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The Snowy Vision

By Lance Endersbee - posted Saturday, 15 April 2000

The concept of the Snowy Mountains Scheme captured the imagination of all those involved.

From the beginning, the challenges of the project attracted young and capable people. They were supported by wise leadership, and encouraged to accept tasks to the full limit of their capacity. They had access to the best world experience.

As the work proceeded, new challenges arose. Problems were being solved as they arose in practice, and innovations were being adopted without any delays to the overall progress. There was excellent co-operation within the Snowy team of engineers involved in investigation, design, and contract administration, geologists and laboratory scientists, and with the contractors. There was a united focus on achievement.


The scheme evolved in overall concept and was improved in detail. The project was finally completed not only on time and within the original estimate, but with much greater installed capacity and electricity output, and with much greater water storage. That ensured secure water releases for irrigation in long term drought.

Plan for the Nation

It is now 50 years since the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Power Act of 1949 was passed by the Commonwealth Government. The time was right.

The nation had almost been invaded during the war. Darwin had been bombed. Ships had been sunk along the east coast. Enemy submarines had entered Sydney Harbour. During the war, almost all civil works had been deferred. The nation now had to rebuild. There was a need for greater electricity supplies for new industries, and there were blackouts as supplies failed to meet the demand. The international situation had become tense again. There was an Iron Curtain across Europe. It was the time of the Berlin Air Lift.

The Snowy Scheme was a plan for the nation, for national development. The prospect of diverting the Snowy waters inland had been considered for over 60 years, very seriously in times of drought, but always leading to argument between the colonies, and later the states, about the rights to the waters.

In 1941, Mr L R East, Chairman of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission of Victoria proposed that the Commonwealth and the two states of NSW and Victoria create a separate authority to undertake the work, on the lines of the River Murray Commission. However, the allocation of the diverted waters to the states of NSW, Victoria, and now also to SA, remained contentious.

In 1943 the conflicting proposals for the development of the Snowy waters led Mr Arthur Calwell, MP, to ask in Parliament that "plans be formulated for the best use of the waters in the interests of the people of Australia as a whole."


In 1946, the Commonwealth and State Ministers from NSW and Victoria finally discussed the national aspect of the project. The engineering investigations for the project became the overall responsibility of the Commonwealth Department of Works and Housing, The Director General was Mr L F Loder (later Sir Louis). The Director of Engineering was Ronald B Lewis. The detailed work of investigations and evaluation of alternative proposals was the task of E F Rowntree, Engineer for Major Investigations.

Rowntree had been a courageous aerial observer in WWI, and had won the DFC for several missions at low altitude in the face of heavy machine gun fire. He was a member of a Quaker family in Hobart, but the pacifist Quakers disapproved of his war effort. After WW1 he worked with the Hydro-Electric Department in Tasmania, where he designed entire hydro-electric projects virtually single-handedly. His professional background was ideal for the task of developing a plan for the Snowy Scheme.

He assessed many possible alternative layouts. Every variation involved site inspections, estimation of river flows, and calculation of reservoir capacity and regulation of storages, outline designs and costs of dams, tunnels and power stations. This task was the sole occupation of Ted Rowntree over about four years. He alone carried out the development of ideas, and studies of economic feasibility. It was a remarkable achievement by one man. Rowntree developed the concept of the diversion of Snowy water to the Tumut River for power and irrigation in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, thereby gaining NSW support for the project.

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This is an edited extract from a paper published by The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Endersbee AO FTSE is a civil engineer of long experience in water resources development. His early professional career included service with the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority, the Hydro-Electric Commission of Tasmania and the United Nations in South-East Asia as an expert on dam design and hydro power development. In 1976 he was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Monash University. In 1988-89 he was Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University.

His fields of specialisation include the management of planning and design of major economic development projects, water resources, energy engineering and transport engineering. He has been associated with the design and construction of several large dams and underground power station projects and other major works in civil engineering and mining in Australia, Canada, Asia and Africa. He was President of the Institution of Engineers, Australia in 1980-81.

In 2005 he published, A Voyage of Discovery, a history of ideas about the earth, with a new understanding of the global resources of water and petroleum, and the problems of climate change.

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