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The waters of the Kimberley in Western Australia have long tempted politicians and engineers wanting to make the drier southern regions bloom. Flickr/Koala:Bear

Western water dreamers rise again with Colin Barnett’s canal vision

Settler Australians have a long history of trying to harness the continent’s great rivers to water the dead heart of the country. Schemes such as those of Bradfield and Idriess in the 1930s and 1940s sought to turn the rivers inland to make the deserts bloom. Michael Cathcart has called a great many of these schemes the imaginings of a nation of “water dreamers”. And Colin Barnett’s resurrection of plans to bring water from the wet northwest to the thirsty metropolis of Perth is just the latest in a long history of water dreaming.

While the eastern seaboard has been dealing with the problem of too much water in recent years, Perth and the greater southwest has continued to experience a steady decline of rainfall. Last month was the driest July on record. Perth’s dams are running low, its suburban groundwater systems are under strain and both seawater desalination plants are operating at full capacity. The Barnett government has already flagged the possibility of harsh water restrictions in summer. It’s not just a case of the rains not falling, but also a product of the state’s booming economy and rapidly growing population.

Barnett has been down this road before: as Leader of the Opposition, he announced on the eve of the 2005 state election that a Coalition government would build a 3,700 kilometre canal to utilise the vast water resources of the Kimberley for the southwest. Barnett presented the project as an alternative to the Gallop Labor government’s controversial decision to construct a seawater desalination plant instead of tapping the South West Yarragadee aquifer further south.

Then as now, the suburbs of Perth were in the grip of a “water crisis”. Tim Flannery had recently warned Western Australians that Perth could become a “ghost metropolis”. In spite of the popular appeal of the pipeline, the scheme proved to be the undoing of the Coalition during the 2005 electoral campaign. A series of bungled budgets for the project portrayed a poorly prepared Opposition and the Labor government won a second term. Nevertheless, the Barnett government’s recent revival of the plan suggests that water from the Kimberley remains a tantalising prospect in the southwest.

Colin Barnett. AAP/Lukas Coch

In dusting off this project, the Barnett government is tapping into a well of good will about the prospect of bringing water from the north to the suburbs of Perth. This sentiment owes a great deal to the chief proponent of a very similar idea, who has trumpeted his vision since the late 1980s: Ernie Bridge. A Labor politician, the first Aboriginal to become a cabinet minister in Western Australia and a likable bloke, Bridge dreamed of piping water from the Fitzroy River to Perth. Back then he argued that the pipeline would encourage closer settlement and irrigable agriculture north of Geraldton, and that it would drought-proof the southwest well into the next century.

Then, as now, this scheme captured the hearts and minds of many Western Australians. Part of the appeal of Bridge’s ambitious project was that it allayed long-held anxieties about the “empty” or “under-utilised” regions north of the Tropic of Capricorn - anxieties that economist Bruce Davidson first critiqued in his 1965 book, The Northern Myth. Significantly, there appears to have been little consideration of the significance of the Fitzroy River to the indigenous peoples of the Kimberley or the considerable ecological impact of the scheme.

Few Western Australians are probably aware of a precursor to Bridge’s idea which dates to the early 1970s. Mining companies were concerned that limited water supplies would restrict their activities in the Eastern Goldfields and proposed a scheme to pipe water from the north. In contrast to the present Liberal government, then Premier Sir Charles Court saw in this project a conflict with his vision of northern development. The rivers were simply too far and expensive to tap, and these plans to pipe water from the state’s northwest were shelved, at least temporarily.

A vision of far grander scale presented itself soon after – the towing of Antarctic icebergs to moor off the coast near Fremantle. A pipeline would be constructed to transport the iceberg water to Perth. Despite initial interest from the CSIRO, it too was dismissed as fanciful. Besides, it would be far cheaper to utilise the groundwater resources beneath the suburbs of Perth, the extent of which had only been revealed in the 1960s.

Each of these pipedreams has stood on the shoulders of perhaps Western Australia’s greatest water dreamer, engineer C. Y. O’Connor. In conjuring his ghost, more recent dreamers have appealed to nostalgia for the nation’s golden age of pioneering development and grand nation-building engineering projects like the Kalgoorlie pipeline and the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Moreover, they present themselves as Western Australia’s latest entrepreneurs, the newest descendants of a long line of visionary statesmen.

Most importantly, the Barnett government is tapping into long-held anxieties not unique to Western Australians, that there simply is just not enough water. Somehow, then, more should be conjured. “Give the people water and their votes will follow,” wrote Clive Hamilton of the policies of the Howard government. With the 2013 state election due in one of Perth’s hottest months, a thirsty city might well favour the party that turns on the tap.

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