Goldfields Water Supply Scheme

Year:1903

Duration:7 years

Cost:£2.5m (£305m today)

Country: Australia

What did this project achieve?

Send drinking water along the longest ever pipe to towns in Western Australia

The discovery of gold in Western Australia in the 1880s and 1890s brought a succession of gold rushes with thousands of prospectors hoping to make their fortunes.

This led to a population explosion in a dry and barren desert region.

Lack of water in the area meant poor sanitation, with diseases such as typhoid common.

The Western Australian government borrowed money for a pipeline to bring water to the new and growing towns.

Government engineer Charles Yelverton O’Connor, who’d already built the successful Fremantle Harbour on the west coast, designed the system and oversaw construction.

O’Connor had to deal with continual attacks from politicians and the press during construction. Many thought the engineering project was too complex and would never work. He killed himself in 1902, months before the scheme was finished.

Stretching 560km from Perth to Kalgoorlie, Goldfields remains the longest water supply pipeline in the world. It still supplies water to the area today.

Difference the water supply made

Although gold production was in decline by the time water from the Goldfields scheme started to flow, the pipeline helped boost agriculture in the region.

Today, the Western Australia wheat fields are the most productive in the country, with the region producing 42% of the nation’s wheat. This wouldn’t have been possible without Goldfields.

How the work was done

O’Connor decided on a scheme to pump water 350 miles (560km) from Mundaring in the Perth Hills, across the arid Wheatbelt region, and on to a reservoir overlooking the town of Kalgoorlie.

He chose Mundaring as the best site for a dam as it had a river in a narrow valley with steep sides, bedrock for the foundations and a reliable rainfall.

Engineers laid most of the pipes in trenches. This was to limit expansion and contraction caused by fluctuating temperatures. Made from an innovative interlocking bar system, the pipes didn’t need to be joined with rivets and this reduced leakage. Without rivet heads, the water could also flow more quickly along the pipeline.

O’Connor built eight steam-driven pumping stations along the pipeline. The pumps were needed to push the water over the Daring mountain range – a lift of 340m.

Engineers constructed the pipeline alongside the existing Eastern Railway. The railway helped deliver materials for construction. Later, it delivered fuel to power the pumping stations.

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Opened in January 1903, the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme criticised as ‘a scheme of madness’ is now an internationally acclaimed engineering feat

Australia’s National Trust website

Fascinating facts

The amount of steel used in Goldfields’ construction was greater than any other steel structure in the world at the time.

The Goldfield pipeline is now the first continuously welded, above-ground water supply pipe.

The system pumps an average of 90m litres of water every day. It takes between five and 11 days for the water to reach Kalgoorlie.

People who made it happen

  • Commissioner: government of Western Australia, led by premier Sir John Forrest
  • Designed and built by Charles Yelverton O’Connor, chief engineer of the Western Australia Public Works Department

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