Striking gold in water management

Climate change poses one of the greatest threats to the planet, so how can we better manage our most valuable resource – water? The key to future water management could lie in analysing lessons from the past.

At La Trobe University, researchers Professor Susan Lawrence, Dr Peter Davies and Associate Professor Ewen Silvester are examining the water infrastructure built to sustain the Victorian goldfields in the 19th century.

As mining was reliant upon good water supply, these early pioneers discovered innovative ways to transport water. Their methods informed the development of complex municipal water supplies for cities, leading directly to private ownership laws and today’s water allocation practices.

How miners revolutionised Victoria’s waterways

The Australian Gold Rush began in 1851, and according to Professor Lawrence, it ‘wasn’t a little flash in the pan when everyone went crazy’. In fact, it was a mining bonanza that spanned 50 years and profoundly affected many aspects of Australian life.

Multiculturalism, democracy and modern attitudes to home ownership (the Australian Dream of owning a quarter-acre block) all had their origins in the Gold Rush. So did water management, as Dr Lawrence explains, including ‘the way we use water, the way the Victorian landscape looks today and the way Victorian rivers operate today’.

Miners had to be resourceful. For a start, mining uses large amounts of water, and Victoria isn’t exactly blessed with an abundance of surface water.

There was a lot of mining, too – it was a gold rush, after all. Miners became skilled in constructing catchment systems to capture and store rainwater, diverting it over long distances to where it would be most useful.

This was simple technology, but very effective. As Professor Lawrence explains, miners dug channels (‘water races’) from dams built on gullies and creeks, ‘diverting water sideways across the hills from a very slight gradient to their mining claims’. By 1868, there was a 4,000 km-network of water races criss-crossing the Victorian colony.

That mining expertise resonates today in a different and more pressing context. Professor Lawrence says that miners’ knowledge of rainfall and dam building is invaluable ‘because Victoria, and Australia, generally, has relatively little surface water’.

By contrast, in the Californian goldfields of the 19th century, miners used snowmelts to obtain water and power their mines. In Victoria, Professor Lawrence says, ‘they had to collect the water – it fell. They didn’t have streams and lakes. In Australia, we just have rainfall and we have to store it somewhere. That’s the only way we can obtain water sustainably.’

Lessons from the past

For Dr Davies, researching the Australian goldfields taught him important lessons about appreciating water and being aware of where it originates. ‘These days,’ he says, ‘we turn on a tap and it seems a distant thing. I’ve certainly become aware of the importance of water and how important it is to capture and save as much of it as possible.’

Miners were self-sufficient. In Beechworth, according to Professor Lawrence, ‘they built massive water systems and carried huge quantities of water a long way’. However, large-scale systems like this weren’t universally applied. At Castlemaine, ‘people managed their own water locally and built hundreds of small dams. Each miner would have their own little dam. It was a really different way of using water, like domestic water tanks today.’

At the end of their research, Professor Lawrence and Dr Davies were faced with wider questions about what happened to the water when it entered the landscape in a polluted state from mining.

As they are both archaeologists, they brought in researchers with specialised expertise, primarily geomorphologists and environmental chemists, to uncover where the water went from mining and what the implications are for the present day. Dr Silvester was added to the team, with a view to using chemical techniques to identify contaminants in sludge deposits. This will allow researchers to determine risks to water quality.

How early waterways can shape the future

The team’s research can help Australia’s long-term water use become sustainable. Nineteenth-century goldmining was a technology adapted to a particular water-challenged environment, and if the worst effects of climate change continue to be felt, it can assist us to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

As Professor Lawrence highlights, conservation of water is one of the most important lessons miners can teach us. ‘Even when the miners had all this water and all their systems,’ she says, ‘they still ran out. It was a seasonal supply. They would work while they had water and then they would go and do something else.’

Another critical lesson centres on reuse. As Dr Davies explains, ‘in areas with hills and slopes and gullies, one miner up top would use the water, then the dirty water would flow down and might be left to settle out and clean a bit, before being used by another miner. Sometimes, it might be used by three or four groups as it came down. Reuse was part of their strategy.’

Today, with the far-reaching work of this multidisciplinary team well under way, the answer as to how we might best manage our water supply could be closer than we think.

Professor Susan Lawrence is Head of the Department of Archaeology and History at La Trobe University, and Dr Peter Davies is a research associate in the department. Associate Professor Ewen Silvester is Associate Professor in La Trobe’s Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution.

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