Building the World

Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Power Project, Australia

Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme, from University of Auckland Library at

Australia is the most arid continent on earth. Water was, and is, one of the most important resources. Taking 25 years to build, consisting of 16 major dams, seven power stations, a pumping station, and 225 kilometers (140 miles) of interconnected tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts, with a labor force of over 100,000, Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric was nominated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century.


Although immense in area, at the time (1940s) Australia had fewer than 10 million people, mainly of British or Irish ancestry. Many residents already had jobs, so were not necessarily available for the massive construction effort contemplated by a government in need of energy for its growing cities.

But there was an answer to this critical problem. Just as the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States attracted soldiers then unemployed after the Civil war, so too after World War II many people not only unemployed but made homeless by changes in their native lands. Displaced person camps in Europe became recruiting venues for Australia’s first commissioner of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Plant.

Sir William Hudson, From National Library of Australia, at

Sir William Hudson traveled to Europe, inviting displaced people to work on the project and adopt a new life: “You won’t be Balts or Slavs…you will be people of the Snowy!”

People who came from around the world were well trained, not just in hydroelectric construction. Free English language classes were provided to all who needed to learn the language. In the town of Cooma, previously a small settlement, the population swelled from 2,000 to 10,000; later Cooma would become the headquarters of the Snowy Mountains Authority. Thousands of new Australians entered the high country. Their children went to school together, came home with playmates from a different culture. When the towns of Adaminaby and Jindabyne had to be flooded to become reservoirs, residents were dispersed, some joining the new communities built for workers. It is said that Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Power contributed to transforming Australia into a more heterogeneous society.


It is helpful to know at least two things about hydroelectricity: 1) no greenhouse gases are produced that can harm the environment, and 2) it is instantly available, whereas other forms, like coal-based power plants, can take hours to emerge. Therefore, hydroelectricity is an excellent system for coping with fluctuating demand. It takes less than 90 seconds to make extra power available. However, dams are not without environmental consequences.


Since the 19th century, Australia had discussed how to take advantage of the snow melt of its mountains, using the water for irrigation. Once it was also possible to generate electricity, there was increasing support for the idea. Did it all start in 1884 when the surveyor-general of New South Wales, P.F. Adams, proposed building a dam just above the confluence of two rivers, the Snowy  and the Eucumbene, then channeling the water through a canal that would cut across a small gap he spotted in the Great Dividing Range, where it would rejoin the water in the Murrumbidgee River?

Snowy built upon Adams’ idea. Rain showers fall and the snow melts. The moisture would normally form lakes. Tunnels were built with pressurized pipelines to carry water from the lakes (or human-made reservoirs) to a power station. There, turbines drive generators and electricity is created by the energy of the rate of falling water (for steep falls, medium, and mild, there are different sizes of turbines; Snowy mainly uses a medium-size turbine called a Francis). After it has been used to generate electricity, the water can be stored, used for irrigation or returned to the lakes and reservoirs.


Water for irrigation/water for power were competing interests. New South Wales badly needed water for irrigation and favored diverting water to the Murrumbidgee River, which would then be used for irrigation. Victoria, on the other hand, insisted that the water flow come into the Murray River, for irrigation but also transport. When transport needs were fulfilled by the railroads and later highways, Victoria still needed water for irrigation but also now for electricity.

The government favored electricity, seeing a growing need for a growing country. Australian authorities wanted to place the project in such a location that its benefits could easily reach the two fastest-growing cities: Melbourne and Sydney. When the project plan was formulated, it was decided that electricity and defense (it was the World War II era) would be the first priorities, and irrigation a by-product that could be distributed at no charge.

In May 1949, Australians gathered around their radios to hear Prime Minister Benjamin Chifley: “The Snowy Mountains plan is the greatest single project in our history. It is a plan for the whole nation, belonging to no one state nor to any group or section. This is a plan for the nation, and it needs the nation to back it.”



Sydney Opera House, by J. Harris.

Sydney Harbor, with its iconic Sydney Opera House, may be big, but Lake Eucumbene is nine times bigger. It would be Snowy’s largest reservoir. Tumut, another section of the project, was so large it took from 1954 to 1973 to build, including its underground tunnels and two underground power stations: Tumut 1 and Tumut 2. Tumut 3, even larger, has pipes so big it is possible to drive a double-decker bus through – and such a demonstration actually took place. There are 80 kilometers (50 miles) of aqueducts throughout the project, and 145 kilometers (90 miles) of tunnels, some through mountains. Snowy Mountains yields $3 billion Australian in agricultural crops, products and services each year, in addition to producing 70 of all renewable energy on Australia’s eastern mainland grid. Finally, it was successful: finishing on time and under budget, an achievement rare in the industry and certainly in projects of such a large and complex scale. Did Snowy engineers and managers take a lesson from Six Companies Inc, the consortium that built the Hoover Dam, also on time and on budget?

Tumut 2, from University of Melbourne at


An unfortunate, and unintended, consequence of the Snowy Mountains project was the devastating effect that free irrigation water had on the crops it was intended to nurture. For 30 years, the project was satisfactory to all. But then in the 1980s, the salinity level increased, caused by salts from the weathering of rocks, naturally saline groundwater, and salts deposited over thousands of years by precipitation. The problem is not restricted to Australia, although it is especially acute in the Murray Darling Basin. Over 40 percent of the world’s irrigated area is affected by salinity. In the Netherlands, many polders are similarly challenged, and the Imperial Valley in California as well.

The Murray Darling Basin from the Australian Govenrnment’s Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, at

In 1997, an environmental-impact statement was required for the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric. Three areas were seen as needing closer inspection: the Snowy River, the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Plant, and the Murray and Murrumbidgee irrigation project. Disposition was reached in 1998, when it was determined that open-flow irrigation would be changed to a system of directed pipelines.

Document of Authorization


No. 25 of 1949

An Act relating to the Construction and Operation of the Works, for the Generation of Hydro-electric Power in the Snowy Mountains Area.

WHEREAS additional supplies of electricity are required for the purposes of defence works and undertakings:

AND WHEREAS the construction of further defence works and the establishment of further defence undertakings will require additional supplies of electricity:

AND WHEREAS it is desirable that provision should be made now to enable increased supplies of electricity to be immediately available in time of war;

AND WHEREAS the consumption of electricity in the Australian Capital Territory and, in particular, at the Seat of Government within that Territory, is increasing and is likely to continue to increase…

BE it therefore enacted by the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, the Senate, and the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Australia, as follows.

From Act No. 25 of 1949, 109-18. Federal Register of Legislative Instruments, No. 25, 1949, 109-118. See also, and Building the World, pp. 533-542

VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications

Defense/Development: Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric was developed when war had just ended and tensions still troubled a world that could not easily and quickly forget. Does it take danger to stimulate action?

Diversity: More than 100,000 workers became “People of the Snowy,” enriching the culture of Australia. Are there parallels today that promote the mix of ideas and approaches of many backgrounds? How can large-scale projects, national or regional, stimulate diversity?


To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and  ABC-CLIO here.  Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library, including some of the following: 

Building the World Collection Finding Aid

(* indicates printed in notebook series)

Collis, Brad. Snowy: The Making of Modern Australia. Palmerston, Australia: Tabletop Press, 2002. Sections of the book are available on the web at:

Neal, Laura, ed. It Doesn’t Snow Like It Used To: Memories of Monaro and the Snowy Mountains. Ultimo, Australia: Stateprint, 1988.

Unger, Margaret. Voices from the Snowy: The Personal Experiences of the Men and Women Who Worked on One of the World’s Great Engineering Feats; the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Kensington, Australia: NSWU Press, 1989.


For Snowy’s own website:

For more information on the diversity of the Snowy workforce, including people from over 30 countries, see

For salinity and irrigation, see:

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Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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