The Snowy hydro

The power of water – hydro schemes

Since early this century, the federal and state governments recognised the potential of the Alps to provide both water for irrigation and hydro-electricity. In Victoria, the headwaters of the Murray are dammed by the Hume and Dartmouth Reservoirs, constructed for both domestic and irrigation use. The Kiewa Scheme was developed to harness water draining off the Bogong High Plains.

In NSW, the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric scheme was developed to divert the headwaters of the Snowy, Eucumbene and Murrumbidgee Rivers westward through the mountain range and provide extra waters fro the Murray irrigation areas. The potential for generating power for the growing demand in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra was also realised.

The main structural results of hydro-electric schemes on the Kiewa River in Victoria and on the Snowy and associated rivers in New South Wales were dams, tunnels and power stations. Less obvious, but important to recreational users of the Australian Alps parks are some of the huts built by the State Electricity Commission in Victoria and the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority in New South Wales for their employees in the rugged mountain environment. In the Bogong High Plains stands Wilkinsons hut, dating from the 1930s, while in the Kosciuszko area stand huts such as Horse Camp, the Schlink Hilton, Cootapatamba (with its distinctive roof-level winter access), Derschkos and others.

The Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme was inaugurated in 1949, although its origins date back to the late nineteenth century. Times of drought in inland New South Wales brought forth calls for the westward diversion of the rivers flowing off the Snowy Mountains. Early in the 1900s, investigations were conducted into the potential of the Snowy River for hydro-electric production. In the 1940s, the two schemes – water for irrigation and water for hydro-electricity – merged and the federal government passed the necessary legislation for the Snowy Scheme to proceed.

The impacts of the Snowy Scheme have extended far beyond the provision of irrigation water and electricity. At the time the Scheme began, Australia had embarked on a massive immigration program, and many migrants came to Australia from war-torn Europe to begin life anew. In addition to native-born Australian, the Snowy Scheme employed huge numbers of these migrants. Over 100 000 men and women from over 30 different countries worked there, as is reflected in the display of national flags in the main street of Cooma, the Scheme’s headquarters. It thus played a significant part in the creation of modern multicultural Australia.

This story represents a great achievement, but there is also a negative side. During the construction work for the Scheme, 121 men died. Two towns, Adaminaby and Jindabyne, were flooded and new townships had to be built for the displaced residents; the village of Talbingo was also flooded. Environmental questions raised by the Scheme, for example, stream flows in the Snowy River below Jindabyne, are becoming increasingly prominent. The economics of the Scheme has its supporters and detractors, who continue to debate.

More information can be found in the Australian Alps education kit.