Tuesday, December 4, 2012

water, water, everywhere

The lovely Grace of Perth Daily Photo fame seems as smitten by the story of C Y O’Connor as any Western Australian should be, and has mentioned him more than once in the last wee while.

The main reason I mention this is that, thanks to Grace, O’Connor’s name popped into my head this week while reading about Victoria’s desalination plant. O’Connor’s story is reasonably well known, but there are some details that might be new to one or two of my readers.

[For the most interesting bits of this story I’ve relied heavily on Evan McHugh’s Outback Pioneers, Penguin 2008.]

Charles Yelverton O’Connor was born in County Meath, Ireland, in 1843, trained as an engineer and established a good rep over the 25 years he worked in New Zealand.
In 1891 he was lured to WA by Western Australia’s first state Premier, John Forrest.

c y o'connor

Railways, roads, water supply – the whole infrastructure headache was to be O’Connor’s and he rose to the challenge with an enormous amount of skill, common sense and vision.

A year after he arrived, the Kalgoorlie gold rush was born. As WA was relatively isolated from the rest of the country until the mid 1900s, it would be fair to suggest the whole state was once in the middle of nowhere.
It would be no exaggeration to further say that in 1892 Kalgoorlie – 450 camel kilometres* from the state capital Perth – was the very epicentre of the middle of nowhere.

With no river and bugger all rainfall but lots and lots of gold, the population quickly reached 5,000.
Some enterprising people were carting water 50kms** to the goldfields and flogging it for what, in today’s terms, was more than $2 a litre. If typhoid didn’t knock the miners off, there was a strong chance the body odour might do the job anyway. [Temperatures averaged more than 40C degrees ***]

By 1895 it was clear that this gold boom was no flash in the pan [if you’ll pardon the pun] and O’Connor was formulating a plan to deliver water to the 1,000 square kilometre***** bottomless money-pit.

[One way of highlighting the importance of the boom, if you’ll forgive me for making a small detour, is to consider WA’s then new Constitution.
If WA was to be a state, the British Government had insisted, then its Constitution should make special provision for Aboriginal welfare - £5,000**** or 1% of colonial revenue for each year- whichever was greater.
No one was phased about the one percent provision – at first. The Constitution was very quickly revised once the gold rush started.]

Here was an opportunity, O'Connor thought, to set the state up for a great future. Done properly, the project would open up and supply a whole corner of the state. Sooner or later WA would need farms, and without water there would never be a railroad east.

Although this was to be the largest water main anyone had ever constructed anywhere in the world, there was nothing new about building dams or reservoirs, pipes to deliver water, or even pumping stations to get water up hill and down dale.

Premier Forrest supported the idea. Until men could bring their families to live with them, money would keep pouring out of the state when they sent money home.

People jumped up and down and demanded a quick fix; although O’Connor knew there was no artesian water in the area, the government spent a fortune drilling as deep as 1,000 metres only to prove that beneath the bedrock there was no water, just more rock. This went on for two ‘solid’ years.

A British company wanted to set up the water supply in exchange for a twenty year monopoly on the sale of water.

The state opposition wanted to hand the whole thing over to private enterprise. O’Connor insisted that private enterprise might supply ‘stuff’, but the work had to be carried out by his department to ensure it was done properly.

O’Connor had estimated entire dam/ pipeline/ pumping station project could be done in 3 years. Unfortunately, it was nearly 3 years before the first of the money was finally available. Where there had once been a glut of cheap steel on the world market, there was now a shortage driving the price up.

O’Connor came up with solutions to potential problems. One pipe manufacturer had devised a mechanism for joining pipes that didn’t involve welding or rivets.
Work finally got underway 3 years late, and in 1901 Western Australia joined the other states in making Australia a federation. John Forrest, the original WA Premier who had single handedly managed to get the go ahead by the state parliament, went into the federal parliament and left O’Connor without a champion.

A great method of caulking the joints [with hemp and molten lead] was mechanised, providing a better seal. Work on this started in 1901 just when John Forrest had moved on.

The state had 4 different governments in 1901.

Bills were not getting paid, funding was being withheld, supply contracts not signed, and decisions not being made. Bits and pieces of the project were being sabotaged at random by government confusion and administrative incompetence, at levels higher up than O'Connor and without whose cooperation he could do nothing.

Couston, the public servant managing the caulking process wanted to go into business for himself, and be awarded a contract to finish the caulking.

In 1902 Premier Leake leaked a letter to the press demanding O’Connor’s department explain why the project had taken longer than 3 years. Every man and his dog started to fling dirt at O’Connor, and nobody defended him.
It was easy, given the number of governments that had fallen in just over a year, for everyone to say they had opposed the project in the first place, it wasn’t their fault, it must be O’Connor’s.

A parliamentary committee was set up to examine problems with the scheme, and the proposal by Couston that he be given a contract to finish the caulking.

None of the 5 chaps on the committee were engineers, goldfields representatives, or qualified to assess the caulking contract proposal. Most had been opposed to the scheme all along. The only person they did not call was O’Connor.

When the WA government sent O’Connor on loan to look at a South Australian harbour project, the media and some WA politicians accused him of fleeing the state.

The Sunday Times:
“It is an open rumour everywhere that this shire engineer from New Zealand has absolutely flourished on ‘palm grease’ since that first day…”

When O’Connor returned from South Australia he had his office highlight every negative word that had been said about him.

Was he a megalomaniac with grandiose ideas about his own importance? Was he a crook, or simply a man who wanted to do a good and sensible job for his employer?

On the 10th of March 1902 he wrote a note before going for his usual horse ride along the beach.

The position has become impossible. Anxious important work to do and three commissions of enquiry to attend to. We may not have done as well as possible in the past but we will necessarily be too hampered to do will in the imminent future. I feel that my brain is suffering and I am in great fear of what effect all this worry may have upon me – I have lost control of my thoughts. The Coolgardie scheme is all right and I could finish it if I got a chance and protection from misrepresentation but there’s no hope for that now and it’s better that it should be given to some entirely new man to do who will be untrammelled by prior responsibility.

He rode his horse into the water and shot himself in the head. You can see Grace's picture of just one of several monuments to this man here.

Couston never got his contract.
No enquiry or report showed O’Connor had done anything wrong.
Once it finally got underway, the whole thing took four years and two months to build.
There were only ¼ as many leaks as O’Connor had expected.
The water started flowing in January 1903.
It’s still flowing 109 years later, with over 8,000 kms of mains and pipelines, providing water to 1,000 square kilometres, 110 towns, and more than 100,000 people.

*450 kilometres = 280 miles
**50 kilometres = 31 miles
***40 degrees Celsius = 104 Fahrenheit
****£5,000 = a bloody great pile of money in any language
*****1,000 kms 2 = 386 miles 2


Victoria’s Desalination Plant
[The Herald Sun, Dec 3, 2012]
THE French boss of the troubled Wonthaggi desalination plant has admitted for the first time that the plant is too big for Melbourne's water needs.

"The design was done to provide water to the full city of Melbourne in case of no rain during one year - which was not realistic. The details why it was 150GL per year, I don't know," he said.

"As a state asset for the long term the plant required a 50-year design life, with many assets having a 100-year life….”

The Wonthaggi plant is able to produce 150GL - or 150 billion litres of water - every year if required.
This makes it three times the size of the 45GL-a-year Gold Coast plant and 65 per cent bigger than Sydney's 91GL-a-year Kurnell desalination plant.
Mr Chaussade's company is suing the State Government for $1 billion to reclaim losses from the job, due to weather delays and industrial action.

I think water is supposed to go from the desalination plant to Cardinia Reservoir, but I have no idea what the reservoir’s capacity is or how its water is supposed to be distributed to all the parts of Melbourne that use water.

Before the desalination plant was finished, a North-South pipeline was built by the previous state government to take water from the Murray Darling basin to Sugarloaf reservoir – and if used, required the government to buy water rights from farmers in the Murray Darling Basin irrigation areas.

The 750 million dollar pipeline was used for a few months in 2010.


It’s not hard to understand why CY O’Connor is revered in WA. It’s easy to see why good leadership is about finding the right man for the job, and letting him get on with it.
It’s sad to think most of Australia’s heroes are anti-heros like Ned Kelly.

I suspect the public service is often under-rated and [what’s left of it] is still used as a whipping boy. And I doubt private enterprise is the solution to everything.


  1. I wonder if body odour is like cigarette smoke. When half the population smoked, you never seemed to notice smoke.

    Governments must get fed up with populations always demanding infrastructure. Ted? Julia? Are you listening?

    I believe Cardinia Dam is not very big and is just a storage reservoir, filled from other dams, and now the desal plant. I've seen where the water is to come into the dam from the desal.

    1. Your personal pong theory makes sense. And, okay, I can be demanding but I doubt anyone is listening so what the heck?

      All this has left me curious about our dams. A closer look might be a way off, though.

  2. Such a sad story of CY, FruitCake and this South Aussie feels ashamed that she'd never heard of him before this!

    Agree utterly re decent, hard-working experts being hampered by politics, backstabbing and delays.

    1. Kath, until 4 million of my cousins moved to Freo I had never heard of him either, which is sad rather than shameful.
      A truly inspiring sort of chap, I think.

  3. I first heard about O'Connor on our tour of WA last year. He was an amazing guy. So much ahead of his time. What a tragic sad ending for such a great man.

    1. Diane, I'm almost convinced if he were here with us today he would still be ahead of his time. Interesting to note another example of how no one outside of WA hears about him.

  4. My mother (a WA-ian) told me this sad story when I questioned her about the pipes we saw along the way when aboard the Indian Pacific en route to Perth. I was 4 or 5 but the story stuck with me. This year I visited Kal for the 1st time - and was amazed anew by this feat of engineering. I'll also be posting about it soon!!!