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Land of Opportunity: Australia's post-war reconstruction

Water conservation and irrigation

In February 1940, six months after the start of the war, Senator George McLeay, the Minister for Commerce, presented a Cabinet submission on post-war planning. He argued that expanding markets for Australia's primary and secondary industries required a larger population. New employment would be found in a 'sound system of public works', in particular water conservation and hydro-electric projects would create a great demand for labour and on completion would contribute significantly to national development. During the war and in the immediate post-war years, every state government produced plans for major water conservation projects, often requiring the assistance of the Commonwealth Government. They were seen as among the most tangible expressions of post-war reconstruction, even though some of them were not completed until many years or even decades after the war.

Murray River

In 1939 the South Australian government secured funding to build a 223-mile pipeline, with associated pumping works and reservoirs, to bring water from the Murray River to Whyalla. This followed the decision of Broken Hill Pty Ltd to establish a steelworks and shipbuilding yards at Whyalla. Completed in March 1944, the Morgan–Whyalla pipeline was the largest engineering project undertaken in South Australia. It gave Whyalla a water supply of 1200 million gallons per annum, for both domestic and industrial use, and a further 900 million gallons to towns and properties east of Spencer's Gulf. As part of the scheme, the Commonwealth Government agreed to purchase water from the South Australian government for the Trans-Continental Railway. The pipeline transformed Whyalla into an industrial city, with its population rising from 1200 in 1935 to more than 8000 in 1948. Access to Murray waters also enabled many farmers of the mid-north to survive the great drought of 1944–45.

The Victorian government was equally concerned about the waters of the Murray River. In January 1944, following an approach by Premier Albert Dunstan, a Commonwealth–state conference was held to discuss increasing the capacity of water storage, particularly the Hume Dam near Albury. In the next few months, negotiations involved Sir Harry Brown, the Controller-General of Works, the Department of the Interior, the River Murray Commission, the Rural Reconstruction Commission, and the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission. In July 1944 Brown recommended that the capacity of Hume Dam be increased from 1.25 million acre feet to 2 million acre feet and that the Commonwealth bear 25 per cent of the capital cost. Federal Cabinet accepted the recommendations in November 1944, subject to controls regarding development of the Murray Valley. It was particularly anxious to control land use in the catchment area. Progress was blocked for some years while the Commonwealth and state governments argued about regional planning in the Murray Valley and the possible creation of a planning commission similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority. Finally, in 1948 amendments were made to the River Murray Waters Agreement to extend the powers of the River Murray Commission and by March 1949 the four governments involved had ratified the changes. Construction work started on the Hume Dam in 1949 and was completed in 1961.


In Western Australia there had been discussions for many years about the possibility of bringing water from the Darling Range east of Perth to the towns and farms in the Great Southern and Central Wheat Belt. The Department of Public Works carried out planning during the war and in May 1945 the state government announced a comprehensive water supply scheme. It involved raising the height of the Mundaring and Wellington dams and reticulating water to 35 towns and about 12 million acres of agricultural land. Work began on the Mundaring Dam in 1946 and at the same time the Minister of Works, Albert Hawke, spoke to JB Chifley about the possibility of Commonwealth assistance. Commonwealth officials were wary at first, but an inter-departmental committee was set up, headed by Louis Loder. The committee visited Western Australia and surveys were also undertaken by officers of the Department of Works and Housing, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and the Department of Post War Reconstruction. The committee submitted its report in June 1947 and subsequently the state government reduced the scale of the project. In 1948 legislation was passed providing for Commonwealth subsidies on a pound-for-pound basis. Much of the construction work on Mundaring Dam was carried out by European displaced people. It was completed in 1951.

Another large dam proposal envisaged cooperation between the Queensland and Commonwealth governments. In January 1948 Ned Hanlon discussed with Chifley proposals to dam the Burdekin River west of Townsville, thereby creating the largest dam in Australia. As well as being a flood mitigation project, the scheme would generate electricity, enable 500 farms to be irrigated, and lead to a larger population and increased productivity in northern Queensland. Chifley was interested and proposed that Commonwealth experts examine the proposals. They considered the engineering proposals to be sound, but had doubts about the irrigation benefits and the economics of the scheme. Nevertheless, they recommended that the Commonwealth promise financial assistance. The report was received in November 1949, shortly before the fall of the Chifley government. The Menzies government was less sympathetic, regarding the Burdekin proposals as state works, and only in 1973 did the Commonwealth again become involved. The Burdekin Dam was eventually completed in 1987.

Snowy Mountains Scheme

Proposals to divert the waters of the Snowy River in southern New South Wales had a long history. In 1941 William McKell promised that, if elected, his government would carry out the project. He subsequently set up a committee of engineers to develop a plan. Towards the end of the war, the Prime Minister received numerous submissions from individuals, shire councils and organisations in the Monaro and Riverina urging the Commonwealth Government to support the diversion of Snowy River waters to the Murrumbidgee River. The standard response was that in the immediate future the government needed to concentrate on urgent public works deferred during the war, rather than shift resources to huge long-term developmental projects. This was always the view of Sir Harry Brown, who considered that the development of Snowy River resources, a matter of great technical and economic complexity, was not a priority.

The Commonwealth Government, however, came under pressure to adopt a more positive position. In October 1944 JK Jensen, the chairman of the Secondary Industries Commission, forwarded to HC Coombs a report by the Commonwealth Controller of Electricity Supply suggesting the possibility of diverting the Snowy waters to the Murray River and using them for power generation and storage in the Hume Dam. Jensen became a strong advocate for this proposal. A month later, McKell sent John Curtin a copy of the report of his committee recommending the diversion of the Snowy waters to the Murrumbidgee River, where they would be utilised for irrigation and water supply. Debates about the merits and weaknesses of these two schemes were to continue for the next four years.

Coombs believed that the Commonwealth could not stand aside from the Snowy River project. He told Chifley that it was essential that the waters be used in the best national interest and it seemed that they could be used for both power development and irrigation in both New South Wales and Victoria. The Commonwealth had an interest in irrigation in regard to soldier settlement in the region and also in protecting the ACT electricity supply under the Seat of Government Acceptance Act 1909. The New South Wales government resisted the suggestion of a joint Commonwealth–state investigation and was anxious to begin diverting water to the Murrumbidgee as soon as possible. In February 1946 the Victorian premier, John Cain, wrote to Chifley supporting the Murray proposal and suggesting that the Commonwealth undertake an investigation. In departmental meetings Louis Loder was undecided, but Coombs and Allen Brown inclined towards the Murray proposal. McKell feared that another inquiry would delay the whole project for years, but at a ministerial conference on 25 June 1946 he reluctantly agreed to a Commonwealth investigation.

The investigation took almost a year to complete. A committee chaired by Loder looked at the engineering aspects and concluded that the Murray proposal was a sound scheme and, in contrast to the Murrumbidgee scheme, would enable a large amount of power to be cheaply generated. A committee headed by Coombs and Brown, and including JG Crawford, SM Wadham and CR Lambert, examined the agricultural aspects. It decided that the Murrumbidgee scheme offered greater benefits for irrigation, but at the same time considered that the Murray scheme would also enable effective use to be made of the Snowy waters for irrigation.

At the premiers conference in August 1947, Nelson Lemmon emphasised defence considerations, pointing out that the Snowy electrical works would be inland and mainly underground. It was agreed that another committee, with Commonwealth, New South Wales and Victorian representatives, should consider the whole subject. It was chaired by Loder, with Brown as the other Commonwealth member. The first report was presented in November 1948 and the final report in June 1949. Despite New South Wales objections, the final scheme envisaged most of the Snowy waters being diverted to the Murray, but waters from the Eucumbene and Tooma rivers would be diverted to the Tumut and Murrumbidgee for irrigation purposes. The New South Wales government argued that it should be the construction authority, but Dedman was insistent that for defence reasons the Commonwealth must be in complete control of the construction and operation and it would meet the cost from its revenue. Legislation setting up the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority was hurriedly passed, despite opposition in Parliament, and in October 1949 work began on construction. As with the Mundaring Dam, large numbers of European displaced people were recruited to work on the Snowy Scheme. It was completed in 1974, the largest engineering project in Australian history.

An even more ambitious diversion scheme was put forward by the eminent, though ageing, engineer JJC Bradfield. In 1938 he suggested that Queensland coastal rivers could be diverted, piped through the Great Dividing Range and used to irrigate western Queensland districts and part of central Australia. The scheme met with strong criticism, but it continued to attract many supporters well after Bradfield's death in 1943. The Department of Post War Reconstruction regularly received letters about the Bradfield Scheme, which it fended off with a non-committal response. Finally, William Nimmo, a leading Queensland hydraulic engineer, examined the proposals in 1947 and concluded that they were not practicable.

Series: A2700
Upper Murray storage: increase in capacity of Hume Reservoir, 7 February 1944 603
Hume Reservoir: increased capacity, 10 November 1944 743
Hume Reservoir: increased capacity, 17 April 1945 743A
Hume Reservoir: increased capacity, 17 July 1945 743B
Hume Reservoir: increased capacity, 6 February 1946 743C
Hume Reservoir: increased capacity, 23 July 1946 743D
Hume Reservoir: increased capacity, 15 September 1947 743E
Hume Reservoir: increased capacity, 3 November 1948 743F
Comprehensive agricultural areas and goldfields water supply scheme, Western Australia, 2 July 1946 1202
Comprehensive agricultural areas and goldfields water supply scheme, Western Australia, 5 April 1948 1202A
Snowy River diversion, 14 August 1947 1370
Snowy River diversion, 22 November 1948 1370A
Snowy River diversion, 22 February 1949 1370B
Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Power Act: instructions for drafting legislation, 12 May 1949 1370C
Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Power Act: appointment of Commissioner, 4 July 1949 1370D
Department of Commerce and Agriculture
Series: A609
Snowy River proposals, 1946–53
Includes a submission (25 June 1946) from E McCarthy to RT Pollard, Minister for Commerce and Agriculture, about the Commonwealth–state conference on Snowy River proposals.
Department of Post War Reconstruction
Series: A688
Comprehensive water supply investigations, Western Australia, 1947
Report (14 February 1947) of the Regional Planning Division on the Comprehensive Water Supply Scheme.
Comprehensive water supply investigations, Western Australia, 1947
Preliminary report (11 March 1947) of the Regional Planning Division on investigations into town supplies, domestic supplies and amenities in the region east of Perth, including York, Northam, Narrogin and Merredin.
Series: A9816
Water conservation and irrigation policy, 1941–46 (2 parts)
Articles, memoranda and correspondence with individuals, shire councils and organisations on water conservation, including the proposals of JJC Bradfield and recommendations of the Rural Reconstruction Commission.
Dr Bradfield's scheme for watering inland Australia, 1944–48 (2 parts)
Articles about the scheme proposed by JJC Bradfield in 1938 for bringing water to inland Australia and correspondence concerning investigations into the practicability and benefits of the scheme. The correspondents include JB Chifley, HC Coombs and W Rogers.
Hume Dam Reservoir, 1944–48 (2 parts)
Correspondence and Cabinet papers concerning proposals to increase the capacity of the Hume Reservoir by raising the height of the dam, a ministerial conference (21–22 May 1945) and the views of the Rural Reconstruction Commission on the proposal. The correspondents include HC Coombs, Sir Harry Brown, JG Crawford and AS Brown.
Murray Valley Irrigation Development League, 1944
Minutes of a conference (15–16 August 1944) at Yarrawonga of local government authorities which established the Murray Valley Development League.
Snowy River Hydro-electric Scheme: representations, 1944–46
Letters, mostly addressed to the prime minister and other federal parliamentarians, from shire councils, regional and local organisations on proposals to divert the waters of the Snowy River. There are also notes of a deputation to JB Chifley from the Murrumbidgee Valley Water Users Association (22 May 1945).
Clarence River Hydro-electric Scheme, 1944–49 (3 parts)
Correspondence, a booklet and newspaper articles concerning proposals of Sir Earle Page for a Clarence River Gorge hydro-electric scheme and the report (28 December 1945) on the scheme by a committee of technical officers. The correspondents include Sir Earle Page, JB Chifley, HC Coombs, SF Cochran and CR Lambert.
Western Australia South West Water Supply Scheme, 1944–49 (4 parts)
Correspondence concerning the request of the Western Australian government for Commonwealth assistance in carrying out a comprehensive water supply scheme, the appointment of an inter-departmental committee chaired by Louis Loder, fieldwork (January 1947) by T Langford-Smith of the Regional Planning Division and officers of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, the report of the inter-departmental committee, and modification of the scheme by the Western Australian government. The correspondents include ARG Hawke, RJ Dumas, HC Coombs, AS Brown, JG Crawford, T Langford-Smith, LF Loder and PW Nette.
Snowy River Hydro-electric Scheme: policy, 1944–46 (2 parts)
Correspondence concerning the report of H Moss on Snowy River development, the interest of the Commonwealth Government in the subject, the question of diversion to the Murray River rather than the Murrumbidgee, proposals of the Victorian government for a joint investigation, and an inter-departmental meeting (28 May 1946), chaired by HC Coombs. The correspondents include HC Coombs, Sir Harry Brown, JK Jensen, KJ McKenzie, PA Dorrian, JA Carrodus, CA Hoy and LF Loder.
Water conservation: Graziers Council of Australia, 1945–46
Resolutions of the Graziers Federal Council urging that priority be given to water conservation and electricity development and letters from state premiers commenting on the proposals.
Snowy River Scheme: policy, 1946–49 (9 parts)
Notes of a ministerial conference (25 June 1946) on Snowy River proposals, chaired by JJ Dedman, and correspondence concerning comparisons of the New South Wales and Victorian proposals, Commonwealth investigations into the engineering, agricultural and economic aspects of the proposals, a tour (January 1947) by AS Brown and other officials through irrigation areas, reports on soils and irrigation, and calculations of power generation and population. The correspondents include HC Coombs, AS Brown, CR Lambert, LF Loder, JG Crawford, LR East, GJ Evatt, JK Taylor and SM Wadham.
Snowy River: Commonwealth–State Committee, 1948–49
Letters to the Prime Minister from shire councils, development leagues and other organisations concerning the Snowy River proposals of the government.
1948/69 Pt 4
Snowy River Scheme: representations from outside bodies, 1949
Letters to the prime minister from organisations and individuals on various aspects of the Snowy River Scheme.
Snowy River Scheme, 1949
Correspondence of AS Brown about the authority that would administer the Snowy River Scheme, proposed legislation and his report on use of water in the Murray Valley.

From internal evidence, the records in this collection appear to have been accumulated by AS Brown of the Department of Post War Reconstruction, who was a central figure in the Snowy River investigations in 1946–49.

Series: A12542
Snowy River Committee, 1947–49
Report (June 1949), minutes, agenda papers and correspondence of the Commonwealth–State Officers Committee, chaired by Louis Loder. The correspondents include JJ Dedman, N Lemmon, AS Brown, JR Hocking, LF Loder, VC Bagot, FH Brewster, JK Taylor and E Bate.
Snowy River Valley: preliminary investigation of resources, 1946
Report (April 1946) by the Regional Planning Division of the Department of Post War Reconstruction on the resources of the Snowy River Valley.
Snowy River investigation: correspondence, 1946–47
Correspondence of AS Brown about the possibility of diverting Snowy River waters to the Murray River, irrigation schemes, soil surveys, and the proposed form of the report of the economic investigation committee. The correspondents include CR Lambert, GJ Evatt, SM Wadham and JK Taylor.
Supplementary report by Hydro-electric Sub-Committee, 1949
Supplementary report (May 1949) by the hydro-electric sub-committee, chaired by RB Lewis.
Snowy River diversion: miscellaneous papers, 1945–49
Papers of AS Brown including reports by JK Taylor on the soils of the Murray and Murrumbidgee regions and correspondence with N Lemmon, LF Loder and GPN Watt on the form of the authority to design, construct and operate the hydro-electric scheme.
Reports and correspondence on Snowy River investigations, 1946–49
Reports, statements and correspondence on the effects of the diversion of Snowy River waters, irrigation and water usage, soils, land use, and the tour by the economic investigation committee of the Riverina and northern Victoria (January 1947). The correspondents include JG Crawford, JK Taylor, CR Lambert and PA Reid.
Snowy River: notes of discussions at ministerial conference, 1946
Notes of a ministerial conference (25 June 1946), chaired by JJ Dedman, of representatives of the Commonwealth, New South Wales and Victorian governments.
Departments of Works and Housing and Post War Reconstruction: report, 1947
Reports (June 1947) on proposals to divert the Snowy River into the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers. They comprise a report by HC Coombs and LF Loder, a report by the Department of Works and Housing on engineering aspects, and a report by the Department of Post War Reconstruction on agricultural aspects.
Proposals to divert Snowy River: report by Commonwealth and State officers, 1948
First report (November 1948) of the Commonwealth and state officers committee on proposals to divert the Snowy River.
Snowy River investigations by Interstate Committee, 1948
Undated report of the Hydro-electric Sub-committee, chaired by RB Lewis.
Department of the Interior
Series: A431
Western Australia Comprehensive Water Supply Scheme, 1946–47
Copy of Comprehensive Agricultural Areas and Goldfields Water Supply Scheme (January 1946), issued by ARG Hawke, and correspondence and reports of Commonwealth investigations into the scheme. The correspondents include FM Johnston and LF Loder.
Prime Minister's Department
Series: A461
Ord River dam site, 1945
Correspondence between J Willcock and JB Chifley concerning proposals of the Western Australian government for an irrigation project in the East Kimberleys and the transport of drilling equipment to the dam site.
Snowy River hydro-electric developments, 1940–49
Correspondence of J Curtin, FM Forde and JB Chifley with the premiers of New South Wales and Victoria concerning proposals (1944) of the New South Wales investigating committee into utilising the waters of the Snowy River, the views of the Victorian government and shire councils, a ministerial conference (May 1946), Commonwealth investigations (1946–47) into engineering, agricultural and power aspects of the scheme, the work of the Commonwealth–State Investigation Committee (1947–49) and the establishment of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority.
AJ423/1/1 Pts 1-3
Snowy River hydro-electric developments, 1947–49
Letters to the Prime Minister about the Snowy River diversion from shire and municipal councils, producer organisations, the Returned and Service League, the Murrumbidgee Valley Water Users Association and other organisations, together with replies drafted by the Department of Post War Reconstruction.
AJ423/1/1 Pt 4
Clarence River hydro-electric development, 1944–49
Reports, correspondence, minutes and maps relating to the proposals of Sir Earle Page for a power, water and irrigation scheme in northern New South Wales similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority, consultations with the New South Wales and Queensland governments, the role of the Commonwealth in investigations of the scheme, and the report by EF Rowntree on the hydro-electric potential of the Clarence River. The correspondents include JB Chifley, Sir Earle Page, JM Baddeley, HC Coombs and AS Brown.
Burdekin River, 1949–50
Parliamentary questions and correspondence on the proposed cooperation between the Commonwealth and Queensland governments on the utilisation of the waters of the Burdekin River for irrigation, hydro-electricity and flood mitigation.
Murray River Agreement, 1931–49
Report of a conference (19 January 1944) on Upper Murray storage, chaired by JS Collings, and correspondence of J Curtin and JB Chifley with state premiers on the enlargement of the Hume Reservoir, the extension of the powers of the River Murray Commission, and amendments to the River Murray Waters Agreement.
B423/1/2 Pts 2-4
Water conservation and irrigation schemes: central Australia, 1934–48
Parliamentary questions, correspondence and reports on water and soil conservation, and investigations into the scheme of JJC Bradfield to convey water from northern Queensland to central Australia. The correspondents include JB Chifley, state premiers, HC Coombs, MC Langslow, JA Carrodus and M Sawtell.
R423/1/2 Pt 1
Series: A463
Burdekin River irrigation, hydro-electric and flood mitigation project, 1948–57
Includes the preliminary report (10 November 1949) of an inter-departmental committee on the Burdekin River project, chaired by Louis Loder, a report (19 January 1950) by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, a submission by RG Casey to the Standing Committee on Industry and Development, and correspondence concerning possible Commonwealth participation in the project. The correspondents include JB Chifley, EM Hanlon, G Rudduck and LF Loder.
River Murray Commission
Series: MP608/1
Hume Reservoir design and construction, 1942–49
Correspondence of CJ Tetaz, the Secretary of the River Murray Commission, on designs for the raising of the Hume Dam and additional works covered by amendments to the River Murray Waters Act.
1536 Pt 4
Whyalla water scheme: diversion of water from River Murray at Morgan, 1940–44
Report (31 July 1940) of the South Australian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works on the Whyalla water scheme and correspondence on the opening of the Morgan–Whyalla pipeline on 31 March 1944.
Conference of Ministers, 1944
Agenda and agenda papers of a conference (21–22 May 1944) of Commonwealth and state ministers to discuss the enlargement of the Hume Reservoir and development of the Murray Valley.
Irrigation Production Advisory Committee, 1946–47
Correspondence on the functions of the irrigation production advisory committee of the Australian Agricultural Council. Correspondents include CJ Tetaz, TH Harrison and JRA McMillan.
Development of Snowy River: effect of diversion on flooding in upper Murray Valley, 1946–65
Report (27 August 1946) by AF Ronalds on the projected increases in the regulated flow at Albury as a result of the proposed diversions of the Snowy River and correspondence on the need for additional storage in the Murray Basin. The correspondents include CJ Tetaz, LR East and LF Loder.
River Murray Commission Conference of Ministers, 1948–49
Correspondence concerning the agenda and proceedings of a conference (18–19 October 1948) of Commonwealth and state ministers on the enlargement of the Hume Reservoir and the amendment of the River Murray Waters Agreement. The correspondents include CJ Tetaz, CA Hoy, LR East and FH Brewster.
Series: A571
Snowy Mountains Scheme, 1949–50
Reports, correspondence, minutes and newspaper cuttings on the drafting of the 1949 Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Power Bill, the conference (13 July 1949) of Commonwealth and state ministers, inter-departmental discussions, financial provisions, and the structure and powers of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority. The correspondents include JB Chifley, N Lemmon, GPN Watt, PW Nette, WE Dunk, LF Loder and DJ Hibberd.
1956/1038 Pts 1-2

A history of the development of agriculture in Western Australia and reports of Commonwealth investigations in 1946–47 into the feasibility and costs of the scheme proposed by the Western Australian government.

Series: CP185/1
Sir John Crawford
Series: A12085
Western Australia: agricultural areas and goldfields water supply scheme, 1946–47
Correspondence of JG Crawford concerning investigations by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics into the agricultural and economic aspects of the Western Australian water supply scheme.
Snowy River enquiry, 1946–48
Notes on land use in relation to the Snowy River waters and drafts of papers by JG Crawford on the diversion of the Snowy River.
Sir Louis Loder

This series comprises reports on investigations of the proposals for the diversion of the Snowy River undertaken by the Department of Works and Housing (1946), the Bureau of Mineral Resources (1948–49), the Commonwealth–State Officers Committee (1948–50), the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission of Victoria (1946–48) and the New South Wales Department of Mines (1949). There are also some later documents on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority.

Series: MP679/1

Further reading

Brown, AS, 'The Snowy River proposals', Regional Development Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, 1949, pp. 6–12.

Byrne, Graeme, Schemes of nation: a planning history of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2000.

Gillanders, Andrew, 'Mirage of the inland sea: the Bradfield Scheme', Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 95, no. 1, 2009, pp. 38–51.

Hartley, Richard G, 'A century of water supply to the Western Australian goldfields and wheat-belt from Mundaring Weir and the Kalgoorlie pipeline', Early Days, vol. 11, no. 6, 2000, pp. 727–44.

Langford-Smith, T, 'Water supply in the agricultural areas of Western Australia', Australian Geographer, vol. 5, 1947, pp. 115–56.

Page, Earle, 'Clarence water-power development', The Bulletin, Sydney, 1947.

Ronalds, AF, R.M.C.: harnessing Australia's greatest riverthe work of the River Murray Commission, River Murray Commission, Melbourne, 1950.

Smith, David Ingle, Water in Australia: resources and management, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998.

Wigmore, Lionel, The Struggle for the Snowy: the background of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1968.