Significant Events

Silver Anniversary of Irrigation – Progress Through Quarter of a Century

Contributed by Mr Jack Lowe, Chairman of the Harvey Road Board, and member of the Irrigation Commission

… On the twenty-first day of this month, twenty-five years ago (June 21, 1916), the then Governor of the State of Western Australia (Sir Harry Barron, K.C.M.G., C.V.O.), officially opened the first irrigation undertaking in this State. The ceremony was performed at what was then known as the Intercepting Weir on the Harvey River, a spot which is now referred to locally as the Little Weir…


 Governor Sir Harry Barron opening the Harvey Irrigation Scheme, June 1916.

From my own personal knowledge of the subject, and from all research I have made, I am forced to the conclusion that the establishment of our irrigation schemes in this State has been the direct result of the much bigger irrigation projects initiated by the brothers George and W. B. Chaffey at Mildura, Victoria and Renmark, South Australia. In 1884, fifty-seven years ago, these two remarkable men were literally ‘turning water into gold’ by irrigating apparently hopeless desert acres in America. By devious channels, their work then was destined to become an inspiration to the great Victorian statesman, Alfred Deakin, who in 1880 commenced to preach irrigation of the mallee to the Parliament of which he was then a youthful member. In 1884, as a Cabinet Minister, Solicitor-General and Commissioner for Public Works, he visited America on behalf of his Government, to investigate irrigation, and there met the Chaffey Brothers. That meeting caused splendid cities to rise from the desert sands of his own State, and eventually resulted in the gospel of irrigation percolating to our own State.

From where once wandered a few dying sheep along the banks of the Murray River, there rose the beautiful and prosperous city of Mildura, and there commenced the history of an industry which, through trials and tribulations, grew till it now provides a large portion of the wealth of the two largest States of the Commonwealth. In her most commendable book, Water into Gold Ernestine Hill has lately told the fascinating story of Mildura’s rise from poverty and ugliness to riches and beauty, and the story is of particular interest to us for the reason that many men who lived in Mildura in its early days afterwards came to Harvey and became the apostles of similar irrigation and closer-settlement here.

Surveyor and Journalist

Indeed, Harvey itself (which was then call the ‘Korijekup Estate’) was actually laid out on the same lines as Mildura by W. Bede Christie, Surveyor and Journalist. Coming from Mildura, Christie was engaged by the Western Australian Bureau of Agriculture to lecture at the various agricultural centres of this State on the methods of fruit culture obtaining at the irrigation colonies of Mildura and Renmark. After listening to one of Christie’s lectures, Dr. Harvey approached him and an arrangement was made for Christie to survey the Korijekup Estate (then owned by Drs. Harvey and Hayward) and to sell the blocks on a commission basis for citrus growing. Although Christie did not interest himself at all in the irrigation of the estate, at least he planned it on the same lines as the first irrigation district to be established in the Commonwealth.

In 1882 a young man called Frank Becher took up a block in Mildura, and was later put in charge of a big fruit packing shed for J. F. Levien, who had provided a fair share of the finance for Chaffey’s undertaking. Incidentally, during his residence in Mildura, Becher was a friendly but keen football rival of one Hugh Oldham, who had surveyed Renmark for the Chaffeys and who was afterwards appointed Engineer for Agricultural Areas by the Western Australian Government, in which capacity he had charge of the first irrigation undertaking in this State. Becher left Mildura and drifted to the Western Australian Goldfields. In 1904 he accepted the management of the Korijekup Estate for Drs. Harvey and Hayward. Then it was that the seed of the irrigation area began definitely to germinate in Western Australia.

In the meantime, other Mildura men had settled on Korijekup. Christie had issued a blue book concerning the Estate, on the cover of which it was described as having ‘Magnificent Soil’ – ‘Thirty-seven Inches Rainfall’ – ‘Permanently Flowing River’ – Unequalled Climate’ – ‘No Irrigation’ – ‘Picturesque Scenery’, etc. Whether the ‘No Irrigation’ was intended to be a candid confession of the only disadvantage, or whether he considered it to be a good selling feature, is not known. Certainly Chaffey brothers and the settlers of Renmark and Mildura had gone through many trials and troubles inevitable in the building up of a big structure, and Christie may have taken advantage of some acute period of trouble to extol the virtues of a ‘no irrigation’ venture. He circulated his booklet widely, and other Mildura men followed him to Harvey. The late Mr. Oscar Rath, and the late Mr. John Newell, both of whom had been nurserymen in Mildura, came to Korijekup in 1895/6. My own father, who had been a contractor for Chaffey brothers there, arrived here in 1897.

Citrus Growing Venture

Korijekup had been planned and the blocks sold purely as a citrus-growing venture. Christie had said that irrigation would be entirely unnecessary, but, after orange trees had been planted for about 10 years, they showed signs of being unable to stand up to the summer dryness, and irrigation was freely talked of by the settlers. Out of a conversation in the local hotel in 1908 between such men as Dr. Williams, Dr. Harvey, Mr. A. T. Smith and Mr. R. O. Hayward, Dr. Williams wrote long letters to the press on the subject, and the late Mr. W. Catton Grasby, a leading horticultural journalist from South Australia, then settled in Perth, gave encouragement to the proposal.

The community affairs of the Estate were all handled by a local Citrus Society, of which Mr. Frank Becher was chairman from 1905 to 1912; Mr. R. O. Hayward for four years up to 1916, and the late Mr. Jack Grieves from March 1916, covering the opening of the first Weir in June of that year, until he died. As Secretary of the Society from its inception until 1915, and for one year during that time when he was chairman, Mr. Ken Gibsone worked zealously for the fruition of irrigation, to be followed by Mr. Tom Myatt, who also acted as secretary of the Society during the years that irrigation was in its earliest stages in the State. Other members who interested themselves particularly in the irrigation project were Messrs. A. Jenkins, Dr. Williams, L. Prince, G. P. Charman and G. Horrocks.

In 1910 the President of the Society, Mr Becher, was delegated to attend a Conference of Citrus Growers in Melbourne, and on the voyage found himself a fellow-passenger with Sir James Mitchell, then Minister for Lands. In these days of express trains and aeroplanes, a traveller is fortunate to find time more than to say ‘good day’ to his fellow-passengers, but in those days slower travel meant greater opportunities for profitable conversation, as well as perhaps other things. Becher, the enthusiastic agriculturalist, and Mitchell, the aspiring politician, restless with ambition to hasten the development of his native State, together found ample time and opportunity to discuss the subject nearest to Becher’s heart – irrigation. He literally pumped it into his listener’s not unattentive ear, and backed up his claim to speak with his experience in Mildura. As a result, he was given a formal commission by Sir James to visit Mildura before returning to the West, there to see how the place had progressed since he had left, and to bring back a full report for the Minister’s benefit.

Comprehensive Report

Becher’s report was comprehensive, and stressed particularly the fact that, whereas from the Murray they had to lift the water up as much as 90 feet, here it would be gravitated. The result of the report was that, in 1911, the Government undertook a survey of the rivers of the South West to find catchment sites suitable for constructing weirs, and that was the first definite step taken by the Government to investigate the possibilities of irrigation in Western Australia. A young man of 21 years, fresh from England named Walter Roland Eckersley, was the Engineer commissioned to do the work, and he selected three possible sites, which became known departmentally as ‘Eckersley Sites 1, 2 and 3’ respectively. (Incidentally, Eckersley Site No. 1 is now the present Harvey Weir Site, No. 2 was ‘drowned’ by the enlargement of No. 1 and No. 3 is where Stirling Dam – the second largest in the State – is now being constructed).

Thus irrigation began to seem a possibility. Christie had said in his booklet that it would be ‘entirely unnecessary’, but he had been proved wrong by one of the very earliest settlers whom the booklet had attracted. This was rather an eccentric character named Halor, said to be the son of an Italian Count, whose block was subsequently purchased by my father. Halor had rigged up an ingenious, if somewhat laborious devise for drawing water from the river for his trees by means of a liquid manure pump, motivated by ‘horse-works’. It was a type of pump used in certain European countries to lift liquid wastes from domestic wells, and a horse following a circular route around it, supplied the necessary lifting power. The remains of the outfit are on the property to this day, and as it only ultimately delivered for Halor one-fifth of the water it first lifted, it is quite possibly of more value today as an antique than it was to him then. He must have required water for irrigation badly, especially as it is said that being without the services of a horse he once resorted to a bicycle with the back tyre removed to which a rope chain was secured. The bicycle was jacked upright and by very vigorous peddling, the back wheel operated the pump. The idea is humorous, it certainly was crude and primitive, but it at least had the merit of being a sincere attempt to perform a required service.

Journey in Bullock Dray

My father afterwards tried to use it (with a horse – not a bicycle). Before leaving Mildura in 1897, he had known Charles Trevatt, who had travelled 300 miles overland from Wimmera wheat lands with his family on a bullock dray to become the first settler at Mildura under Chaffey brothers’ scheme. Trevatt had four apricot trees of exceptional quality, named ‘Blenheim,’ from which my father budded his own trees before leaving Mildura, and brought them to Korijekup with him. He planted them in nursery rows on the block where they now grow, watered them for a time with Halor’s contraption, and they are yielding now about 70 tons of fruit a year.

The Government’s investigations were now completed and one night, in the summer of 1913, forty to fifty settlers gathered in the local school room to meet the then Minister for Works (Mr. W. D. Johnston), to receive from him the Government’s proposals for constructing a dam to conserve water for irrigation at the ‘Eckersley No. 1 site’. Plans were submitted for a weir to cost £34,000. The proposition was accepted by the settlers without any opposition. Thus was initiated the first irrigation scheme in Western Australia.

I should state here that by this Sir James Mitchell’s party had passed from power and it was the Government of Mr. John Scaddan, in which Mr. Phillip Collier was Minister for Water Supply that finally authorised commencement of the work. The first ‘Rights in Water and Irrigation Bill’ had been submitted to Parliament in 1912, but had been defeated in the Upper House on the very vexed question of riparian rights – a question which still bristles with difficulties and jealous guardianship by the holders of such rights. The Bill was re-introduced in 1914 and passed. A year later – in November 1915 – the actual work in connection with the laying of concrete in the main weir commenced, and the last batch was placed in position on June 22, 1916. The water first overflowed the crest on July 16, 1916 – 24 days after the completion of the wall, and about one month after the official opening. The storage capacity of the first weir was 520,000,000 gallons, later increased by the raising of the wall to its present capacity of 2,270,000,000 gallons. Water was first allowed to flow down the channels to the settlement early in December 1915, with the main object of consolidating the banks. The settlers than made a request for the privilege of using the water which otherwise would have had to be diverted into the drains and run to waste. The result was that about 500 acres were irrigated from the normal summer flow of the river.

An Era Commences

In submitting his report on these matters to the Under Secretary for Water Supply, Sewerage and Drainage, at the end of 1916, the Engineer for Agricultural Areas (the late Mr. Hugh Oldham, our old friend from Mildura), said;

‘With the advent of the coming irrigation season at Harvey, the era of irrigation may be claimed to have commenced, and it is expected that the results of this centre will justify the extension of the practice to many other localities in the South West, where the local conditions are favourable.’

Looking around us today, we see how prophetic were those words. That Mr Oldham then had his eye on the possibilities of the Waroona-Hamel district for increased production from irrigation is also borne out by the same report, in which he later said:

‘A considerable number of settlers along the different drains radiating from the railway culverts near Hamel use the summer flow of the drain for irrigation purposes. In one case, near Hamel, a settler claims to have netted 400 pound from two acres of potatoes last season. The land in the Waroona and Hamel districts appears to be specially suitable for the cultivation of root crops and summer fodder, and the district is likely to become a dairying centre.’

That was a quarter of a century ago, now the irrigation districts from Waroona to Dardanup supply a major part of the whole-milk requirements of the metropolitan area.

‘Astounding’ Figures

A moment’s thought on what has been achieved in this last twenty-five years in the irrigation history of the State cannot fail to impress. The first Harvey Weir, at its original estimation, cost £34,000, contained storage capacity for 520,000,000 gallons. Its capacity has since been increased four-fold. Wellington Dam off the Collie River, with a capacity of 7,000,000,000 gallons, has been constructed at an approximate cost of £320,000, Sampson Dam, with a capacity of 2,800,000,000 gallons, has just been completed; and now the biggest of them all, Stirling Dam – the second largest in the State – with the storage capacity of 12,000,000,000 gallons and estimated to cost £700,000 is under construction. The length of channels constructed in the original Harvey No. 1 area was 41 miles. At present, excluding the area to be served by the Stirling Dam, the total length of irrigation channels in the Harvey, Waroona and Collie areas, is 212 miles, or five times the original length. From an original storage capacity in the first 520,000,000 gallons, there will be stored in all areas, when Stirling Dam is completed, approximately 25,000 million gallons, or nearly 50 times the original storage. This will water 25,000 acres embracing the area from Waroona to Dardanup. In that area there have been built two condensed milk factories, one butter factory and one butter and cheese factory. The total expenditure by the Government on all schemes approaches in round figures £1,500,000.

I mention these facts to record the expansion of irrigation in the quarter-century that has elapsed since the first small weir in the State was opened, and also as an indication of what can be expected to occur in the future. Of course, beside the irrigation history of Victoria and New South Wales, our record pales into insignificance. In Victoria, since Deakin first preached irrigation to this Parliament, that the State has spent the colossal amount of £27,000,000 on irrigation works, and they are planning still further huge schemes, Burrinjuck Dam, N.S.W., cost that Government £8,000,000. It has a capacity of 33½ billion cubic feet and opened up 800,000 acres for settlement. Hume Weir at Albury cost the Victorian and N.S.W. Governments £5,500,000 pound. Its water surface, covering 70 square miles, is three times that of Sydney Harbour. It completely submerged two townsites, impounded 1¼ million acre feet of water and ranks now as the third largest reservoir in the world.

To us in Western Australia, these figures are astounding, but they are balanced by many considerations, all of which I need not set out here. From our irrigation schemes to date we could not and did not expect the magical results that have been achieved in the East, where water has been supplied to fertile lands, which, through lack of rainfall, were previously desert wastes. No wonder wealthy towns and cities arose there. In those places the water was indeed ‘a subtle alchemist that in a trice transmuted leaden metal into gold,’ but from the comparatively tiny expenditure of 1½ million pounds, and in consideration of the improved type of country in which it was spent, we did not expect and could not expect such wonders to have happened. We are doing what we set out to do – to consolidate and improve that which we already had; to make a good thing certain-safe; to walk before we ran; to build up gradually our best resources first; and all within the limits imposed by limited population and consequent taxable capacity. Although we have not been as spectacular in the last 25 years as our Eastern States neighbours, we are satisfied that we have done our best in that time according to our means.

But the ‘Vision Splendid’ of what might yet be achieved in Western Australia through irrigation, not necessarily in the South West only, can remain with us, to inspire our future efforts.

(South Western Times, Friday 20 June 1941)


An open irrigation channel


 Dethridge Wheel, Government Road, Harvey.


 Open irrigation channel, Government Road.

2016 Update – The Harvey Irrigation Pipe Project (2005 – 2008) replaced the open channel irrigation system saving up to 30% water delivery loss from dam to farm supply points.

A comprehensive history of drainage and irrigation in the region was written by Marion Lofthouse and Geoff Calder entitled Food grows where water flows: a social history of irrigation and drainage in the Harvey Water Irrigation Area of Western Australia. The book was published by Harvey Water in 2014.