post federation

Australian History: Snowy MOUNTAIN sCHEME

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme first began as a means of obtaining extra irrigation, however later expanded to integrate a hydro-electric power supply. The project is the single greatest engineering project Australia has ever known and possibly will ever know and has been listed as a "world-class civil engineering project" by the American Society of Civil Engineers [1]. The purpose of the scheme was to collect water from the east of the Great Dividing Range and divert it westward through the Snowy Mountains to the Murray and Murrumbidgee river systems to create a major water supply for farmers and also to generate electricity.

When the scheme began in 1949, the rugged Snowy Mountains had barely been charted with few roads to assist in the construction. The Scheme managed by the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority, now called Snowy Hydro Limited, the body set up to construct the project, had to lay down all the roads before anything could be done. Two nearby townships were destroyed and residents relocated to make way for the huge dams. Several small towns were built for its construction workers of which some have become permanent: Cabramurra (the highest town in Australia); and Khancoban.

Initial proposals in 1918 were instigated by the needs of farmers who wanted to make use of the waters of the Snowy River which flowed down the Great Dividing Ranges into the sea, by diverting the water inland for irrigation. In the same year, a plan for a dam was suggested to the NSW government for the construction of a power plant but made no provision for inland irrigation. However the plans were put on hold, revived once in 1937 and 1944 and it wasn’t until 1946 where the Federal, Victorian and NSW governments joined together to investigate the possibilities of a Snowy Scheme. In 1949 the Government accepted a proposal and the Snowy Mountain Hydro-Electric Power Act was passed in Federal Parliament in July 1949. The Snowy Mountains Authority came into being on August 1 of the same year led by Sir William Hudson, a prominent New Zealand engineer.


  • It took nearly 25 years to build from 1949 to 1974 and had a historical cost of $800 million [3] is equivalent to approximately $6 billion dollars in today’s (2004) dollar currency.
  • The intention was that income from the sale of electricity generated by the scheme was to repay the Commonwealth Government over a period of 70 years. Prior to corporatisation the operation and maintenance of the scheme relating to water management and electricity production were subject to oversight by the Snowy Mountains Council.
  • The construction of the scheme employed about 100,000 workers from 30 countries which played an important role in Australia's post-war economic and social development [4].
  • The scheme comprises of 16 large dams and many smaller ones, around 145 kilometers of mountain tunnels, seven power stations (two underground), more than 80km of mountain aqueducts and hundreds of kilometers of power lines.
  • It covers an area of around 5,000 square kilometres in the rugged Snowy Mountains on the New South Wales-Victoria border.
  • The chosen location is significant whereby altitudes exceed 2100m (Mt.Kosciusko, the highest point in Australia) and where a large proportion of the area is over 1800m [2]. This is important as precipitation in the form of snow and rain falls in catchment areas of the Scheme. Water from melting snow and rain is collected and stored in large dams which are then diverted through tunnels and pipelines down to power stations, hundreds of metres below. Mountainous regions are ideally suited to the generation of hydro-electricity, because there is plenty of rain and snow, low temperatures meaning less evaporation and high mountains to provide the steep fall that is needed for the water to spin the turbines [4].
  • The Scheme is the largest renewable energy generator in mainland Australia and plays a pivotal role in the operation of the national electricity market, generating approximately 3.5% of the mainland grid's power.
  • The Scheme provides approximately 2,100 gigalitres of water a year to the Basin, providing additional water for an irrigated agriculture industry worth about $5 bn per annum, representing more than 40% of the gross value of the nation's agricultural production.
  • The scheme has a generating capacity of 3,756 megawatts and it generates an average of 4,500 gigawatt hours of energy per annum.
  • The scheme's electricity production was shared 13 per cent Commonwealth, 29 per cent Victoria and 58 per cent New South Wales.
  • The scheme was corporatised in June 2002 and commenced operation as a corporate entity in the national electricity market.
  • Snowy Hydro currently provides over 70% of all renewable energy that is available to the eastern mainland grid of Australia, as well as providing fast response power to light up the morning and evening rush hours of Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide.

[1] Designated Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks. Heritage Knowledgebase Database. American Society of Civil Engineers
[2] Year Book Australia, 1986 (ABS Catalogue No. 1301.0)
[3] Legislative Council Full Day Hansard Transcript, (Item 16 of 66), Reading of “Snowy hydro corporatisation amendment (parliamentary scrutiny of sale) bill”  Page: 668, 7 June 2006
[4] Snowy-Hydro Limited Tour Brochure Education Centre, ‘The Power of Water’, Brochure, 2006