The History of Irrigation
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Kevin Huntington

Born in Deniliquin in 1929, in the 1950s Kevin Huntington swapped morse code and telegraphy at the Post Master General's office in Sydney for channels and water distribution at the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission's Finley office. After two years as workshop labourer for the WC&IC he became a channel attendant in 1958, and progressed to become the Finley Channel Superintendant before retiring in 1987.


Key topics: channel operations, ordering water, flows for South Australia, flow restrictions, weeds, fish, water meters, night patrols, water theft, Channel Attendants Association, working conditions.

The following text is based on an edited transcript of an interview conducted with Mr Kevin Huntington in March 2007.

During the time in the workshop I spent time as plant timekeeper, keeping records of vehicles, machinery etc. their workings. I commenced as a Trainee Channel Attendant in January 1958, from then on until appointed Channel Attendant 1961. From then I had my own division from Water Distribution for nine seasons running between Finley, Berrigan and Jerilderie.
The Berrigan Channel is the big offshoot off the main canal [Mulwala Canal] from The Drop and the channels running off that travel a long way. From the end of the Berrigan Channel which is a couple of miles out of Berrigan water goes right to Conargo and all up around Jerilderie out across the Oaklands/Corowa Road finishing running back to the drainage channel which eventually runs back into the Billabong Creek. Out that way when we first put water down the Jerilderie extension, the ground was so porous that it took about a week to get water from the off-take of the extension of the channel down about a mile and a half to the end to a fellow who was waiting for water for his stock. Of course filling the channels for the first time naturally the banks soaked up a lot of water.
If you find places where the ground is leaking [the channels] have to be clay-lined and that's one of the problems that happens on and off all the time, that's one of the big jobs in maintenance. Our main canal here was leaking into the soakage pit at the Mary Lawson Wayside Rest at one time; they had to clay the main canal below Dawe's regulator on the Berrigan Road and that stopped the water running in the pit.

Farmers order water

[Originally farmers placed water orders on cards left in designated water-order boxes on their properties and channel attendants collected the cards daily.] They had card boxes around every division, numerous card boxes, and the farmers were supposed to give four days notice when they were ordering water. This didn't always apply; their summer pasture particularly, or their white clover or stuff like that, would want watering urgently. You endeavoured to help them in any way you could – that was your job.
The four days notice was required because our advance orders had to go through Yarrawonga Weir, the Hume Weir to Canberra and then Canberra notified Hume Weir how much water to release into the Murray River, which took basically four days to get to Yarrawonga [where the irrigation system offtake is located] so it was necessary to have that four days.

Water for South Australia

Sometimes along the main canal you would find you were just about half way through cutting off water and you'd get word from the office that the River Murray Commission wanted to put a thousand megalitres of water [from the Mulwala Canal] into the Edward River at the Lawson Syphon for South Australia. The water would get into the Murray seven days quicker than if it was floated down the Murray. It ran out through to Moulamein back into the Murray and it was so much closer to South Australia. It wasn't always convenient; sometimes we had to reduce our flows on divisions to co-operate with this sort of adjustment for the River Murray Commission, for getting water to South Australia.
It wasn't convenient because we'd be at peak flows in the spring and the autumn and when you got peak flows everybody wanted as much water as they could get to water their sub[clover] and rye which took a lot longer, and particularly their first waterings when the ground was always cracked and open and it took more water. It interfered with the flows quite a bit.
Sometimes we weren't too popular because the flows [for South Australia] restrict the flows to some landholders. [During restrictions farmers might] only be entitled to 15 per cent of their allocation and a 15 day [watering] rotation. If you stuck to that it meant that they were only getting perhaps 30 acre-feet [of water], when they had a 200 acre-feet water right.
Always 15 day rotations through spring and autumn but 10 days through the summer originally, and then it came back to eight day rotations. It was found that the real hot weather was stressing some of the white clover. For these summer pastures, for the dairy cattle particularly, it was reduced to eight day periods so it made the rotations a little bit quicker.

Reading water meters

In those days if you didn't' read your water meters at least every second day, third day at the most, you weren't in proper control of the flow of the farmer's water. When I first started off the meters were fitted at the end of the axle of the water wheel. We used wooden bearing blocks on the wheels, and if they got a little bit of dirt in it it scoured away these bearing blocks and sometimes when you started the wheel off the wheel would go with a bit of a lurch. The flow of water hitting it would break the spindle off the end of the meter.
They eventually fitted a meter bracket of galvanized iron to the wheel and a meter pop rivetted onto it, which was a trip meter and it tripped with each revolution of the wheel and these were found more satisfactory and less likely to be interfered with. Sometimes the other meters were interfered with but these were a little bit more solid; there were a couple of occasions where G clamps were put on the meters to stop them from turning but when they do that they generally break the meter and you can see on the fittings where the clamp has been so that did evolve in court cases which in some ways were more hurtful to the channel attendant than they were to the landholders, although the landholders did get fined.

Night patrols

During some seasons they did have to put night patrols on when there was a little bit of [water theft] going on but night patrolmen would start late in the evening and go through until the morning. When I became Channel Superintendent I got called out at five o'clock in the morning which wasn't any great problem at that time, it was nearly time to get up. I had to go out and witness a fellow illegally taking water. My job was then to go and interview him and then if the Commission deemed it necessary, he would go to court. That happened on a couple of occasions. Whilst I wasn't given any remuneration for appearing in court; it was fairly hard on the nerves; particularly when you're not use to that sort of condition."
They increased the fines; the fines originally were very paltry and so it didn't have a great deal of effect. The fine was increased to $1000 I think and I'm just not exactly sure when that was but it was during my time as Senior Channel Attendant or Channel Superintendent which would have been between '77 and '87. Interfering with the Commission's structures was a fairly serious business and caused a lot of "kafuffle' I suppose you could say; a lot of trouble – particularly if a fellow was watering rice and the water was taken away from him. It means he has got to spend extra time getting his levels on the rice back up to what they were and it means it's costing him extra water and extra time on his job where he could be more beneficial using his time elsewhere on his farm.
[From 19xx water orders were placed with channel attendants by phone] You usually commenced work when you got your first phone call [from a farmer ordering water]. Sometimes it might be six o'clock, sometimes before, but mostly from six, half past six onwards. Usually came to the office here a bit after seven or around about seven; and then by half past seven quarter to eight you'd be on your way. Depends how far you had to travel. There was a fair bit of travelling in a lot of the divisions. Sometimes your day would start at six o'clock and sometimes it would finish at 11 o'clock.
I had one landholder particularly who would ring at 10 to 11 at night and I would say "You're very late tonight" "Oh, I never go to bed before 11 o'clock". Then he might ring you at 10 to seven the next morning and decide he has changed his mind and is going to do something else with the water that day. But as long as he let you know before you gave your order [to the office] you could always adjust to suit.
Basically the best way to run your channels was from the bottom to the top. They were dead end channels in those days, there were no escapes so if you got to the bottom of the channel and you had an excess of water or a shortage of water you would put your channel through.
The aim was to get irrigation water to the outlets or the water wheels [for which water orders had been placed] pulling bars from regulators to concentrate the flows [to do this. Wet weather would sometimes give you problems, particularly with dead end channels. The coming of drainage alleviated a lot of these problems but you do not want to waste water so you still ran your channels in a manner which made the usage of water very important and there was no waste, or very little of any water escaping into the [drainage] escape channels.

Water use more intense

Watering became more intense and with the introduction of rice to the district flows were smaller, much harder to handle. When you were handling a big flow it was much easier but once you got to small flows particularly on smaller channels and dead end channels if you got a little bit of rubbish caught in the offtake because you only had a small flow on it would upset the flow a bit.
Eventually I qualified to become a Senior Channel Attendant and later a Channel Superintendent, spent about ten years in the office altogether before I retired in September 1987. We didn't have any training at that stage, the only training was in the field.

Weeds problems in channels

With the WC&IC maintenance changes during the early 60s particularly we were stricken with elodea, a weed that grows very quickly in the hot weather. Elodea Canadensus was the botanical title, and in the real hot weather it would grow so quickly and it would block off your channels and it would break away and build on your cattle stops and around your regulators and it could even get under the doors and stop [Dethridge] wheels in places and caused a lot of problems.
And then you had the blowgrass or umbrella weed as we call it. At one stage up around the Jerilderie area a landholder came along with a bailer and bailed a lot of it and stacked it on the bank. Gangs used to drag the weed out with hooks and all sorts of equipment and put it on the bank but once it dried out it would blow back in so you had to put netting or something around it to keep it. Being summertime you couldn't burn it – it'll burn when it's dry but it won't burn when it's wet sort of thing. But it used to block off the channels very much particularly in the Jerilderie area.
Elodea, the chemical used to destroy with this was ecrolian; I think aquilan was the first stuff they used but then they got on to Ecrolian, basically it took the oxygen out of the water. It killed a lot of fish and that sort of thing but that was unavoidable.
The carp only came in later years – there weren't any carp much in my time but just about my finishing time they were starting to become prevalent around the district. They live in the bottom and stir up the mud and dirty the water which causes big problems, particularly people using it for stock and domestic for their house dams and things like that – house tanks. But the elodea was the biggest problem I think.
They formed special weed gangs in the different areas to take care of it but basically it was about three months of continuous spraying throughout the district to take care of it. Sometimes the weed would let go all of a sudden and it would break off and cause dreadful smells with the fish and that sort of thing. Yabbies seemed to crawl out on the bank to get away from it but the fish weren't able to do that.

Association works for better conditions

During the winter of probably 1972 channel attendants were very unhappy with remuneration for the hours they put in and the work they were doing, it was very poor by comparison to the maintenance section.
So we decided to form a Channel Attendant's Association. I became the first chairman in Finley and then we went over to Deniliquin and we formed the ranks there; eventually we formed the NSW Channel Attendant's Association.
The most important reason for beginning the Channel Attendant's Association was really the over long period of work roster, 12 days straight, doing very heavy, physical work, particularly on the Main Canal and Berrigan Channel system, was very taxing on the body as well as the mind. Eventually the Commission recognised this with a 10 day on 4 day off roster, then further on it was made into 9 days on 4 days off. This was of course only during the watering season. Present day Channel Attendants work 9 days on, then 3 days off then 9 days on and 6 days off.
We did have some [other] success with the Channel Attendant's Association. Channel attendants had to work in [the rain], on wet timber bases on the canals and the channels everywhere. It wasn't a good situation, you were wringing wet and dangerous to your health and eventually it was agreed that channel attendants should get wet weather clothing

Kevin Huntington


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