The History of Irrigation
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Jim Todd

A six month work placement at Finley as part of his civil engineering degree first brought Jim Todd to the district and introduced him to irrigation. Originally from Murwillumbah, NSW, he joined the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission in 1950 after graduating, and moved to Deniliquin to assist with the construction of the new system, and later became the District Engineer.


The following text is based on an edited transcript of an interview recorded with Mr James Todd in March 2005.

Key topics: Gazetting of irrigation districts, construction of Stevens Weir, relief work, dragline excavators, Box Creek, clearing, drainage, horse teams, plant, Mulwala Canal, Lawson syphons, official opening of syphons, farm development and water use, migrant workers, flooding.

After World War I there was a lot of soldier settlement right through this area which, in the ensuing depression of the 1920s was in a very serious condition. In fact a great many of the soldier settlers south of the town of Deniliquin literally had to walk off their blocks. It was a combination [of lack of money and drought], but it simply wasn't - a living wasn't there. When I first arrived in Deniliquin, going out the Barham Road here and there and you could see a small clump of pepper trees and a small heap of bricks. This is where somebody had attempted to establish a farm.

A different plan

The decision was made by the New South Wales government to establish irrigation through this area and a part of the reason for this was to provide relief for these farmers who were having a very hard time. The Water Commission already had irrigation areas on the Murrumbidgee, but in this stage in the irrigation areas they resumed all the land, divided it into farms and allocated them with assured water rights and so on. But for this area they changed the plan to what they called irrigation districts in which the proposal was to supply water to each existing property in the area selected. On the MIA they provided drainage on the Murray here, expecting relatively small scale irrigation development. They deemed it not necessary to provide drainage. It was expected that water would be used primarily to grow pastures to supplement their essentially dryland development. That was the original plan.
They weren't resuming the ground, so they had to have permission from the landholders, not individually but they'd declare a certain district, such as the Berriquin or the Deniboota or the Denimein irrigation district, and it would be advertised, and people could object to it. If a significant proportion of the landholders objected to it, it would go before a locally constituted Land Board.
In the Wakool district it wasn't necessary, there were insufficient objections and they went ahead with it, and that work started in 1932, I think it. But there were sufficient objections in the Berriquin district, which was promulgated at the same time, and that had to go before a Land Board. Basically people didn't want to change what they were doing and were afraid of the costs. But that's my supposition of it. The locally constituted Land Board did uphold the constitution of the Berriquin district, but that meant it was about two years later than the Wakool district in the construction of the work.

Weir provides relief work

The first work for the Wakool district was the Stevens Weir. This was in the depression and the resident engineer for the Stevens Weir was brought down from MIA. The job was there to employ the local unemployed, and it was done largely on relief work, certainly initially, with typically men working two weeks on and one week off on relief work, to share the benefit around. The excavation of the Wakool main canal initially was done by a steam powered dragline. It travelled on rails, not on tracks. They laid rails ahead of it.
The story is told that every morning - Steve Whetham was the engineer, he used to step outside his field office, at 9 o'clock and sack two men. All they had to do was be there. He took care to not sack any of the key men. And he'd quite happily put them on again a fortnight later. It was a very crude but widely used disciplinary measure to keep the people on their toes. At the same time when branch channel construction was going on, it was quite typical for a gang of men to be working out on the channel site and two or three men sitting in the shade. They were waiting for the ganger to sack somebody. There was no shame in it. The sewage works in Deniliquin were put in at about the same time on the same basis, and I remember one of our workmen saying, "I had the honour of being sacked in my own backyard". But that was the way it was done.
The New South Wales Government, they planned the whole thing out and their intention was to develop irrigation right across what is now the Berriquin district, an extension to its north, which is now incorporated in it, which was called the Jenargo irrigation district and to the west, the Denimein irrigation district, with a rather indefinite western boundary. They called it Denimein, being an abbreviation of Deniliquin and Moulamein; and the Deniboota, which was a corruption of Deniliquin and Womboota - Womboota being a reasonably established locality south of where Bunnaloo is now. At that stage I don't think they'd very firmly fixed the limits. In fact I know they hadn't because they've been extended since.

Plant imported from U.S.

Now they purchased this heavy plant from America, and the star of it was the four Bucyrus excavators. They have always carried the name plate of Bucyrus-Erie, but they never were Bucyrus-Erie, they were Bucyrus-Ruston because of the existence at that time of empire preference on your imports. And to satisfy that, the Erie motors were replaced by a Ruston engine in each of these machines, so they were always effectively Bucyrus-Ruston, and that was the reason for this slightly strange shape of the cabin on those excavators.
Initially the top levels of the excavation were done by horse teams with scoops, but that was quickly stopped and the horse teams moved into the branch channel construction and the Bucyrus drag-lines were just doing the whole of the excavation. These machines were big. They had either the choice of a 3 yard bucket with a - I think was a 40 foot jib - or a 4 yard bucket with a 40 foot jib or a 3 yard bucket or a 4 yard bucket with a 50 foot jib. It was just simply an extension of jib. In my time we never used the extension and only used the 3 yard buckets when we had to do some repair work on one of the 4 cubic yard buckets. These machines were 22 foot wide and weighed 120 tons, and it was always planned to take them across the Edward River.
So, as the work approached the Edward River, they had to build a bridge across the Edward River to carry these draglines. It was a very heavily built bridge, much heavier than the actual syphon construction needed but it had to get these machines back and forwards across the river. That bridge has only in recent years been totally demolished, but I suppose for the last 30 years it was rather derelict.
Now, as the[ Mulwala Canal] was built, a telephone line was built along with it, and for quite a long distance a pipeline was laid to keep water up to the camps and the excavating plant and there was a pump at Mulwala pumping from the weir - pumping from the river there, pumping along the work. As water came along, of course, I think they simply stopped pumping water out, but the telephone line was laid right from Mulwala through to Deniliquin. It was all double line, but with connections to the Finley office. This was for passing the information about construction and later channel operation.

Early development slow

Water first came to the first part of the Berriquin district in 1938, but then there were the intervening war years, and after that there were prosperous years during which the development of the irrigation was relatively slow. The existing farmers who had survived the depression didn't have to extend themselves terribly to make a good living without much irrigation in the immediate post-war years because the prices were very good then.
There was a lot of war service land - war service subdivisions going on at this time. Soldier settlement was the general term. And the development - corresponding development across the border in Victoria was probably about 10 years ahead of New South Wales, so there was a fairly steady migration of Victorian farmers to the cheaper land and good water supply on the north side of the river. That introduced a good deal of encouragement for people to look over the fence and see how it was done.
I was appointed down here to the Deniboota [and Denimein] construction in 1950 and my work was in the branch channel construction, which was at that stage going ahead in Denimein. The Deniboota couldn't start until the syphon was complete, but there was a lot of other extension of channels going on to serve the soldier settlement subdivisions and private subdivisions and it was gathering pace. So there was quite a lot of construction work going on within the irrigation district.

Escape for surplus water

The draglines had completed the excavation of Mulwala Canal to the proposed junction with the Wakool Main Channel, and Deniboota Canal to a point close to Bunnaloo. They had been excavating the enlargement of the Wakool main and extension of it from the Mulwala Canal. At that stage the channel was getting rather too small to use the draglines.
But they had the machines and the decision was made to excavate the Box Creek escape channel. We had to do a lot of clearing for the draglines, particularly along Box Creek because there was standing timber most of the way. The trees in the forest in Box Creek were almost entirely Black Box, which was useful only as firewood; there was no logs in them.
Now Box Creek is a major drain, but because the constitution of the irrigation district said we did not provide drainage, it was called an escape channel and was connected to the end of all the branch channels to get rid of surplus water, because it had been realised by the irrigation authorities that drainage was inevitable.
With the increasing development, you had to be able to get rid of surplus water. In the original concept it was expected that these irrigation district farmers would only develop a relatively small amount of irrigation to provide a reserve of fodder to withstand dry times. That was the theory. It didn't work out because what the farmers - as they started to develop, they found that there was money in this.
The excavation of the branch channels was almost entirely by horse teams, with eight-horse or 10-horse teams. There was one contractor who was using a Crawler tractor - an International TD9 40 horsepower with a scoop. He didn't do anywhere near as nice a job as the horses did. Nobody was using bulldozers for excavating channels. You could use a bulldozer to dig a site out for building some structure, but it wasn't suitable for digging channels at that stage of the technology.

That went on until about '57 or thereabouts when the small bulldozers were taking over. Then it was decided to build the Deniboota Escape. Before that with the horse teams and the small tractors we were letting earthwork contracts and about 20,000 cubic yard - 25,000 cubic yard batches, which would be three or four months work for a horse team. But when we started in Deniboota, we decided to allow a big contract - bigger contracts, I think 120,000 to 150,000 cubic yards because it would attract a lot more tenders, which it did.

Assisting at the syphons

I was on the branch channel work and I spent about one year off it and I was taken off that at a slack time to supervise the clay lining of a section of the Mulwala canal between Aljoes Syphon and the Edward River, because you have to realise that that section in particular was all underlined by sand. We didn't get down to sand in the excavation but it's not far down till you're in sand all through there because it's on an ancestral Murray stream.
And for that we were supplied with two little excavators, Tournapul Scoops - horrible things. They were very effective but they were most dangerous looking things. It was just a two-wheeled tractor couple onto a scoop with hydraulic controls between. And I remember the foreman saying, "You need to be certifiable to drive one of these". And they used to drive them pretty furiously. But they were hauling clay off the bank downstream of the Four Post Road, put into there, and it all had to be rolled and compacted in.
And as that was completed, I was assisting for a while on the Lawson Syphon work.
At that stage Eric Nicholas was the resident engineer at Deniliquin and Tony Vidal was in charge of the work actually on the site of the Lawson Syphon. At that stage the syphon field office had shifted to the north bank of the river. The initial work always - the first job was to coffer-dam off half of the river with steel sheet piling and to pour a junction block in the middle of the syphon where the two halves of the syphon were joined together. It's all under the ground, but that was the first job.

Syphons help stabilise town, farming

[The Lawson Syphons] was very important locally because it maintained employment in the area at a time when the irrigation farming was getting underway really, and so that it filled in a gap from the depression through to the intense farming development, which is Deniliquin really.
The Lawson Syphon construction at the time was the largest steel sheet pylon job in the southern hemisphere, so it was significant that way. The piles were driven and extracted with steam hammers. It was about the end of that time that they started using big air compressors to do the same thing, with the same hammer, the air compressors. Much easier to manage. But these days they generally use a diesel hammer.
The initial thought with the irrigation all up and down here was a small amount of irrigation to grow fodder to stabilise the failing dryland farming within this district. Now, that was the initial concept. The widespread irrigation - rice growing was already underway up on the MIA, but there was no thought of any such thing down here. Rice growing down here got underway using Italian prisoners of war on the Tullakool farm which, at the end of the war - after the end of the war was - became the Tullakool irrigation area, with drainage, etcetera, for intense development. But that wasn't the original plan. It was a wartime exigency to grow rice to feed the people who would normally have got their rice from Thailand.

Prepared to work hard

The Italian immigrants were coming to Australia, and the only English they'd learnt, which was on the boat coming out. They'd run classes on the boat but very limited ability, and they had very limited English. And Ron Butcher was the foreman out at the syphon. They'd put in a camp out at the syphon, and they'd line this fresh batch up and ask them their names. And the names meant nothing to Ron, so he'd name them - Tom, Joe, Harry. And it's surprising how those names stuck. The leading hand pile driver was Charlie – Dandrea was the surname. Ron Butcher didn't know that Giuseppe was equivalent to Bill - he didn't know that, but it was Charlie. We always knew him as Charlie Dandrea. The name stuck. He was built like a gorilla, and I always reckoned if the pile driver failed, he'd take a 14 pound hammer and do the job."

"But that was the sort of attitude; most of them were really eager, because they came out here to better themselves - with nothing - and they were prepared to work hard to do it, and most of them did. One of the odd ones that I named I reckoned he was an artist with a bulldozer; he never really learned English, and I know he had a wife and a couple of daughters in Italy. I don't know whether he ever got them out. He should have. He was a bloke you'd have liked to have helped but he was pretty helpless unless he was up on the bulldozer. I asked him where he learned to drive a bulldozer, and he said, "Driving tanks in the Italian Army".

"It was very tough for the foreign - the new Australians, as we used to call them. I'm glad that Caldwell (Caldwell was then the Minister for Immigration) coined that phrase "new Australians" because, you know, they got a lot of bad names too, but we eventually adopted the term, and we had a lot of them out at the syphon."

Opening of the Lawson Syphons

The opening ceremony had to be held on the outlet because that was the only place where you could accommodate a large number of people, so they built a rostrum - a sheltered rostrum on the outlet works, and the multitude lined up along there. The access road went down the western side, so most of the people were on the western side. Quite a few people on the eastern side - but they had to walk around to get to that.
To officially open her of course they had to run water through, and there was probably about 8 or 10 seconds delay from when they started winding the winch handles before the water would turn up at the bottom, so they must have had have worded the Premier to give them [time] in the office to signal the blokes to start winding handles, because no sooner they declared it open, and the water welled up and flowed down the channel. And every kid on the bank threw a clod in, as you can just picture them doing, because there was all clods. It was all fresh earthworks, so there was all clods.
But what I do remember about it was - I think it was rather shameful. - it was called the Lawson Syphons. It was insisted that it wasn't named after Joe Lawson, the local member of Parliament, Country Party. Nobody ever believed that, because there was a Labor government in power at the time - for quite a long time at the time, and it was officially opened by the Labor Premier. And after all the speechifying and the Premier (Premier Cahill) officially opened it, he said, "I now invite Joe Lawson to say a few words". By this time everybody had turned around and was walking away. And you could have foreseen it happening. I'm not sure it wasn't done deliberately."
The workshops were all on the southern side of the whole - the southern side of Aljoes Creek, because that was flood-free. And the camp - the camp similarly was on that side because that was flood-free. Everything between there and the river was liable to flooding. Any minor flooding would flood the syphon works out, as it did very frequently. The Aljoes Creek syphon was built during the times when the work on the syphon under the Edward River was interrupted by minor flooding.
There seemed to be one about every second or third year. You know, it only took a minor flood to put it under. And bear in mind, this was before Hume Weir was raised and before the dam on the Mitta [River], "Dartmouth Dam. And there were a couple more - another dam built on the Ovens River. It was before all of those, so you could get a flood in the - a minor flood in the Edwards River at the drop of a hat - the site was very subject to minor flooding."
The building of the syphon was by no means a new concept at all. They'd been built before. In fact there were quite a number of - there's quite a number of small syphons throughout irrigation districts, tend to be in rather unfrequented spots because they're always crossing under some water course.
The whole concept of putting irrigation right through this area was out of ordinary. Not out of the ordinary in the world scale, but it was bigger but in the same concept as had been done in Victoria and probably about 10 years ahead of New South Wales, but it was a copy - not a complete copy, but a copy of what the commission had already done for the MIA. So, the experience was there.
The main significant feature of the Lawson Syphon was, it was a huge steel sheet piling job. It was the first time on a large scale under an active river that we'd attempted to put water under an active river. There were other much smaller syphons. Probably the first one that we'd really built was in the Wakool district where the northern branch canal goes under the Niemur River. But the Niemur River is normally dry.

The Todd Horse-Team


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