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Impact of the Scheme
Snowy - MAIN

Indigenous Australians and the Snowy
The Snowy River and its hinterland have sustained humans for thousands of years. Before European colonists went to the region in the early 19th century, the Indigenous Ngarigo, Walgalu and Southern Ngunnawal people lived and interacted in the region. They fished in its waters and hunted game in the surrounding countryside. Around Jindabyne, the river rocks were used extensively for tool making. Men and women had separate sacred water holes for purification ceremonies. In the warmer months people would travel to the high country to feast on bogong moths.

This photograph taken by Charles Kerry around 1890 shows Boona, a Ngarigo woman from the Monaro region which surrounded the Snowy River. She was referred to as a Queen of the Manero by whites. Although the title did not accurately reflect Aboriginal tribal hierarchies, it may well have indicated that she held a significant place within her tribal group. Boona of the Cooma Tribe
Photo: Boona of the Cooma Tribe by Charles Kerry. Tyrrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

The Snowy in the 19th century
From the 1820s Indigenous people were gradually dispossessed as colonists from Europe and Asia arrived. Polish explorer P.E. Strzelecki was among the first Europeans to explore the area. He named Mount Kosciuszko, Australia's highest mountain, after Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746-1817), an engineer and soldier. By the end of the 19th century the Ngarigo and Wolgal population had dwindled as a result of disease, violence and dispersal.

The river took on a different significance for the colonists who now occupied the area for grazing, farming and gold mining. Exotic trout were introduced from the late 1880s and within a decade the Snowy had become renowned for its sport fishing. Most notably, the area became associated with the emerging national mythology of the Australian bushman, following the publication of Banjo Paterson's poem about the exploits of the high country stockman, The man from Snowy River, in 1895.

This photograph titled Glimpse on the Snowy River, was one of several images of the river taken by prolific commercial photographer Charles Kerry around the time that Paterson wrote his poem.

Glimpse on the Snowy River
Photo: Glimpse on the Snowy River by Charles Kerry. Tyrrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum

A wasted resource?
Despite its mythologisation, the Snowy River was also regarded by many non-indigenous Australians as a wasted resource because it flowed to the sea through country that was already well watered. Proposals to divert the river for irrigation and power generation were presented from as early as the 1880s but it was not until the 1940s that the necessary resources and technological capacity were realised with the Snowy Mountains Scheme. The Snowy River was finally dammed twice: first at its headwaters at Island Bend in 1965, and again downstream at Jindabyne in 1967.

After Lake Jindabyne was created, 99% of the river's water was retained and diverted for power generation and irrigation. In October 2000 however, the NSW and Victorian governments with the Federal government, agreed to a program to return 28% of the river's former flow by 2010.

Impact on the environment

The Snowy Mountains Scheme has resulted in enormous environmental upheaval and change. The impact on the environment is a complex issue to assess. There are at least two different points of view to consider. Read the material below and summarise in a list the positive and negative impacts.

Environmental and social costs
The contradictory view of the Snowy River as both a cherished landscape and a resource to be exploited, has characterised white Australian attitudes towards the river to the present day. Groups such as the Snowy River Alliance campaigned vigorously in the 1990s to restore more of the river's flow. They argued that with only one percent of its original water, the ecology of the river was collapsing.

Those who lived down stream from the Jindabyne Dam were compelled to find alternative sources of water. These people had been told that the Scheme would stop spring flooding. After the damming of the Snowy, they struggled to get enough water for domestic and commercial use.

Significantly campaigners bolstered their arguments by emphasizing the river's heritage significance as the 'birthplace' of the Man from Snowy River. In 1998 they organised a protest on the banks of the Snowy at Dalgety featuring Tom Burlinson, the actor who had played the Man from Snowy River in the 1980s telemovie. The river, it was argued, was as much a 'national cultural icon' as it was a ecological system to be restored.

This ‘Save the Snowy’ poster was one of many produced by the Snowy River Alliance to publicise the plight of the river. Through meetings, petitions, and political lobbying they have managed to make their case a significant issue in the press and parliament.

Environmental concerns were not confined to the Snowy River in the east. Critics of the Scheme also pointed to the waste of water that occurs through evaporation and seepage along its route from east to west and authority over its management shifts from the Authority to other state bodies. Dry land salinity in the western farnlands, resulting from the rising salt table caused by excessive irrigation, was another major concern.

Snowy River Alliance
Courtesy: Snowy River Alliance

Environmental and social benefits
The Snowy Mountains Scheme provides about 74% of available renewable energy on the eastern mainland Australian electricity grid and 28% nationwide. This represents a displacement of more than 5 million tonnes of 'greenhouse gases' that contribute to global warming every year. As hydro-generated energy it does not pollute the atmosphere and as it is part of the water cycle, it is renewable. Unlike other renewable energy sources it is easy to store and the water can be used several times as it passes through a series of power stations. In addition, the Scheme's scenic lakes and reservoirs are used for recreation by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

The water diverted westward from the Snowy, Tumut and other rivers by the Scheme, contributes to the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area in the dry inland of NSW. Farmlands irrigated by the Snowy water produce millions of dollars worth of crops every year, for the national and international markets. Irrigation sustains dozens of agricultural communities in this region of Australia. In 1968 an entire town, Coleambally, was created as a result of the new flow of water

Rhona Morton, pictured here, and her husband Les moved to a farm in the Coleambally area in 1964. They lived in this caravan and a shed for 2 years while building a house. It took several years of work before the farm returned a profit.

Photo: courtesy L and R Morton
Photo: courtesy L and R Morton

Irrigated crops
The irrigated fruit and grain crops produced in western NSW are worth millions of dollars annually. This photograph shows irrigation canals at a citrus orchard in the Riverina.

Photo: Gregory Heath, courtesy CSIRO Land and Water, Griffith Laboratory.

Rice is the main summer crop in the Murray and Murrumbidgee valleys of western NSW. Fields, like this one, remain flooded for 4-5 months and therefore need large amounts of irrigation water. Rice is a significant export crop.

Photo: Gregory Heath, courtesy CSIRO Land and Water, Griffith Laboratory.

The Snowy Water Inquiry
An inquiry was set up into the flow of the Snowy and hundreds of submissions were received locally and from further afield. The inquiry found that restoring 30% of the Snowy flows was not economically viable. It recommended instead 15% along with improvements to irrigation pratices in the west. The balance of power shifted markedly in 1999 when a local pro-river independent candidate for the Victorian parliament, Craig Ingram, defeated the sitting National Party member in the State election. Along with two others he held the balance of power after a landslide vote against Jeff Kennett’s coalition government. Ingram’s newfound power was instrumental in getting Victoria and NSW to commit to funding better irrigation practices including the enclosure of canals to stop evaporation in order to return flow to the Snowy. The accompanying commitment to restore 28% of the river’s flow was hailed by farmers in the east and conservationists.

The fight was bitter because, as the Commissioner of the Water Inquiry Robert Webster noted, restoration of flow to the Snowy pitted three Australian icons against each other, the river which had been immortalised by Banjo Paterson's poem; the Snowy Mountains Hydro electric scheme which generates clean electricity and was arguably the seat of Australian multiculturalism; and the food bowl of the farmlands of the Murray and the Murrumbidgee, irrigated by additional flows from the Snowy. However the result is evidence of the increased questioning of dry land irrigation and dam construction in Australia and is potentially one of Australia’s most significant cases of environmental rehabilitation.

1. Read the following articles about the future of the Snowy River.
Bonyhady, T. (2000) Old man icon, Sydney Morning Herald, May 20, 6S.
Condon, M. (2000) Roaring glory, The Australian Magazine, October 14-15, pp 16-20.
2. Visit the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority web-site to download a PDF file of the document Meeting the environmental challenge (1999).


Impact on society
Lost places
The creation of the huge Eucumbene, Jindabyne, Blowering and Jounama reservoirs resulted in the flooding of thousands of hectares of land. Two whole towns, Adaminaby and Jindabyne, and numerous farms and homesteads were inundated. Thousands of years of Aboriginal history were also lost beneath the waters. Both Adaminaby and Jindabyne were rebuilt nearby as new towns that were heralded as modern and comfortable. People were compensated by the Authority for their losses and relocated.

Aboriginal people from around Tumut and the Monaro lost their land to European colonists long before the Snowy Mountains Scheme started. Those remaining by the end of the 1800s were moved off to missions and reserves. They left many objects and sites of social and spiritual significance. Some were recorded before land was flooded for the Scheme, others remain unknown. These places and objects are lost to descendants of the original inhabitants and to the country. This 19th century Aboriginal grave near Jindabyne was recorded by anthropologist Richard Helms in his article 'Anthropological Notes', Journal of Proceedings of Linnaen Society, 1895. Illustration of 19th century Aboriginal grave
Illustration of 19th century Aboriginal grave from Richard Helms 'Anthropological Notes' 1895.

Sixty years later Dom Rankin took this photograph of his family home in Jindabyne with a Box Brownie camera. It was the last time he saw his family home. When the photograph was taken, the building had already been sold to the Authority and was demolished shortly afterwards. home
Photo: Dom Rankin

New towns
Some people were happy with their compensation and the prospect of moving to a modern town, but others grieved at giving up their homes in the national interest. This grief, writes historian Peter Read, is for "lost places" and "lost roots, lost childhood or a lost community". The new Adaminaby, located several kilometres away from Lake Eucumbene, suffered from physical and economic isolation. The new Jindabyne, however, has flourished partly as a result of its proximity to Lake Jindabyne, which provided a new identity and source of income. (Read, 1996: 75-100)

Many other properties across the Blowering Valley were flooded with the construction of the Blowering and Jounama Dams in the 1960s. These included Talbingo Station, the birthplace of renowned Australian writer Miles Franklin. Jack Bridle's family moved to the valley in 1848. Jack, a local historian and poet, was born at a nearby settlement but arrived at Blowering as a boy in 1921. After the dams were built Jack Bridle farewelled his valley in a poem that highlights the association of place with personal identity and family and community history.

Snowy Scheme kids
Thousands of children grew up around the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Many, of course, were local children. They saw their towns change with the development of the Scheme. Others came to the area because one or both parents found work there. They lived in large established towns like Cooma or construction townships such as Cabramurra and Eaglehawk. Many others were born on the Scheme.

The presence of so many children changed the shape of existing towns. Recreational facilities, schools and baby health centres were required and were built by the Authority or the major construction companies. At Jindabyne, for instance, the Authority provided a school building. At Cooma it subsidised the construction of a public pool.

Cooma public pool.
Cooma public pool. Photo: Bayram Ali (Powerhouse Museum Collection)

The Snowy was a unique place to grow up because of the climate, the social mix and the mobility of many of the families. Children learnt to ski for fun and out of necessity. The photograph below shows boys practising ski jumping at Cabramurra, in the late 1950s. Cabramurra is the highest town in Australia and during the years of the Scheme it hosted many skiing events.

Photo: Bayram Ali (Powerhouse Museum Collection)

Some immigrant workers brought children with them from overseas. While they often went through the difficult experience of being different from local children in language, dress and custom, the presence of so many different cultures also helped overcome such problems. The photograph below shows boys at Eaglehawk standing with a soccer ball on the township's playing fields. An organised game for workers proceeds in the background. Soccer was a relatively uncommon sport in regional NSW in the 1950s but it was popular with migrant workers and their children.

local people
Photo: Bayram Ali (Powerhouse Museum Collection)

Kalev Tarmo, son of an Estonian worker, lived high in the mountains at Happy Jacks village. He commented on the effect of the experience on growing-up:

We became different to a lot of other children. We found we could be on our own longer and be more independent, and the friendships seemed to be more binding. We subscribed to a lot of periodicals and radio was a big thing. (McHugh, 1989: 200)

Australian-born Chris Griffiths recalled his childhood at Tumut:

We didn't really think it was any different from anywhere else... In winter you'd go visiting the other houses... their parents might be French so you'd have French tucker. The next lot might be German and they'd have all these knick-knacks lyin' around… that's what was interesting. (McHugh, 1989: 201)

Families often moved from one construction township to another as projects were finished and others commenced. The settlements were often divided by work status into precincts. In Cooma, for example, children of wages or trades personnel went to Cooma East school, while the children of salaried or professional staff went to Cooma North school.

A Multicultural workforce
When the Scheme began in 1949, there was a shortage of scientific and engineering skills to meet the challenges posed by the project. A massive national and international recruitment programme was carried out. Migrants from many countries with skills in surveying, tunnelling, geology, hydrology, and transmission-line installation, came to Australia to work on the Scheme.

Australians worked alongside people from over 30 different countries like Great Britain, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Italy and Norway.

All strata of society were represented, from the inhabitants of historic centres of culture like Vienna and Budapest, Berlin and Paris, to those living in remote villages in the Balkans and Ukraine in conditions not far removed from feudal times. (Raymond: 1999: 60)

The Snowy Mountains Scheme is often portrayed as the start of multiculturalism in Australia because of the intensity and success of its cultural mix. This claim tends to obscure a long history of cultural diversity across Australia. From Broome in the north of Western Australia to Melbourne in the south east of the continent, there were many examples of different peoples living, working and socialising together before the initiation of the Scheme.

Contract workers

Many of those who came from overseas were employed by the large contracted firms from Norway, France and the USA. Having completed their work they returned to their country of origin.

The Schemes's first operational dam, tunnel, pressure pipeline, turbo-generators and transformers were built by Norwegians from the firm Selmer Engineering Pty Ltd using technology from the British firms English Electric Co. Ltd and Hackbridge and Hewittic Ltd. The picture on the right shows Norwegian tunnellers at Guthega in the early 1950s. Most of this workforce returned to Norway after completion of the project.


Contract worker
Photo: SMA

Other Snowy workers arrived in Australia as refugees from postwar Europe. Australia took 180 000 'Displaced Persons' between 1947 and 1951. Typically these people had lost their homes during the war or had left their countries after Communist regimes were established. In Australia they were required to work for two years in assigned jobs in return for refuge. Some were sent to the Snowy, others made their way there after serving their two years elsewhere.

Unassisted immigrants
By far the largest group of overseas-born Snowy workers arrived in Australia as unassisted immigrants, part of the nearly 2 500 000 people who came to Australia between 1947 and 1974. Some of these people had heard of the Scheme before they left their homelands, others moved to the Snowy in search of work after they arrived.

Most were of European origin because the White Australia policy discouraged Asian and coloured immigration. However Australia was still very different to countries left behind. As a result these people both adapted to, and changed, their new communities.

Bayram Ali was one of the unassisted immigrants who found his own way to the Scheme after coming to Australia. He arrived from Cyprus in 1949 with his passport. Because Cyprus was then a colony of Great Britain, Ali carried a British passport. As Australia had close cultural, political and economic ties with Britain, he was not regarded as an alien.

Bayram Ali. Powerhouse Museum Collection

Becoming Australian
Through the 1950s and much of the 1960s, Australia's immigration policy was guided by the ideal of assimilation. 'New Australians' were expected to fit in with existing Anglo-Celtic customs and traditions. In 1952 Immigration Minister Harold Holt spoke of building 'a truly British nation on this side of the world' by imposing these customs on migrants.

Between 1948 and 1983, British and Irish migrants received citizenship rights - which included the right to vote - after five years residency. Others had to be 'naturalised'. This process involved swearing allegiance to the British monarch.

citizenship ceremony in Cooma Queen Elizabeth's portrait is prominent at this citizenship ceremony in Cooma in the early 1960s. Photo: Bayram Ali (Powerhouse Museum Collection)

The photograph above shows a naturalisation ceremony in Cooma in the early 1960s. The portrait of Queen Elizabeth II is visible at the back of the stage. It also appeared on naturalisation certificates. However, the woman addressing the crowd is Tanya Verstak the first non-Anglo Miss Australia. Her presence suggests a shift in attitudes towards migrants and the acceptance of cultural diversity. In 1959 the town of Cooma built an avenue of flags in its main park to acknowledge the contribution of different nationalities to the Scheme. An International Club was established to celebrate different cultures and public debates on the place of migrants in Australian society were held.

Despite the emphasis on assimilation, migrants did not abandon their cultural practices and beliefs. Anti-communist workers, from Balkan states in particular, frequently removed the communist Yugoslav flag in the avenue of flags. Attempts to reinstate the flag were eventually abandoned.

This German carpenters' guild scarf was brought to Australia by Karl Rieck. Like his colleagues, Karl wore his traditional carpenter's costume of black corduroy while working at Island Bend, in deference to his native country's guild rules. The German carpenters were among the most distinctive groups on the Scheme.

Lutherans established a congregation in Cooma and built a church that continues to service their community. Delicatessens and restaurants offering a range of foods for the new European communities opened in Cooma and Tumut where previously there had been only traditional Anglo-Australian cuisine.

Photo: Sotha Bourn
(Powerhouse Museum Collection)

Snowy workers from Norway, Czechoslovakia, Italy and Germany helped to develop the small Australian skiing industry. Kore and Eva Grunnsund followed in the footsteps of an earlier Norwegian immigrant, Martin Amundsen, who introduced new skiing technologies and techniques to Australia in the 1880s. Czechoslovakian born Tony Sponar helped to establish Thredbo as a major tourist resort. The photograph below shows a ski jump built at the authority town of Cabramurra. The event is probably the NSW and National Championships of 1961, which featured ski jumping, slalom and langlauf (cross-country) events.

Photo: Bayram Ali (Powerhouse Museum Collection)


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