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
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
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
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.
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
[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
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
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
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
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