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Corpratising the Snowy Mountains Scheme: hijacking environmental concerns for commercial gain

By Lance Endersbee - posted Thursday, 15 March 2001

The Snowy Mountains Project is a large multi-purpose water project that was planned and built to serve the people of Australia as a whole. The project had a catalytic effect on the development of the nation. The benefits of the Scheme have steadily increased over the years.

It is now 50 years since the start of the Scheme. In that 50 years, the population of Australia has trebled, and electricity production in Australia has increased by more than 20 times. The peak capacity of the Scheme was enlarged accordingly. Peak capacity of the Snowy could readily increase further. The scheme has enabled a major increase in the volume and value of irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme is monumental in world terms. Much of the major construction of the Scheme was underground, with some of the world's largest and longest water diversion tunnels and underground power stations.


It is a complex, integrated, water management system, regarded as one of the most complex and successful water management systems in the world.

The process of corporatisation of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority (SMHEA) began with a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) decision in 1993. I wonder if they had any idea at the time of the mind-boggling complexity involved. The Environmental Impact Study Report on the corporatisation of SMHEA includes this statement, "The Snowy corporatisation process involves the development of some thirty inter-governmental agreements to replace the current governance arrangements and to provide for a competitively neutral regulatory regime."

I think the whole process is doctrinaire and irrational. It all started on the wrong course of action because COAG tried to apply the rules for private or public thermal power stations to a complex, multi-purpose, national, water resource project. COAG probably thought it was a good idea at the time. It is now obvious that it was not, and the muddle has grown steadily for seven years, seemingly without prospect of resolution.

For many reasons, it is vitally important that the ownership, management and continued operation of the Scheme be a clear responsibility of the Australian Government, not a state or a group of states, or the private sector, but the nation.

It really does not matter what the Constitution may say about the limits to the powers of the Commonwealth, the fact is that the Snowy Scheme now exists, and must now be managed and further developed in the interests of the nation as a whole. The High Court would certainly recognise that fact.

There are many examples around the world of similar national projects that are owned and managed by national governments, and which operate harmoniously with the private sector and state and local governments.


The rapid progress on the design and construction of the Snowy Scheme was made possible by a cordial relationship between the young Snowy Authority and the long established and experienced United States Bureau of Reclamation.

The Bureau of Reclamation today is an outstanding example of the way the Australian Government should approach the management of national multi-purpose water projects:-

"Established in 1902, the Bureau of Reclamation is best known for the dams, powerplants and canals it constructed in the 17 western states. These water projects led to homesteading and promoted the economic development of the West. Reclamation has constructed more than 600 dams and reservoirs including Hoover dam on the Colorado River and Grand Coulee on the Columbia River.

Today, we are the second-largest wholesaler of water in the country. We bring water to more than 31 million people, and provide one out of five Western farmers (140,000) with irrigation water for 10 million acres of farmland that produce 60% of the nation's vegetables and 25% of its fruits and nuts.

Reclamation is also the second largest producer of hydro-electric power in the western United States. Our 58 powerplants annually provide more than 40 billion kilowatt hours generating nearly a billion dollars in power revenues and produce enough electricity to serve 6 million homes."

From the home page of the United States Bureau of Reclamation.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Endersbee AO FTSE is a civil engineer of long experience in water resources development. His early professional career included service with the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority, the Hydro-Electric Commission of Tasmania and the United Nations in South-East Asia as an expert on dam design and hydro power development. In 1976 he was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Monash University. In 1988-89 he was Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University.

His fields of specialisation include the management of planning and design of major economic development projects, water resources, energy engineering and transport engineering. He has been associated with the design and construction of several large dams and underground power station projects and other major works in civil engineering and mining in Australia, Canada, Asia and Africa. He was President of the Institution of Engineers, Australia in 1980-81.

In 2005 he published, A Voyage of Discovery, a history of ideas about the earth, with a new understanding of the global resources of water and petroleum, and the problems of climate change.

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