40 years later, the Snowy Mountains Scheme is back in vogue

Prime Minister RG Menzies opens Guthega Power Station. Snowy River Scheme, Guthega, 23 April 1955

Photography by Ronald Leslie STEWART

Neg Ref: R/132/2/49-59

Scanned from medium format b&w negative

cpsmh dvd

Prime Minister RG Menzies opens Guthega Power Station. Snowy River Scheme, Guthega, 23 April 1955 Photography by Ronald Leslie STEWART Neg Ref: R/132/2/49-59 Scanned from medium format b&w negative cpsmh dvd *PLEASE DO NOT USE BEFORE THE PUBLICATION OF 'CENTURY OF PICTURES' PROJECT Photo: Ronald Leslie Stewart

It is easy now, as thousands stream blithely each winter to the ski fields of the Snowy Mountains, to overlook the monumental events of last century on those heights that still affect our daily lives and our industries, and how, in the exploitation of the high country, Australia was transformed, economically and culturally.

Each morning and evening, as the National Electricity Grid gets thumped by demand from the big rushing east coast populations from Brisbane to Adelaide, near-instantly available power spins out of those mountains to help smooth out the peaks and troughs of other electricity generators.

The Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme generates an average of around 4500 gigawatt hours of energy each year - almost 14 per cent of Australia's current renewable energy target of 33,000 gigawatt hours.

In today's angry debates about renewable energy, which have become almost shorthand for wind and solar, it is often overlooked the Snowy produces 32 per cent of all renewable energy in the mainland National Electricity Market .

The scheme is run these days as a business, Snowy Hydro, but it remains a government-owned entity thanks to a national uproar in 2006 that forced the federal, NSW and Victorian governments to reverse their proposals to sell their shares.

At a time of frustration, anger and panic over Australia's continuing electricity supply, the fact that the Snowy remains in government hands - and thus can be manipulated by politicians - and that it produces renewable energy, has elevated it to the top of the national political agenda, where it sat almost two thirds of a century ago.

In 1949, with Australia still recovering from World War II and its presumed narrow escape from invasion from the north, the cry of "populate or perish" was met with a plan that might have pleased a Roman emperor.

It was a plan set running by Ben Chifley's Labor government, and delivered in large part by Robert Menzies' Liberal administration. A tough New Zealand-born engineer, Sir William Hudson, ran the whole operation from 1949 till 1967, when he retired - and not happy about it - at the age of 71.

Before the Scheme, the Snowy Mountains had dreamed all but unmolested for just about forever, baked in summer and smothered by winter snow, their rivers and creeks and beds of moss the birthplace of watering systems for much of south-east Australia..

Indigenous tribes put aside territorial rivalries to trek up from the lowlands each year to feast on Bogong moths and later, pastoralists brought sheep and cattle to graze the high pastures.

But the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme changed all that dramatically.

It would employ, from 1949 to completion in 1974, more than 100,000 people, most of them immigrants from an old Europe shattered by war. The people of 30 nationalities went into the mountains, direct from large migrant reception centres such as Bonegilla near Albury-Wodonga.

Together, they built a quilt of 16 great dams and pinned them together by drilling and constructing 225 kilometres of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts, funnelling water from this system by gravity through mountains to seven major power stations in the valleys below.

There are not too many of those brave and eager workers left to hear the latest news about the "scheme that built Australia".

Charlie Salvestro, who, at 16 and sick of school, lied about his age so he could work up the mountain, described it as the beginning of multiculturalism.

"All these people came from countries in ruins, but they left all their shit behind them, you know? They behaved themselves. We worked together in harmony and got the job done."

Frank Rodwell picked up a pick and shovel as a 22 year old and worked his way up to the Authority's internal police force, not leaving until the job was done and dusted, 36 years later.

"And we did it with great thanks to Bill Hudson - or later Sir William Hudson, who was determined it would come in on time and on budget," he said.

It was the wonder of its age - one of the largest and most complex such schemes in world history.

At a time when there were no more than 20 computers in the world, the University of Sydney designed and built Australia's first transistorised computer to handle the complicated engineering and design calculations. Called "Snowcom", the computer's memory was equivalent to just 8000 bytes, held 2048 words and there was no disk. It was used from 1960 to 1967.

When the scheme was done - and the fact that it was on time and to budget remains astonishing - it had cost $820 million. In today's dollars, that is equivalent to almost $6.5 billion.

It was built, certainly in its early days, in a storm of wild, devil-may-care optimism: teams of men from rival European nationalities competed to build tunnels faster than seemed possible, often without even hardhats. One hundred and twenty lives were lost over the construction phase of the Snowy scheme.

Still, Hudson demanded in 1960 that his workers wear seatbelts in their vehicles - something previously unheard of.

And the scheme gave Australia its love affair with Toyota four-wheel-drive vehicles when the biggest contractor, Thiess Brothers, got a good deal on Landcruisers from Japan. Sir Lesley Thiess imported the first 13 Landcruisers in 1958, and the day of British Land Rovers was all but finished.

It is easy to forget that the primary purpose of the scheme was not to generate power.

It was to capture and divert the water of the Snowy River and its systems, turning them west, there to feed the irrigation systems of the Murrumbidgee and the Murray.

Those irrigation systems cover what is Australia's true food bowl: 40 per cent of all Australia's agricultural produce, worth more than $3 billion a year, is grown and produced in the Murrumbidgee and Murray irrigation systems.

Those behind the Snowy Mountains scheme weren't environmentalists, however, and the Snowy River was the big sacrifice.

The Snowy, which once drained the entire east side of the ranges, flowing from the slopes of Mount Kosciuszko clear to Bass Strait at Marlo, near Orbost, now loses its freedom barely before it has begun in a pond beneath the village of Guthega, built by Norwegians during the great scheme and now part of the Perisher-Blue Cow ski resort.

The flow of the Snowy through Gippsland was reduced by around 99 per cent when the Jindabyne dam was built. Some of that flow has been restored (up to 28 per cent environmental flow is the target) in a political agreement forced after Craig Ingram became an independent member for Gippsland in 1999.

And now, with the scheme ageing and Australia populated with the descendants of those who came to build it and who went on to help build a new Australia, the Snowy Scheme is back on the front page.

Where, the ghost of Sir William Hudson might declare, it belongs.

- with Amy Remeikis

This story 40 years later, the Snowy Mountains Scheme is back in vogue first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.