Podcast transcript

Podcast transcript

The Chowilla Dam project

 Dr Jennifer Hamilton-McKenzie

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Matt Smith

Hello there. I'm Matt Smith and I'm welcoming you to this particular La Trobe podcast. Our topic today is the Chowilla Dam Project, a chapter of Australian history that never really quite got there. My guest today is Dr Jennifer Hamilton-McKenzie. She’s a historian from the Mildura Campus of La Trobe University.

Jennifer Hamilton-McKenzie

Well, I think that what it shows is this constant contestation about water usage along the Murray-Darling Basin and there’s an economist that works in the Albury Wodonga campus, Lin Crase, who says that’s a world wide phenomenon for the downstream states or countries of any major river system to be complaining, and feeling as if they’re missing out. And I think that that’s a really interesting connection between the Chowilla Dam proposal of the 1960s and what’s happening today, because South Australia’s still being very taciturn about what it believes it’s missing out in terms of its water allocation.

What actually happened in the late 1950s was the Snowy River Hydro-Electric Scheme. That was a negotiation by the Commonwealth with New South Wales governments and Victoria, to actually subvert some of the water out of the Murray system into the Snowy River. Of course South Australia thought, well, we’re missing out here. This is going to somehow adversely affect us, so what we will do, it was Thomas Playford actually, he put a writ against those three governments and said, what about us? We want a dam to protect our water requirements. And that’s where the Chowilla Dam came into play. It happened to be located around the Renmark area. Renmark had been held by an Independent for a number of years and he had lost his seat, and Thomas Playford, who was Premier of South Australia, thought this was an excellent way of shoring up that seat for my government. I’ll put the Chowilla Dam there.

Matt Smith

Okay. Just so we’ve got a bit of a visual on it. The Murray River is going through New South Wales, Victoria, down through South Australia. So it’s South Australia who are at the end of the water supply, so they don’t have any issue with this. Where would the Chowilla Dam be located?

Jennifer Hamilton-McKenzie

Just over the South Australian border from Victoria, New South Wales, so around the Renmark area. That’s where they proposed for it to be, Chowilla being actually a sheep station there, and they were going to take most of that station and a few other stations around, and put in this enormous dam.

Playford quite admitted to the fact that he put a writ out against the other governments as a means of making sure they financially supported his proposal. So it was a political play. He admitted that in 1972 in an interview long after ... he was no longer Premier. But I'm very interested in the synergies between now and then, how it has been something that has never been resolved. So we still see today, 2012, Burke trying to sell the Murray-Darling Basin plan to all these areas and really, finding the same sorts of obstacles. South Australia is still saying they are going to take the government to court. I suppose the Chowilla Dam proposal is very emblematic of how nothing’s really changed.

It was also an early awareness of environmental issues, from people who are often accused of not having an environmental awareness, which are the farmers and the horticulturalists. We come back to today for example, in 2012, and often in the papers, the horticulturalists in particular are seen as rednecks, using far too much water, saying there’s too much going to the environment, all of these sorts of issues – that’s how they’re sort of painted.

But back in the 1960s, it was the farmers, the Labor Party, very unusual bedfellows, as you could imagine, and a science teacher from Renmark High School, Jack Seekamp, who formed the Sunraysia Salinity Committee, because they’d worked out that this dam proposal would really spike the salinity in the area and cause enormous evaporation problems.

Matt Smith

So how was it sold then to the public? What was it being sold on besides the management of water?

Jennifer Hamilton-McKenzie

That was it, really. That was really it. I mean it had a burgeoning sort of industrialisation of South Australia at the time – we had Elizabeth and the Holden manufacturing going on there, so South Australia was really starting to wrap itself up, industrially. It needed a really secure water supply, and as I said, at the end of the chain, very nervous. A very dry state, South Australia. We live in the driest inhabited country in the world. Water’s always going to be a huge issue. And I think it’s never far from the surface of all our politics in many ways, as water usage.

So the idea of having this enormous – it covered 530 square miles, of which only 46 square miles were in South Australia, the rest were in New South Wales and Victoria. So it was a great imposition on those other states, to keep up the water supply for South Australia.

This proposal would have swamped Lock 7, and Lock 8 and 9 would have been submerged at alternative times as well. So it’s just an enormous dam that would have caused a great deal of environmental damage.

Matt Smith

What would have happened without that though? There’s already going to be an effect from the Snowy River.

Jennifer Hamilton-McKenzie

Mmm. But only minimal. It was only perceived, I think. It was a perceived thing, as much as this is ideas downstream, that you’re going to run out of water is a perception in many ways. The problem with it would have been that it would have been twelve feet in depth most of the time, so this huge dam, twelve feet in depth, the evaporation alone would have been enormous, so something like 750,000 of its 4 million 600 acre feet of water would have been lost every year to evaporation. That would even perhaps change the weather patterns of the area.

Matt Smith

You said that some locals got involved in environmental activism, which is a bit forward thinking at that time.

Jennifer Hamilton-McKenzie

It was actually, because we sort of think of the Franklin Dam as being the wake-up moment of environmentalism in Australia, but here were these people who were ahead of the engineers. I’ve actually seen the initial report that the Chowilla Dam was based on ... that was an engineering report ... it’s only about six pages long. Very, very shallow in its research, and environmental aspects aren’t even considered. And salinity in particular isn’t considered. Allocation certainly isn’t considered. You know how it’s a great fight now, about how much is going to be allocated to the environment, how much to industry, how much to home use, how much to agriculture. Well then it was never even considered. It was carte blanche, take as much as you want.

So in these early stages, I think it’s quite noteworthy that members of the Labor Party here, who were in stark contrast to the South Australian colleagues who were for it, made a stand. And they talked about these issues. They talked about evaporation. They talked about salinity, talked about growth of weeds, which would be really damaging to the river system.

Matt Smith

Was there a personal stake in this at all for them?

Jennifer Hamilton-McKenzie

I suppose that they wanted to be able to keep a clean supply of water to their plants. I don’t think the Labor Party’s ever been voted in or hasn’t been voted in in this area, ever. So it’s a completely unusual union of people. Ted Lawton actually was in the Labor Party at the time and he was the first person, many years ago, who told me about this campaign, and he actually drove it. A lot of my research actually is from the files he’s kept. He had a great letter writing campaign going. He really kept knocking on doors. He really kept saying, watch this. This is going to be an environmental disaster of huge proportions if we don’t pull it back.

At some stage Steele became Premier of South Australia, Steele Hall, and he actually went against the proposal. He did look at it and he realised that financially it had become enormous. He also saw that the environmental impact was going to be quite strong. He knew he couldn’t sell the environmental impact as a reason of going against it, but he could the financial. Environmental awareness wasn’t alive then. So he actually ran against Don Dunstan in South Australia on no dam, and Don Dunstan of the Labor Party, ran on pro-dam. And he won the election, Don Dunstan, so it was in his interests to sort of keep flogging it.

Unfortunately, he was flogging a dead horse because it was obviously financially out of control, and people began to become very aware of the environmental impact. The interesting thing I think is that the community survived the divisions that were caused from people who thought having that wonderful guaranteed water resource in their eyes, against the people who saw the environmental damage, because environmentalism just wasn’t on the radar back then.

Matt Smith

So how do you go about getting word of that out, because it seems that the main thing that’s going to go against a project like this, is public opinion. But when public opinion is so pro – this is good for us for water, for the economy, for generating local employment, how did they go about getting the word out that, no, this isn’t good for the environment and we shouldn’t be doing this?

Jennifer Hamilton-McKenzie

I don’t think that they tried to convince the local populous. I don’t think they tried to convince the people that were in their own area. I think they kind of got it, that perceived vested interest. Who they targeted were the politicians, very strongly. They used also, not just the environmental factors, but the growth in expenditure. It was quite amazing. It actually started off at 14 million pound and it ended up somewhere at 36 million pound.

Because there were so many stakeholders – you had South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and the Commonwealth Government, all purporting to put some money into this and/or land into this. Tenders were called in 1962 but they weren’t received until 1967. So there was a lot of argy barging going on between the states. And again, I just hear it all echoing here in 2012, all the argy barging between the states and the Commonwealth.

Matt Smith

As a result of the dam not going ahead, was the concern changing water? Was it unfounded completely?

Jennifer Hamilton-McKenzie

No, I think it was a great thing that it didn’t go ahead. It would have caused an environmental damage, quite enormously. It was something like twenty miles wide and fifty miles long, which is an enormous capacity dam. They did actually lop a hell of a lot of red gums in the process.

Matt Smith

So they did preparation for the dam?

Jennifer Hamilton-McKenzie

They did preparations, yeah. Quite enormous amount of damage. If you go down there now, you can see where it’s been damaged. Yes, South Australia does have some sort of credence in saying, yes, we want the water, because the Murray mouth had dried up for some time during the drought. The Dartmouth Dam was in the end built, in place of the Chowilla Dam. It was probably a better-positioned dam. But I think, what I sort of find really interesting about this whole contestation over the water issues, is it highlights the whole contestation between states and the Commonwealth government. It’s a constant. And this is the one constant, apart from just money allocation, water.

Matt Smith

That’s Dr Jennifer Hamilton-McKenzie, a historian from the Mildura Campus of La Trobe University, and that’s all the time we have today for the La Trobe University podcast. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast, or any other, then send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au.

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