Water and the Traditional Owners of the land
To understand the history of the way water was used in regional Victoria, it helps to provide a glimpse of what life was thought to be like on the Murray River before the arrival of Europeans.
It is believed that Aboriginal settlement on the Murray River occurred around 40,000 years ago. Evidence of Aboriginal occupation of the rivers includes burial sites, ochre mining, rock quarries and scar trees (so named as Aboriginal people would carve canoe bases directly out the tree).
The original inhabitants of the Murray River near Albury and Wodonga are the Wiradjuri, Wavereoo and Dhudhuroa people. There are presently more than 40 Aboriginal Nations in the Murray-Darling Basin and at least 10,000 known Aboriginal sites.
Water played a significant role in the lives of the original occupants of the land, providing them with the means to survive as well as a strong spiritual connection to the rivers and floodplains.
The Rainbow Serpent is a common feature of many Aboriginal creation stories. It is believed that the Rainbow Serpent created the rivers, water holes and streams by moving across the land and shaping the landscape with its body. It is believed that the Rainbow Serpent leaves its resting place in nearby water holes and goes into the rivers to cleanse its waters and its people.
The Aboriginal community had a spiritual connection with water and the land, describing the land as ‘our food, our spirit and identity’. The river and surrounding land provided Aboriginals with an important source of food, with fish and shellfish believed to be have been the main food source.
Aboriginals used water to trap food – they made nets using the fibres of rushes that grew in the creeks, which were chewed and twisted into shape. These nets were positioned across creeks to trap pelicans, ducks and black swans. Dams were made across creeks by weaving branches between a row of stakes pushed into the bed of the creek; fish would swim into these creeks during flooding and thousands of fish would be trapped when the water subsided. Canoes made from the bark of trees were also used for fishing; a fire would be made from clay and damp reeds inside the canoe, to cook the fish.
 Source: http://aboriginalart.com.au/culture/dreamtime
Hume & Hovell
Despite the common misconception, Hamilton Hume, the first white explorer to discover the Hume River, didn’t name it after himself. Rather, according to Hume himself, the river was named after his father, Andrew. Years later, Captain Charles Sturt would discover the river after travelling down the Murrumbidgee, and, not realising it was the same river that Hume had discovered upstream several years earlier, name it the Murray River. It was an auspicious beginning for one of Australia’s most contentious and valued water supplies.
The expedition of Hume and his fellow explorer William Hovell is itself mired in contention. Hume’s credentials as an explorer were well-established, having already been commissioned by the NSW Governor for several successful expeditions including an inland journey to Lake Bathurst. Hovell, however, was an exceptional navigator, albeit more at sea. By his early 20s, he had an established career at sea commanding a trade ship in South America, and later in Australia as a Captain of coastal and transpacific trading vessels. By the time he and Hume met, he’d taken up farming at his land in Narellan, some 20kms from Hume’s own farm in Appin.
The expedition was originally intended to be funded by the then Governor of NSW, Sir Thomas Brisbane, but when the money dried up, Hume & Hovell financed the expedition almost solely on their own. The government did cough up for some of the supplies, though, including pack saddles, tents, and clothing for Hume & Hovell’s convict servants (some of whom would accompany the duo on the journey, and at least one of whom would later claim ownership of the discovery).
Setting out on 17 October 1824, initially in search of good grazing land, the men discovered a few weeks later what would later be known as the Australian Alps, and the Murray River ten days after that. What occurred next remains unclear, as rivalry and dispute over the importance of their respective roles saw Hume and Hovell in conflict throughout their remaining years, with both men claiming larger roles in the find. Complicating matters further is an 1883 Memorandum of Understanding (written 10 years after Hume’s death and 8 years after Hovell’s) by one of their servants, Thomas Boyd, who threw his own hat into the ring.
“I was the first in the party to see the river,” Boyd wrote. “Being the first white man who ever did cross it. I carried a line, by which the provisions of the party were afterwards towed across in a rough boat constructed by Mr Hume.”
Boyd also went on to cast doubt over Hovell’s navigation skills.
“Mr Hume was the real leader of the party,” he states. “He and Mr Hovell often had long and warm [heated] disputes about the route to be pursued, but Mr Hume’s counsels always eventually prevailed; and I feel sure that without Mr Hume the party would never have reached [their ultimate destination of] Port Phillip or returned safely to the place whence it started.”
While the squabbles over recognition continued back in NSW, word of the all-important discovery of rivers and good grazing land spread. Though it would take another 30-odd years before it was so-named, Wodonga was about to put on the map.
By the mid-1830s, a steady stream of settlers had landed and a smattering of semi-permanent dwellings and provision stores now littered the Murray’s riverbank. Brothers Charles and Paul Huon established the Wodonga Station in 1836, building a mudbrick homestead and christening it ‘Belvoir’ (which, for a number of years afterwards, was adopted as the name of the town). Settlements also occurred on the other side of the Murray in what would come to be known as Albury.
In 1851, the division of northern and southern New South Wales into two separate States was enacted. The border was proposed as the Murrumbidgee River, well north of Albury, but due to a clerical error, the boundary was fixed at the Murray River. Albury now resided in NSW and Wodonga was now rooted in the newly minted state of Victoria.
By 1857, Wodonga had a steam sawmill, an inn, a school and a court house, a stock inspector, a newspaper and a customs office. It was a police station that formally tipped the scales for Wodonga to be declared a township. The North Eastern Railway, completed in 1873 and improving trade and supply routes, cemented Wodonga with a permanency and accessibility that had, until then, evaded the isolated the town. The Wodonga Herald gushed with excitement.
“The wonted quietude of Wodonga will soon be dispelled, and the dream of a prosperous future realised in all of its phases.”
Originally under the purview of Yackandandah Shire, ratepayers petitioned for their own council, and Wodonga Shire was formed in 1876. Given the fundamental necessity for providing water, the Wodonga Waterworks Trust was constituted in 1897 and tasked with responsibility for Wodonga’s drinking and wastewater. The most pressing issue was the quality of the drinking water. By all reports the water didn’t taste too great. Equally, it didn’t smell too good, either.
In 1899, Engineer B.A. Smith addressed the issue with the Wodonga and Towong Sentinel on “the question of the smell in the water, of which complaint has naturally been made.” Taking samples from various sources – Castle Creek, the storage reservoir, the service basin and a tap in town – it appeared only the town taps had a noticeable smell. Smith determined that this was due to the tar that lined the water pipes. With a somewhat cavalier attitude, he reported to the Sentinel, “I knew the tar was not thoroughly dry on all the pipes. I was not surprised by this.”
A further report came in from the Metropolitan Board regarding water quality, pointing out that while the water (in the reservoir in particular) was fit for domestic purposes, it did contain a high number of organisms and floating vegetable matter. The analyst suggested the water be passed through an ‘efficient domestic filter’, which, in 1899, was nothing more than a ‘good piece of flannel tied around the tap’.
The Water Act of 1890 enabled Wodonga to get their hands on £2,500 for their water supply, and another £8,000 in 1899. Combined with rates and charges for water (a complicated but surprisingly equitable equation issued by the Trust), a flush Trust set about increasing infrastructure and the implementation of several key projects, including the House Creek Dam. The Wodonga and Towong Sentinel exclaimed “Wodonga is at last within measurable distance of obtaining an excellent water supply; no greater boon could possibly be conferred on any community.”
The health officer was less sure. After taking samples from five different sources, including Castle Creek, he reported to the Sentinel that “no conclusion can be drawn from the analysis [of the water] from a sanitary standpoint.”
It would be some time before a conclusion could be drawn, and even longer before that conclusion was good news.
Following successive years of severe drought in the 1890s, and a record dry year in 1902, it became clear on both sides of the border that a water storage was required to capture the winter flows for the settlements along the Murray.
From the first conference held in Corowa in 1902 to an actual ratified agreement for the regulation and sharing of the Murray waters, 13 years would pass. Distribution and rights to the water, as well as the methods for capturing it, were hotly contested, and it eventually took a Royal Commission with input from NSW, Victoria and South Australia to create a plan.
It would take a further 17 years and over a thousand men to build the Hume Dam. At the time it was the largest dam in the southern hemisphere, designed to hold a staggering 1.5 gigalitres. The dam was designed by engineers E.M. de Burgh (from NSW) and J.S. Dethridge (from Victoria), with NSW workers employed for the concrete gravity section of the build while Victorians were responsible for the main earthen embankment.
Despite what seemed like an equitable split of the job, working conditions and wages on either side of the river varied widely and workers on both sides would often down tools in protest. The temporary town of Ebden was hastily erected to house the sudden number of Victorian workers, while the same occurred for their northern neighbours. Stores, recreational halls, a post office, even a school were built. The resentful animosity between the two towns developed into a healthy rivalry with entry into the Ovens & Murray Football League, with Weir United taking out two consecutive premierships in the only two years they competed.
How they managed to compete at all remains unclear, since, for the most part, the dam was painstakingly built by hand. The back-breaking manual labour saw a wealth of injuries and at least nine recorded deaths. Only two steam cranes were employed for the digging, and the majority of excavation was achieved with little more than picks and shovels and hand-to-hand rock passing. The work dragged on until November 1936, and with work impacting the usual water supply (thanks, in no small part, to the relocation and subsequent flooding of the town of Bowna), Wodonga needed to start shoring up the waterworks of their own.
The Water Act of 1890 was superseded by the Water Act of 1915, a provision of which enabled local Councils to take out a loan against the State for the provision of water services. Each Waterworks Trust was specifically allocated the amount they could borrow, presumably commensurate with their population (though this is unclear), leaving some Trusts flush with cash (such as Wangaratta, who were cleared for £1,000), and others floundering, such as Murchison, who had to split £23 – or roughly $2,000 in today’s terms – across all their water supply works. It’s also possible that the distribution was decided on an as-needs basis, as Murchison had spent the previous ten years completing construction on the Waranga Dam and were nicely hydrated by the time loans were being offered. It may also explain why Wodonga, with a rapidly inflating population and a seemingly perpetual water supply, were short-changed and excluded from the list entirely.
Undeterred and underfunded, The Commissioners of the Wodonga Waterworks Trust put forward an ambitious proposal in the summer of 1922 for a pumping plant at Railway Bridge, a water tower, and new infrastructure to supply more and better quality water to Wodonga. Until this time, Wodonga’s water came primarily from Castle Creek, the quality of which ranged from the generous descriptor of ‘murky’ to the more blunt one of simply ‘green’.
Residents were asked to support the Trust’s new scheme by casting a ‘yes’ vote on Valentine’s Day in 1923. Despite an astonishing price tag of £17,380, residents voted in the affirmative for the proposal by a resounding 12 to 1. The following day’s Border Morning Mail quotes the Commissioner’s praise of the results, adding matter-of-factly that ratepayers ‘prefer to pay an increased rate for a satisfactory supply of water.’ (it’s worth noting that those four key words – ‘pay an increased rate’ – are curiously absent in the referendum document).
The Commissioner promised the water would be available next summer, and indeed it would be, but in order to achieve that, construction needed to begin on one of Wodonga’s most recognisable landmarks.
The Wodonga Water Tower
Work on the Wodonga Water Tower began in 1923 and was completed, on time, twelve months later. Contractor A.A. Hargrave, who would later also build the Wangaratta Water Tower (twice, in fact, when the first one collapsed a year after it was built), was commissioned for the project at a tidy sum of £3,000. At the time it was built, the water tower was the third highest elevated tank in Australia, standing at 33 metres high with a capacity of 341,000 litres (the estimated daily consumption of the town at the time).
The tower was made of seven tons of reinforced concrete. The tower has three floors, each with a window, and the water was supplied by an eight inch pipe via the pumping station at Wodonga Creek (an anabranch of the Murray River). A ball valve was installed at the top of tank which stopped the pump once capacity was reached, though the occasional overflow wasn’t uncommon. School children would often pass underneath it on their way to school hoping to cool off in the summer heat before making their way to class in soggy but decidedly cooler school uniforms.
The entire operation was entrusted to a turncock. The position was held by Ray Foster for 20 years, before it was assumed by Eric Fulford, who remained an employee of the Waterworks Trust until 1978. During their individual tenures, both men were the only employees of the water tower, the entire operation handled by each man pumping the water into the tower and tapping into the water mains for the plumbers.
There was a mark on the outside of the water tower connected to a float on the inside of the water tower to show the water level. Eric used a telescope (see below for a photograph of the actual telescope used) to look at the water level. The framed telescope is now proudly displayed at North East Water’s Regional Headquarters.
Occasionally the water tower did overflow – apparently if the water tower was overflowing on a hot summer’s day children walking to school would stand under the overflow from the tower to cool off before school.
The water tower supplied water to residents and businesses in Wodonga until 1959, after which it was drained.
The tower was eventually decommissioned in 1959 with the advent of a new 13 megalitre operation on Huon Hill. Its closure also coincided with another new opening, as the residents of Wodonga began to explore the use of water beyond irrigation and drinking.
It’s no coincidence that after a few years of the water tower tapping into Wodonga Creek for the town’s water supply that the idea for a town swimming pool was first floated. Wodonga Creek was a popular swimming hole not only for the town’s youth (estimated at this time to be around 400), but also the armed services, who camped out on the racecourse during the Second World War and commandeered the creek during rare recreational breaks. So popular was the spot that lights were eventually installed for night swimming, a pontoon for the local swimming club, and several ill-considered diving boards hastily built by wedging wooden planks into the rocks on the banks.
After several fatalities at the creek, the Wodonga and Towong Sentinel reported in 1928 that residents had urged the construction of a swimming pool. They were quickly shut down by councillor Jas Flowers, who contended that Wodonga Creek provided “an abundance of clean and wholesome water”.
It be would ten years before this was addressed and an anabranch of the Murray (upstream of the Wodonga stockbridge) was declared an official reserve and public swimming pool. Schools began hosting their swimming carnivals there, and along with new amenities such as dressing rooms and closets, a set of rules were issued, the most enforced of which was the wearing of appropriate swimming attire (with leg length and body coverage exactly proscribed).
Thirty years after it was first suggested, and just as work was winding down at the water tower, construction began on Stanley Street for Wodonga’s first public swimming pool. Wodonga Creek, as a swimming hole, soon fell by the wayside.
The Number One Basin
The completion of the No 1 Basin on Huon Hill in 1958 may not have improved the water quality, but it certainly ensured residents got more of it more quickly. The concrete basin, which was essentially an uncovered storage, pumped raw water 3½ kilometres from Wodonga Creek before being distributed to resident’s taps. The process of supplying untreated water to Wodonga continued until the completion of a filtration plant in 1989, despite several attempts to improve things in the year’s in-between.
In 1973, a project was approved by the Wodonga Waterworks Trust to supply the town with filtered water from Lake Hume, and in 1975, Dr Bill Grant proposed introducing fluoridation to the water supply. Both ideas were thwarted by their respective councils. It would be 40 more years – 2005 – before the Department of Health would insist that Wodonga’s drinking water be fluoridated.
Not that money wasn’t being spent. In 1974 alone, over a million dollars was allocated to water and sewerage services. By 1983, however, the operations of the Wodonga Waterworks Trust, along with the Wodonga Sewerage Authority, were absorbed under the authority of Wodonga Council. It would be a short, ten-year venture for the Council, but a single $4 million dollar investment would have a lasting impact on the Wodonga water landscape.
North East Water
The Filtration Revolution
The Huon Hill Treatment Plant was completed in 1989, bringing with it something Wodonga had yet to experience – filtered water. The improvement in water quality was substantial. Wodonga Creek remained the source supply, and the treatment plant, now able to pump 70 megalitres a day – or roughly 210 times more than the water tower – finally complied with the World Health Organisation’s guidelines.
In 1993, the Council also took over operations of the Chiltern, Barnawatha, Rutherglen, Wahgunyah and Lower Kiewa Valley Water Trusts, instigating a major works program in each centre. Before they had the opportunity to wade in too deeply, however, by Order of the Minister for Natural Resources, the Wodonga water and wastewater operations were abruptly abolished. From the first day in December of 1994, assets, liabilities and infrastructure changed hands to one of the many new Water Authorities that were born that year, the Kiewa Murray Region Water Authority.
Meanwhile to the west, a second Authority absorbed the Bright District, the Benalla Water Board, the Shire of Yarrawonga and the City of Wangaratta to form the Ovens Region Water Authority.
Though the stewardship of the Kiewa Murray Region Water Authority and the Ovens Region Water Authority would be brief (in name, at least), the inroads and upgrades they instigated and initiated would have a long and positive impact on the communities they served.
Kiewa Murray Region Water Authority
Ensuring they maintained momentum and a seamless transition, the Kiewa Murray Region Water Authority absorbed most of Wodonga Council’s staff, with close to 50 employees moving to the new Authority. The Authority also later assumed control of the Kiewa Valley Water Authority, who supplied another 20 employees.
The first issue was were to put them all. Offices were shared with other organisations and businesses before they eventually moved to a single location at the Council on Hovell Street, with branch offices operating out of Rutherglen, Mt Beauty and Tallangatta. These three towns, along with Chiltern and Beechworth, also had works depots, while outside contractors were brought in for Corryong. The operation – and the challenges ahead – loomed large.
With the largest residential footprint in our service area, Wodonga would see its fair share of investment in water and wastewater services, with almost annual upgrades to infrastructure. The pace of this would increase once the Kiewa Murray Region Water Authority combined with the Ovens Region Water Authority in 1999 and the North East Region Water Authority (NERWA) was born.
Big money for a big city
NERWA (later renamed North East Water) hit the ground running. Along with an upgrade to the No. 1 Pump Station, we set about connecting the Bandiana and Bonegilla army barracks to the water and sewerage networks.
North East Water also inherited two wastewater treatment plants, with a plant on Howard Street treating domestic flow and another plant in West Wodonga for industrial flow. With the second plant nearing capacity (and an increase in EPA requirements), North East Water determined in 2004 to upgrade West Wodonga and close down the Howard Street site.
The West Wodonga Wastewater Treatment Plant upgrade cost close to $16 million, and as well as increasing capacity and efficiencies (resulting in a reduction of no less than 20 tonne of phosphorous output back into the Murray River), the facility also enabled us to explore reuse opportunities (such as supplying reuse water to golf courses and parks, a practice we’re still doing today).
Before the decade was out, Huon Hill would get two new 14ML (that’s 80 times the capacity of the original Wodonga Water Tower) clear water storages, Logic would get connected to the water supply (along with its own 2ML tank), and another clear water storage for McGaffins Hill.
With the vast majority of infrastructure in place, North East Water spent the early part of the next decade on upgrades and improvements. The one exception was a long-needed regional headquarters, housed on the site of the Dunstan Timber Mill.
Tackling climate change
In 2016, North East Water committed to the Victorian government, and the residents of north east Victoria, to reduce its carbon footprint by 42% (and by 100% by 2050). With our West Wodonga Wastewater Treatment Plant one of our largest emitters of carbon, and a series of works were proposed to stem our carbon emissions.
In 2018, the first of these was completed, with the installation of high efficiency blowers (blowers are machines that are used to inject pressurised air in the form of fine bubbles into wastewater to ensure that sufficient oxygen is present for microbes to thrive and convert water into a cleaner product as part of the treatment process – yep, it’s a complicated business here!). The new blowers reduce the amount of power (and therefore carbon) at the plant by a whopping 14%. In 2018, we also began planning for a 2MW solar array that is estimated to produce approximately 4,380,000kWh/annum, enough to not only run the plant entirely on solar power, but provide extra power for selling back to the grid.