought. This has always occurred, it is nothing to do with Australia's present drought which has made things infinitely worse.

Early in the 1900s there was a more severe drought than usual and the people to the west of the mountains became desperate. They knew that large quantities of rain and snow fell on top of the mountains and that much of it found its way into rivers which flowed east to the Pacific Ocean. To the desperate farmers that was a terrible waste and they began to wonder whether some way could be found to divert those rivers their way. The politicians of the day were also interested because much more food could be grown in the rich lands of the River Murray basin if more water could be made available.

Surveyors went into the mountains on horseback, took measurements and bored holes to test the rock and came to the conclusion that such a scheme was feasible. Civil engineers became involved and realised the enormous potential for a win-win situation. If all that water high in the mountains could be made to pass through turbines as it descended, the result would be megawatts of electrical power without burning any fuel. So, water to where it was needed, electricity as a by-product and no fuel costs. (Today they would also add, and no greenhouse gases.) The water would emerge to the west of the mountains as pure as when it fell from the clouds. What politician could resist the glory - and votes - that such an outcome would bring? None that I can think of, anyway.

Very ambitious plans were drawn up to carry out a larger civil engineering project than had ever been attempted in Australia, or perhaps even in the world. The Commonwealth Parliament passed an Act to create the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority and appointed a man called William Hudson to run it. This was way back in 1949, only four years after the Second World War had ended.

You might be thinking that it all seems a lot of fuss just to drill a tunnel under a mountain and divert a river. Well, it wasn't quite that simple. To give you a true idea of the magnitude of the project that William Hudson undertook, it involved:

So, as you'll see, it was not something William (later Sir William) Hudson would do one Saturday afternoon then go home for his tea.

Lake Eucumbene

Lake Eucumbene, the main storage reservoir, down to 14%.
The row of semi-submerged trees once lined a street in Adaminaby.

Lake Eucumbene, pictured above, was down to 14% capacity when we visited. A row of trees that had previously bordered a street in the century-old village of Adaminaby were half exposed. The village had been replanted eight kilometres away. A hundred buildings were moved.

The Snowy project took twenty five years to complete. It finished on time and on budget in 1974. It cost $820 million and one hundred and twenty lives.

Each year the Scheme delivers an average of 2,360 gigalitres (four times Sydney Harbour) of water for crop irrigation west of the ranges while generating 4,500 gigawatt-hours of power. Since this power is fed into the national grid, the Scheme displaces 4.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year.

BW Tunnel

How does it all work? Several rivers, amongst them the Snowy, are dammed high in the mountains, flooding valleys to form lakes. All the lakes are inter-connected via underground tunnels. The largest lake, Lake Eucumbene, stores any excess water from all the other dams for future use. The water is piped through underground tunnels down to the power stations. Water from higher up may drive one power station, then lower down, a second power station. When its energy has all been converted to electricity, the water is stored in reservoirs low down on the western side of the mountain range, ready to be released into the Murray or Murrumbidgee Rivers from where it will flow to the irrigation areas.

A Tunnel Construction Picture Showing The Size Of The Tunnels.

In a completely unexpected way, this engineering marvel changed the nature of Australia for ever. Workers came from all over the globe to work together on the Snowy Scheme.

Think about this: Just four years earlier many of those same men had - quite literally - been trying to kill one another in World War II. Now they worked side by side in rugged, inhospitable terrain. The work was hard and the temperature varied from freezing in winter to scorching in summer. Many lived in primitive conditions, some under canvas. But work together they did and enriched Australian society by bringing their own mix of ideas, skills, accents, cultures, cuisine, dress, etc. It was the beginning of what is today called our multicultural society and Australia is better for it.

The Snowy Scheme has, justifiably, always been regarded with great pride as one of the greatest marvels of the modern world, however there is a negative aspect, one that you'll never read about in all the glossy brochures.

The Snowy River used to be legendary, one of Australia's mightiest and wildest rivers. When the Scheme dammed its head waters it was all but destroyed. In some places only 1% of the original flow remained, a trickle meandering around the wide, sandy river bed between slime and weeds, the banks cluttered with exotic (in the sense of 'foreign') willow trees and blackberries. The people living along the river's course battled for years for more water to be released into the lower Snowy. It was a one-sided battle against politicians who didn't care and powerful commercial interests.

In 1998, (due to a political crisis, I believe) they won a break-through. The governments of the states of New South Wales and Victoria which, between them, own 87% of the Scheme, agreed to incrementally release more water into the Snowy until its flow reaches 21% of the original by the year 2010. The river needs 28% of its original flow to remain healthy, according to scientists, but it was a start. Also, the willows and blackberry bushes were to be removed over a 60 kilometre stretch of the river and native trees planted in their place.

The picture of the lower Snowy River shown from the Dalgety Bridge (Page 42) looks sad, but at least there is some flow, and there will be more by 2010. If, that is, the politicians keep to their agreement under increasing pressure from the current drought and don't cave in to the insatiable irrigators. Any bets?

So there you have it, the Snowy Mountains Scheme, an engineering marvel without doubt, but it has left opposing interests squabbling over the water. The governments which own the scheme are promising more water for the Snowy and other affected rivers, and more water for the irrigators. This at a time when rainfall is declining and the dams are all extremely low. Surely even politicians can see the nonsense in that? When push comes to shove the Scheme's owners will come down on the side of the irrigators as that water first produces electricity then goes on to grow export crops. Water released much higher up into the Snowy looks pretty and is good for the environment . . . but earns no revenue. I'd guess it will eventually lose out . . . unless there are enough votes involved.

A Trip Around The Mountain


Australia's highest town, Cabramurra. Weird, isn't it? The roofs must be designed to prevent snow building up.
They all face west - to collect the afternoon sun, perhaps? The gash in the hill behind is a fire break.


One day we took a circular drive covering 320 kilometres, effectively encircling Mount Kosciuszko. On the way we visited Cabramurra, a town built for the Snowy Scheme workers and the highest town in Australia. It was 5,000' up in the mountains. A southerly was blowing strongly and it was very cold. It was a strange town which seemed totally deserted. The picture of Cabramurra (above) was taken from a weather station on the peak above the town on the site of the old school. God help those poor kids if the weather was often like it was the day we visited! The site is totally exposed. The anemometer (wind gauge) pictured was part of the weather station. It might give an idea of the wind strength.

We also visited a village called Adaminaby and chatted to the attendant in the petrol station. The town had originally been situated on the bed of what is now Lake Eucumbene. She urged us to visit the site and we did. The top picture above will give you an idea of what we saw, though it can't really convey how very low the water level was. We found a large pontoon high and dry, moored by a heavy cable a good hundred metres away from the water. A sign mounted on it pronounced that it was a private warf and that moorings and boat hire were available. I wonder, will it will ever float again?

We saw much fire damage on our drive. Fire, of course, is a part of the Australian life cycle for many plants. Gum trees are seldom destroyed by fire and will recover in a few years. What we saw, however, were whole mountainsides of dead trees. They were not blackened but a silvery grey colour and entirely leafless. We were told they were Alpine Ash trees and that they don't recover from fire. However the fire does burst open their seed pods and when everything has cooled down, many germinate and saplings spring up around the skeletons of their dead parents. Sure enough, there were multitudes of saplings of about two metres in height around the dead trees, but as the forest burned four years ago it is going to take a very long time before it fully recovers. Eventually the old trees will fall, rot away, and their nutrients will be absorbed back into the soil to benefit their offspring. Those that don't fall across roads, that is, and that's a worry. Much of the road we travelled was lined on both sides with dead trees.

Mountain Ash

Dead Alpine Ash trees to the horizon.

We initially thought that Alpine Ash was a Northern Hemisphere import to Australia but some Eucalyptus native trees are known as Ash because of a resemblance to the European trees. That explains why all the saplings looked like gum trees - they are. This species just adopts a much longer-term solution to surviving fire.

Our day's drive was rather like a roller coaster ride. One minute we were 5,000' up, the next we down at 700', then back up again. At least we weren't dragging the caravan that day. We met some scary drivers, too. We were climbing a steep hill and approaching a sharp right hand bend. We had a mountain on our right side and a precipice on our left. Suddenly a car came screaming around the bend from the opposite direction far too fast, sliding across to our side of the road. The driver saw us quickly - I was driving with headlights on for just such an eventuality - and swung his wheel to the left. His back end broke away and his car slewed sideways for an instant before recovering just in time and shot past us, still going like a rocket. We both saw the driver. He wasn't a young hoon, he must have been at least my age (30 years and 423 months). It looked like he had his wife with him - I hope she gave him a good serve.

As we turned onto the final leg of our drive we could see the high mountains in the distance and . . . was that snow? Somebody had earlier told us there may be snow at the weekend. The day felt bitterly cold. The temperature had not risen above 10°C until well into the afternoon and the chill of a strong south wind made it feel much colder. Had I had the brains to wear sensible clothes instead of shorts, T-shirt and sandals, I might have fared better. Anyway, we decided that snow three thousand feet higher up was quite on the cards. When we got a lot closer we had another look through the binoculars. Our 'snow' was actually just bare granite above the tree line. What a disappointment.

Snow or Not Snow

What we saw, and . . .                                                      . . . what we thought we saw.

Stop Press: We later discovered it had snowed on the top, but the snow didn't stick.

Our final call was at the 'Murray One' Hydro-electric Power Station and some amongst you will be delighted to hear that all the interesting photographs that I took for you came out black because I'd accidentally knocked a setting on the camera. However, before entering I did take one picture from the road above the power station which you can see below.

There are ten turbines at Murray 1 which is the second largest power station in the Snowy Scheme and capable of supplying approximately 1,000,000 homes according to the glossy brochure. The 'tailwater' (the water that has already passed through the turbines) runs out into a channel which feeds it into a reservoir called the Murray 2 Pondage. This pond - which is actually a dammed lake - is about 600' above the level of the Murray 2 Power Station and that head of water is sufficient to drive the turbines in Murray 2. The tailwater from Murray 2 is stored in another reservoir for controlled release into the Murray River to be used for irrigation.

Murray One Hydro Generator

The Murray 1 Power Station. Water under great pressure enters through the pipes driving ten
turbine generators which convert the water's energy into electrical energy.

The electrical energy is boosted to 330,000 volts in transformers before being fed to the grid by the transmission lines seen against the sky. The tailwater exits into a channel in front of the building on its way to the Murray 2 Power Station and finally the Murray River for crop irrigation.

At the rear of the building was a driveway with a notice forbidding people to walk down it or alight from vehicles. The driveway ran behind a row of ten 330,000 volt transformers so, naturally, I strolled down it to have a look. If I'd had a heart pacemaker, a sign advised me, the magnetic fields from the transformers could mess it up and perhaps kill me. But I don't have a pacemaker and I knew that the power station was not operating on a Sunday afternoon because the demand was low. Hydro power stations can start up in three minutes so the Snowy output is largely used to supplement the coal fired stations at times of peak demand. Or so the lady in the café told me, suppressing a yawn.

Another Go at Kosciuszko

I told you earlier that we hoped to have another shot at reaching the summit of Mount Kosciuszko. When Tuesday dawned cold and clear we decided to give it a go, and by 09:45 we had driven to Thredbo, parked, and ridden the chairlift to the start of the track. This alone was a major accomplishment for us. Well, for me anyway, I'm not a 'morning person'.

Let me say at the outset that this is not a difficult climb. The chairlift had done most of the work before we'd even started, by lifting us 1,860 feet up from Thredbo. All we had to do was cover the 6.4 kilometre walk to the summit, ascending 950 feet in the process, and then walk back. So, rounding off, about a 13 kilometre walk which incorporates about 1,000' of climbing as you go down sometimes, then have to regain the lost height. To make it even easier, all the rough bits are ironed out by the steel walkway.

At the foot of the final leg to the summit we came across some men with trucks and a back-hoe, building a public toilet into the hillside. Talk about an anticlimax! There we were, thinking how well we'd done, miles from anywhere and on the roof of the world (well, it felt like it) and there's a bloody construction site.

Toilet Sign

I've been in some pretty high toilets but they don't normally boast about it.
Okay, so it was really Rawson's Pass but you gotta have some fun.

Anyway, 11:30 saw us standing on the highest point on the Australian mainland. (I saw it so described somewhere. Is there a higher point in Tasmania, or on another Australian island? I don't know.)

Six Years Later: Mount McClintock in the Britannia Range in Australian Antarctic Territory rises to 3,490 metres, nearly 1,264 metres higher than Mount Kosciuszko.


Three of us on the peak of Mt. Kosciuszko - that's good old Alice, our GPS, I'm holding.

Two of my Bright Ideas

Gentlemen, this is for you if, like me, you are co-opted to push a supermarket trolley while your wife picks up and puts down every item in the shop. How many times has she sent you to look for toothpaste, or apples, or a 60 watt light bulb . . . and then totally vanished? Frustrating isn't the word as you roam the isles in search of her, trying to negotiate a passage between trolleys abandoned in the centre of an isle by women while they stand back and gaze at the shelves opposite, or worse, gossip in a group, oblivious to everyone else.

Technology has provided an answer and applied it to cars. Does your car have central locking? You click a button on the key fob, the indicators flash and the doors lock/unlock? Suppose the car manufacturer supplied you with a small device that also reacted to the code transmitted by your key fob alone. You pin it to your wife and when she pulls that disappearing stunt, you simply press the button and from somewhere in the supermarket comes a piercing beeping similar to a road work vehicle reversing. You then simply home in on the sound and when you can see her, cancel the signal with your key fob. No more wandering the isles while your stress levels rise, searching in vain for the Little Woman.

Additionally, when you stop to look at interesting stuff in the hardware department and she immediately vanishes with a loud sigh - she does, doesn't she? - you can instantly locate her when it suits you.

All you have to do, dear reader, is find some way to prevent her unpinning the device and leaving it under the broccoli in the chest freezer. Then we'll patent it.

After that we'll work on a loud horn, the type with a large rubber bulb that you squeeze, and have them fitted to all supermarket trolleys. It would then be a joy to find a trolley blocking an isle. Your job, dear reader, is to find a way of preventing nasty little children from using them. Then we'll patent it.

Perisher Valley and Charlotte Pass

The day was bright and sunny with fluffy white clouds chasing each other across the sky; too good a day to waste. So we packed up and headed for Perisher Valley and Charlotte Pass. We were duly relieved of $16 as we entered the Park and carried on climbing towards Perisher. Soon we saw solid, low cloud ahead, hiding the mountain tops, and in no time visibility deteriorated and fine rain covered the windscreen. We drove through Perisher where nothing seemed to be happening and continued up to Charlotte Pass. The road finally ended in a loop - nowhere to go but back. We could see nothing of what was probably stunning scenery.

The Charlotte Pass turn-off was only a short distance back so we turned onto it and drove down a steep, narrow concrete road towards some roofs we could see through the murk. The place looked deserted and the concrete gave way to gravel and mud. We drove around and the only sign of life we saw was two rabbits that were not the least bit worried by our clattering diesel.

About to leave, disappointed, we spotted lights on in a building which looked like it might serve coffee. The outside temperature was 7°C and the wind was blowing the rain horizontally. We made a dash for the door and found ourselves in a large, warm room with a cheerful fire burning. It turned out to be the Stillwell Lodge.

Stillwell Lodge

The restaurant and lounge in Stillwell Lodge. A cheerful place that gave us a lovely welcome.

We were their only visitors and the staff gave us a wonderfully warm and friendly welcome - and served us coffee and muffins. One wall of the room consisted entirely of windows and we sat and watched the rain driving past and felt very snug.

On finally leaving the lodge we drove back down towards Perisher which, like other alpine towns, was totally geared up for winter sports. Like Thredbo, it had an enormous but empty carpark. There didn't seem to be anything to see or do so we continued on back, quickly leaving the rain and mist behind us as we descended.

We decided to explore a sealed but unsigned road that we came across. It went for miles and miles, sometimes along precarious ledges cut into the mountain side. It was totally deserted but since it must have cost a fortune to build, it must lead somewhere. Eventually we came to the end - at the Guthega Hydro-electric Power Station. There were no signs telling us to shove off so we parked in their car park on the banks of the Snowy River and ate our lunch. The river was but a trickle as it approached the power station, but then the station's tailwater joined it and instantly it became a happy, swirling, turbulent torrent. The water that left the power station had been dammed upstream and piped down to the turbines, so it was the Snowy's own water which rejoined it.

The river's joy was to be short-lived however; a few kilometres downstream it was again dammed at the Island Bend Pondage. This time its flow disappeared underground, en route to the Geehi (G-high) Dam and then on to the Murray 1 Power Station, the Murray 2 Power Station and finally the Murray River for irrigation. We looked at the Snowy below the Island Bend Dam and found no flow at all. Had there been, it would have flowed into the Jindabyne Lake. Another dam, no escape.

You've probably noticed that my view of the Snowy River Hydro-Electric Scheme has become tarnished since I first started this page. Initially I was taken in by the propaganda put out by the P. R. people employed by the Scheme. Certainly it is a marvel of engineering, but that's only one aspect of it. Before we left Jindabyne - and not without regret, let me tell you - I bought a book which describes the fight for the Snowy River when it was finally discovered that the Snowy River Authority was to take practically every drop of water from the river for itself. It's not a pretty story and it certainly gives the lie to the glossy brochures. Neither does it paint many of the politicians involved in a good light. Should you be interested, it's called Snowy River Story by Claire Miller. Claire is a senior journalist for The Age newspaper. The book is available from ABC Books.

That's it on the Snowy Mountains, the Snowy River and Jindabyne. I hope we return one day but now we head to the National Capital, Canberra. Here is a link to that Australian classic poem, The Man From Snowy River: The Man From Snowy River

There is a link back to this page under the poem.

Footnote: This re-working of Page 43 was completed on 3 May 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level 3.