The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme is one of the most complex integrated water and hydro-electric power schemes in the world. The scheme, which was constructed from 1949-74, was a pioneering engineering feat for Australia and the world, and remains a fixture in Australia’s calendar of historical achievements.

The scheme collects and stores the water that would normally flow east to the coast and diverts it through trans-mountain tunnels and power stations. The water is then released into the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers for irrigation. The scheme is operated and maintained by Snowy Hydro Limited.

Sixteen major dams, seven major power stations (two underground), a pumping station, 145 km of inter-connected trans-mountain tunnels, 80 km of aqueducts and 12.9 km of pressure pipelines were constructed. Even before the scheme was completed, it was named as one of the civil engineering wonders of the modern world.

Today, Snowy Hydro continues to play a vital role in the growth and the development of Australia’s national economy, by diverting water that underwrites over $3 billion in agricultural produce and by generating clean renewable energy.

Snowy Hydro currently provides around 40 per cent of all renewable energy that is available to the eastern mainland grid of Australia, as well as providing fast response power to light up the morning and evening rush hours

As a means of offsetting the disastrous effects of drought, the concept of diverting water from some of Australia’s best-known rivers – the Murray, Murrumbidgee, Snowy and Tumut rivers – dates back as far as the 1880s. However, it was not until 1944 that a committee of Commonwealth and State representatives was formed to examine, from a broad, national viewpoint, the development of the water resources of the Snowy Mountains area.

On 7 July 1949, the Commonwealth Parliament passed The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Power Act 1949, which established the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority, the operating body of the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

Construction officially started on the scheme on 17 October 1949, when the Governor-General, Sir William McKell, Prime Minister Ben Chifley and the scheme’s Chief Engineer and Commissioner William Hudson fired the first blast at Adaminaby. Construction was completed in 1974, for a total historical cost (funded by Commonwealth Government advances) of $820 million.

Working on the Snowy Hydro

Between 1949, when the first blasting shot was fired, and by 1974, when the physical works of the scheme were completed, over 100,000 people from more than 30 countries had worked on the scheme. Australians formed the largest nationality group on the scheme, making up one-third of the workforce, which reached a peak of 7,300 in 1959.

Many migrants were escaping war-torn Europe to begin a new life in a new land. Working together on the scheme, they became part of the Snowy family, with former enemies and allies working side-by-side.

During construction, seven regional townships and over 100 temporary camps were established throughout the Snowy Mountains. These towns and camps serviced the men, women and families who came to build the scheme. Life in the camps was extremely hard, especially during the early years, when hundreds of men spent harsh winters in canvas tents with only basic amenities and provisions.

A sense of companionship and camaraderie grew out of hard work and isolation. Community centres and health facilities were established in towns around the scheme. Cooma changed from a quiet farming town to a cosmopolitan centre with nightclubs, hotels, and delicatessens with new and exotic foods.

In 1974, when construction on the scheme was finished, many of the workers dispersed to new jobs in Australia and overseas. But by far a majority of those who came to build the scheme and a new life stayed, becoming Australian citizens. These new Australians, with their energy and enterprise, would change Australia’s social and cultural skyline forever.

Pipelines in the Snowy Hydro

The Snowy Hydro pipeline network is constructed to deliver water under pressure to hydro-electric power stations, where the water is used to spin the turbines in
hydro-electric generators.

Unions and industrial disputes

There were numerous industrial disputes during construction of the pressure pipelines. The construction reports for Murray 1 Pressure Pipelines describe “numerous setbacks due to industrial problems”. Similarly, the construction reports for Tumut 3 Pressure Pipelines note that industrial relations were “never really satisfactory and work was often disrupted due to disputes, many of a trifling nature”.

There were 66 days lost to industrial disputes in two years at Tumut 3. The construction report notes that there was full employment across the country at the time and it was considered that the union movement generally took advantage of that situation to push claims for higher wages and improved conditions.

Memorable figures

Mr R.R. Neal was Snowy Hydro’s Resident Engineer for construction of the Murray 1 Pressure Pipeline. He was supported by Mr T.L. Sweeney who was
the Contracts Engineer. Mr Sweeney went on to be Resident Engineer for construction of the Tumut 3 Pressure Pipelines and later worked on the
Westgate Bridge in Melbourne.

Mr R Hellard was Senior Inspector overseeing quality control at the pipe factory for Tumut 3. Mr H Jackson was Resident Engineer for the contractor, Humes Limited, on the Murray 1 Pressure Pipelines. Mr J Cunningham was Factory Manager at Humes Limited’s Corryong fabrication site.

Managing logistics in unchartered territory

The pressure pipelines were constructed in steep terrain with extremes of weather. Workers lived in construction camps built near to the sites. Many were migrants, especially during the work in the 1950s and 1960s.

Pipe factories were built near to the sites. Plate steel was rolled and welded into pipe sections and lengths of pipe were lowered on trolleys and rail lines into the location on the pipe benches. They were then welded into continuous lengths in-situ. The logistics of handling the pipes in steep terrain was a significant challenge.

Roads were usually poor or non-existent at these locations before Snowy scheme construction. The pressure pipelines are all at locations adjacent to hydro-electric power stations, and decent quality roads were built to the power stations for transport of the generators, transformers and other large equipment. From these roads, access tracks were built onto the pipeline benches.

In addition, the terrain, weather and relatively remote locations presented significant challenges in the 1950s and 1960s.

The construction reports for the pressure pipelines also describe some of the technical challenges faced by the designers and builders. These include:

  • Obtaining large quantities of steel plate with consistently acceptable quality – some of the steel delivered failed to meet specifications and the builders found it difficult to find steel suppliers able to consistently roll plates with the specified chemistry and physical properties.
  • Retaining suitably skilled and qualified welding inspectors was difficult – many came into these roles with basic knowledge and then found, with the specialist training they received, they were able to get higher paid jobs at other places.
  • Resolving problems with consistent application of pipeline internal coatings – several of the pressure pipelines have an enamel internal coating which, if not applied correctly, was found to crack and separate from the steel pipe surface.

Contracts for construction

The contract for construction of the Guthega Pressure Pipelines was awarded in September 1951 to Selmer Engineering Pty Ltd, a Norwegian company. The scope for that contract also included construction of Guthega Dam, Guthega Pressure Tunnel and the Guthega Power Station buildings. At the time of award, the contract amount was
$12 million.

The contract for construction of the Jindabyne Pressure Pipelines was awarded in January 1966 to John Holland (Constructions) Pty Ltd. The scope for that contract also included construction of Jindabyne surge tank and the Jindabyne Pumping Station building. At the time of award, the contract amount was $5 million.

The contracts for construction of the Tumut 3, Murray 1 and Murray 2 Pressure Pipelines were each awarded to Humes Ltd, an Australian company, working in association with Sulzer Bros of Switzerland. The three separate contracts were awarded between November 1962 and February 1968 and at the time of their respective awards, the contract amounts totalled
$21 million.

Innovations on the scheme

Tumut 3 Power Station was the first major pump-storage scheme in Australia. Pump-storage schemes use off-peak energy to pump water to a reservoir on a higher level. This water then passes through turbines to generate electricity when prices are higher. The Tumut 3 Pressure Pipelines are a vital part of this system.

The Snowy scheme made pioneering use of computers to aid in design of the new structures. “Snowcom” was Australia’s first transistorised computer and one of the first dozen or so computers in the world. Designed and built by the University of Sydney for the Authority to use for engineering and design calculations, it was delivered to the Authority’s scientific offices in August 1960. Snowcom’s design was based around a drum memory, which had a memory equivalent to 8,000 bytes, holding 2,048 words and there was no disk. By using what were then advanced computer-based techniques both in the commercial and engineering fields, the scheme was completed on time and within budget. Snowcom was used until 1967 and the Authority was a leader in its field in the use of this technology on a project of this kind.

Industrial safety was a vital concern of the Authority during construction. Safety practices on the scheme were well ahead of comparable projects around the world at that time. Sir William Hudson made the wearing of seatbelts compulsory in all Snowy Mountains Authority vehicles in 1960, a decade before the rest of the country. Each employee was required to sign a statement agreeing to wear a seatbelt before they could start work. This had a direct impact on limiting serious injuries and casualties for workers through the rough and mountainous conditions.

Through developing innovations such as these in construction, in 1967 the American Society of Civil Engineers rated the Snowy Mountains Scheme as one of the civil engineering wonders of the modern world. Snowy Hydro’s approach to engineering excellence has continued in the ongoing operation and maintenance of the scheme, ensuring the reliability and integrity of the scheme for hundreds of years to come.

The Snowy in the 21st Century

The Snowy Hydro pipelines are in normal operation and maintenance. There is no new construction or significant refurbishment works underway. Each of the pipelines are regularly inspected and minor maintenance works are carried out as necessary. The pipelines have each been recoated both externally and internally at various times. The steel, joints, valves and ancillary equipment are all in good condition.

The Snowy Hydro pipelines do not connect with major transmission lines. They are independent structures existing only to convey water from Snowy Hydro’s water storage reservoirs to its power stations.

All of the Snowy Hydro pipelines are in good condition and fully functional. There have been no significant defects or failures in the original construction and it is expected to operate for many years into the future.

PIPELINES: Length, Diameter & Material
Tumut 3 Pressure Pipelines: 6 parallel lines each 488 m long, 5.56 m, medium tensile steel.
Guthega Pressure Pipelines: 1 line 579 m long plus 2 parallel lines each 396 m long,1 line 3.05 m reducing to 2.79 m; 2 lines 2.13 m reducing to 1.52 m, low tensile steel.
Jindabyne Pressure Pipeline: 1,010 m including surge riser, 3.07 m reducing to 2.79 m, low tensile steel.
Murray 1 Pressure Pipelines: 3 parallel lines; each 1,560 m long, 1 line 3.20 m reducing to 2.36 m; 2 lines 4.19 m reducing to 3.43 m, medium tensile steel
Murray 2 Pressure Pipelines: 2 parallel lines; each 1,455 m long, 4.57 m reducing to 4.11m, medium tensile steel.

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