Monday, 20 April 2015

Darkest drought in the Ross River watershed

In 1935 Townsville was in the grip of an unprecedented drought. The Ross River had stopped flowing, and water had to be brought to the city by special trains, at considerable cost.
Black Weir, on Ross River, under construction, 1933.
Photo:  CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

Described as “the darkest drought ever known in the Ross River watershed”, by December the city had only received 218mm of rain. This was the lowest rainfall on record since 1870.  Most of this rain fell in the early months of the year, and between July and the end of November, only 8.5mm of rain was officially recorded.

But the city’s 27,000-strong population was drawing over 750,000 gallons a day from the town’s wells, which meant the underground supply was rapidly diminishing. In one week at the end of November, the City Engineer reported to the Council that 4.75 million gallons had been pumped into the city’s reservoirs from the underground supply, but that the city’s consumption that week had exceeded 5.34 million gallons.

Water restrictions were in place that prohibited the use of garden hoses, and only permitted the watering of plants for one hour on one night per week.

The City Engineer estimated that at the current rate of consumption, and if water continued to be used for gardening purposes, it would only be a few days before people ran out of water. 

Only two years before, the city council commenced construction of a weir on the Ross River at the Black School, (now the Weir School) which was expected to hold two years’ worth of water in reserve, but there had not been sufficient rain to fill it since its completion.
Black Weir, on the Ross River, 1936.
Photo: W.J. Laurie, held by CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

The Council had to resort to paying to have water brought in from wherever it could get it.  On the afternoon of November 21, the first water train pulled in to the station in Townsville, carrying 45,000 gallons of water drawn from the Burdekin River at Macrossan.  The train then proceeded to the Hubert’s Well, where the water was pumped into a concrete cistern before being chlorinated.

The first three months of 1936 saw the return of a good wet season, with over 1,300mm of rain restoring the city’s water reserves.

With the influx of military troops during World War II, the city once again experienced critical water shortages.  Severe restrictions were in place, with water only made available to households during limited hours each day.

In October 1943, Townsville was just months away from running out of water.  A deputation of city leaders told the visiting Queensland Premier, Mr F.A. Cooper, that if no rain fell, the city would be without water by mid-February, 1944.

The city’s backup plan was a pipeline to Mt Spec that could be erected at a cost of £300,000, which could deliver 1 million gallons of water a day. The other option was Keelbottom Creek, where they believed water could be impounded to supply 4.5 million gallons daily, but the cost for this scheme was considerably higher, at £1 million.

An appeal to the Federal Government for help elicited this response:

“The Commonwealth realises that the demands of the forces and incidental war activities around Townsville have thrown a heavy drain on the water supply system.”


Under the circumstances, the Federal Government was willing to make a fixed contribution of £75,000 towards the Mt Spec scheme.

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