The Snowy Scheme – Did It Make Australia a Nation?

Years ago, during my time at university, I studied a topic called Environmental Histories, and I learned about Australia’s Snowy Scheme. Recent news about the state and management of our Murray River has caused me to reflect on this learning. If you are anything like me (before I studied this topic), you may have heard of the Snowy River (mainly due to: ‘The Man From Snowy River’), and you may have heard mention of a thing called the Snowy Scheme, but don’t really know much more about it. Well, I will share my knowledge and thoughts on the subject, as after all, this internationally commended scheme supposedly made Australia a nation; it was our solution to the drought inflicted lands and struggling farmers.

Drought in Australia has been evident since European settlement. Despite this continuous pattern across the country, farming became a prominent industry.  These extreme conditions were responsible for wiping out vast areas of crop land and killing tens of millions of sheep and cattle. Government response, at the time, was to expand the agricultural area further and further into dryer areas (maybe government control of sheep numbers as a response to the natural climate may have been a better option?). So, during the times when the days without rain seemed endless, the grasslands had all but disappeared, and the fresh water supply turned to muddy pools and then to dried cracked earth, the farmers moved their livestock and added to their never-ending fence lines. Then came science and technological advances in agriculture. Paul Edmund Strzelecki, after an expedition across the Snowy Mountains during 1840 (where he named Mount Kosciusko) remarked on Australia’s need for irrigation. His other suggestions included crop rotation, as well as dams and reservoirs (note the thinking of time – any sort of water conservation and/or environmental concerns were not considered). Between 1881 and 1884, nearly 24 million sheep were lost. This concerning number resulted in the Royal Commission on the Conservation of Water (established in 1884) to set up irrigation in certain areas.

Australia’s natural climatic conditions consist of low and highly variable rainfall (465mm average compared to 600mm average in other continents), as well as a high evaporation rate (87 percent). Together, the result is very little run off: 12 percent. Comparing this to other continents, South America experiences 52 percent, and Europe 39 percent (and remember, this is a percentage of an overall higher rainfall). The Murray Darling Basin covers one sixth of the continent and is approximately four and a half times the size of Great Britain, but, the river systems within this area are highly variable in flow. Some years, the Murray River consists of a chain of pools, while other years there are reports of flooding. This situation made it very hard to rely on the area as a reliable water source, particularly for irrigation. And with a growing population, due to the Gold Rushes in 1850, and the continued expansion of agriculture, a long term plan for managing Australia’s water resources was needed. The answer, it seemed, was to divert the Snowy River.

The Snowy River is Australia’s largest river, but it only flows over a very small part of the country, coming down from the mountain ranges in the east and flowing toward the eastern sea. After years of planning and debate between states and the Commonwealth about whether water would be diverted into the Murrumbidgee or the Murray – New South Wales wanted the water going into the Murrumbidgee to irrigate their farms, but Victoria wanted it for their own irrigation along the Murray, as well as for hydroelectricity, as did the Commonwealth for it’s growing population in the Australian Capital Territory – the plan for this great engineering marvel, that was to make Australia a nation, was born. States have always had more power over water resources, but through a loophole, the Commonwealth got their way – they had control over defense issues, which, after World War II, they used as their means. The Snowy Scheme would be inland and many of the hydroelectric plants would be underground, as opposed to the coal stations situated near the coast, due to their need to be near supplies and ample water, making them more vulnerable to attack. World War II also contributed to the labour needed for this grand scheme, as Australia, at the time, only had a population of about 8 million. It is estimated that 100,000 workers were employed on the Snowy Scheme between 1949 and 1974, of which two thirds were immigrants. In 1948, it was announced that the Snowy Scheme would comprise of two projects: the northern would divert water to the Murrumbidgee, and the southern to the Murray River, both generating electricity along the way. The development took 25 long years to build, with many hard times and sacrifice.

Immigrants from over 30 different nationalities came to Australia to work on the Snowy Scheme (even though this seems diverse, Australia would only allow people of white skin to enter the country, due to the White Australia Policy). Coming from war-torn Europe, for many, it was an opportunity – a number of their generations have contributed to today’s multicultural society. But, life was tough. Many had come from devastating and traumatic experiences, and psychological illness was suffered, with no assistance made available. Workers were provided with inadequate accommodation, with reports of women having to shovel snow into the bath to wash nappies because the pipes had frozen. The ratio of men to women was 50:1. There was gambling and prostitution. Workers were made to work round the clock in high risk areas, and many of the leaders were merciless and unsupportive – time was money. Australia’s naive and ignorant mainly Anglo Saxon population lumped many people from different countries and cultures into the same groups. Many children from ethnic backgrounds were bullied at school. After the project was finished, 4000 men were left unemployed and many homeless. The structure of small towns were completely altered, with some being inundated by people, while others, with water. The entire town of Adaminaby had to be moved to make way for the enormous Eucumbene Dam. Many people lost their home, and due to broken promises by the Snowy Mountains Authority for adequate replacement housing, many ended up in debt and/or long term depression.

There were numerous tragic injuries and 121 reported deaths during the construction of the Snowy Scheme (and these statistics do not include life long injuries resulting in depression and suicide). Working in the tunnels was terrifying, dark, noisy, and one wrong move could cause horrendous injury and/or death. There are stories of men falling 375 metres down a black hole to their deaths, men dying after they got stuck in a blast of concrete – basically being buried alive, and a man was impaled, and found alive slowly spinning on the end of a large piece of machinery – he died a week later in hospital. This is an exerpt from the Tunnels of Blood (note the title):

To mechanic-turned-tunneller Alesandro Wialletton the tunnels were worse than a nightmare because you couldn’t escape simply by waking up. ” … The only sound was the ear-splitting noise caused by drills and compressed air. The fumes made it hard to breath and you could barely see your hand in front of your face in the vapour and dust which filled the chamber. Fresh air at the end of a shift was joy in itself. …. While in the tunnel you had to watch where you put your feet at the same time as watch the roof for loose rocks. The floor was slippery, covered in a film of oil, grease and water. One day one of the loco guards jumped off to run ahead to switch the track. As his rubber boots hit the ground he slipped forwards and the loco’s wheels cut off both arms …”

After commencement of the Snowy Scheme, the great Snowy River was left with 1 percent of its original flow (this number was recently changed to 15 percent, as environmental impacts have been recognised). Lake Eucumbene holds 90 percent of the Snowy’s water, the volume of its dams being 13 times the size of Sydney Harbor. Only a small percentage of this water is allocated to make up the flow of the Murray during years of average rainfall – most is diverted to the Murrumbidgee – but in periods of low rainfall, up to 30 percent of the Murray’s flow is compensated by the Snowy Scheme. The Murrumbidgee, which eventually meets up with the Murray, during years of average rainfall, can attribute 25 percent of its flow to diverted waters and up to 60 percent during dry periods. So, in fact, by the time the two rivers meet up, quite a considerable percentage of the flow has been supplemented by Snowy River waters.

The Snowy Scheme is made up of 16 major dams, seven hydroelectricity stations, one pumping station, 145 kilometres of tunnel, 80 kilometres of aquaduct, as well as 1600 kilometres of road and railway. It is one of the biggest engineering projects in the world. Today, it contributes quite a bit to Australia in way of electricity, providing 4500 gigawatts per year, as well as 2300 gigalitres of water for irrigation, which in turn helps to grow millions of dollars worth of crops each year. But, was the hard work, sacrifice, and in many cases, the tragedy, as well as the environmental impact, to build this project worth it? Did it, in fact, help Australia become a nation? Due to the money, effort, lives, and an entire river system, we’d like to think so. But, if the men and women who were sacrificed in the name of this grand scheme saw the state of the Murray River today, would they think so? An enormous dam has resulted in the loss of the great Snowy River, along with the ecosystems that relied upon it. And we are on the brink of losing the Murray River too if the real reason of over-exploitation and a need to change our past views is not addressed. Farmers all over Australia are still greatly affected by drought and the Murray Mouth has been relying on dredges to keep it open, due to lack of flow. As well as this, the Scheme originated so that farmers could gain access to a regular flow of water to irrigate their crops. This, in itself, has resulted in one of the biggest environmental problems in Australia, which is salinity. Tens of thousands of hectares of land has been turned to barren salty wasteland, and millions of hectares are affected. In 1989, McHugh stated:

‘[t]he Murray River Valley is now the most intensively farmed region in Australia, but it is along way from the vision held by Bill Hudson and others of a land of plenty …Instead a combination of excessive deforestation and mismanagement of the irrigation waters provided by the Scheme has created a salinity problem that is a major national disaster …’

The Snowy – The People Behind the Power, p 264

Professor Peter Cullen, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, suggested that 30 percent of a river’s water can be extracted without causing environmental damage, and, in fact, if done well, between 30-70 percent could potentially be used.  With this in mind, if effective water management and conservation were taken into consideration, the Snowy Scheme may have proven far more worth it. The problem then, as mentioned above, lies with our management of water resources and our past perceptions. Some farmers, at the time of construction, expressed concern that 50 percent of Lake Eucumbene’s water capacity is in the top one and a half metres and other dams around the area lose up to two metres due to evaporation. Open irrigation channels also result in high levels of evaporation. Crops such as cotton and rice use excessive amounts of water- rice, for instance, needs to be submerged for 4-5 months.

Today, agriculture is responsible for 50-70 percent of Australia’s fresh water consumption, and 90 percent of this is used for irrigation. We, as a nation, are becoming more aware of our need for a long-term outlook on water management, and there are many projects underway to increase conservation. Natural flows are slowly being restored to the great Snowy River. More efficient irrigation practices are being put in place, such as drip irrigation, and the installation of pipelines instead of open channels, to prevent evaporation. And, Australia’s cotton and rice crops are some of the most water efficient in the world. During the planning stages of the Snowy Scheme, one environmental concern was taken into consideration, which was soil conservation. The developers were aware that soil plays a big part in water quality; they just weren’t aware that water quantity was also an important issue. And now with climate change causing higher temperatures and longer droughts, we need to consider this issue even more. There is talk of expanding the Snowy Scheme capacity for electricity generation by 50 percent. This is big. I truly hope that, in doing this, history will not repeat itself, and all the effort which is now going into conserving our precious water resources is not wasted, and a proper long term view is utilised during planning and development. Hopefully, with everything we have learned and how far we’ve come, Australia will become a leader in water management, and this is what will make us a nation.


Collis, B 1990, Snowy – The Making of Modern Australia, Hodder and Stoughton (Australia) Pty Ltd, Rydalmere, New South Wales.

Lines, W 1981, Taming the Great South Land – A History of the Conquest of Nature in Australia, The University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia.

McGoldrick, K 1998, Snowfraus – The Women of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, Kangaroo Press, East Roseville, New South Wales.

McHugh, S 1989, The Snowy – The People Behind the Power, William Heinemann Australia, Port Melbourne, Victoria.

Pigram, J 2006, Australia’s Water Resources – From Use to Management, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood.

Raymond, R 1999, A Vision for Australia – The Snowy Mountains Scheme 1949-1999, Focus Publishing Pty Ltd, Edgecliff, New South Wales.

Read, P 1992, ‘Downed town in the valley: perceptions of the inundation of Adaminaby 1956-1957, Public History Review, Vol 1, pp 160-174.

Sydney Morning Herald, ‘They’ve put a bridle on the Snowy’, 8 March 1953

Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Second stage of the Snowy’, 6 May 1953

Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Snowy plan could save £20m’, 6 May 1953

Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Snowy Scheme has vulnerable points’, 21 August 1953

Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Snowy Scheme costs’, 28 October 1953

Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Facts wanted on the Snowy Scheme’, 29 October 1953

Wigmore, L 1968, Struggle for the Snowy, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

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