02 Jan Water Supply for the Coober Pedy Opal Field
One of the major impediments to the establishment of any of Australia’s opal fields was the lack of available water for the miners and their animals. The opal fields are located in areas which were once a vast inland sea which had later turned into desert. The opal was formed at the base of a varying depth of sandstone deposited over millions of years. Opal was only found when due to upheavals and weathering of these sandstone layers, pieces of opal (floaters) broke away from the opal level and were left on the surface.
In most of the opal areas, fresh water was very scarce. The early prospectors for gold and opal had to carry water with them and many perished when this ran out and they could find none locally. Most of these early prospectors had no real knowledge of how harsh it can be in these areas. For as far as you can see there are just endless sand-hills and sparse vegetation. Today, as we pass through at over 100 kph the dangers are not as evident as they were when most travel was either on foot or on camels. Travel was limited to how fit you were and how much you could carry on your back. In the hot conditions of the outback you would need in excess of 2 litres per day to survive and as each litre weighs one kilogram there is obviously a very limited distance you could travel without topping up your supplies.
In January 1915, the New Colorado Prospecting Syndicate, including Jim Hutchison and his 14 year old son William, set off to search for gold in the area of the Stuart Range which is now called Coober Pedy. They were rapidly running out of water when, on the 1st February William, disobeying his father’s orders not to leave camp, found the first opal in the area. More importantly, he found a waterhole which enabled the prospecting party to stay on another fortnight and collect the opal he had found. ( See Post on Discovery of Opal at Coober Pedy on this website)
Later Jim came back and established a claim at Coober pedy but was not successful. Also William never profited from his find as he was killed crossing a river two years later.
So it seems that Coober Pedy Opal was discovered accidently while seeking for that most important water. For the next 50 years water supply at Coober Pedy was to be critical. The New Colorado Syndicate took their opal to Tullie Wollaston in Adelaide and he was quite impressed and sent a party out to further investigate. They had to carry all their water supplies with them and when their camels wandered off they had to continue carrying large water barrels on their backs, as to leave them behind would have meant a sure demise. Luckily they were saved by another prospecting party coming up from Tarcoola.
The very early miners here had a very hard time because of lack of water and food. Remember there were no roads in the area and only vague tracks formed from previous prospectors and station staff. There were no regular deliveries of anything and the miners had to live off what they carried or what they could scavenge from the land. Water supply for the Coober Pedy opal field was a definate necessity for the field to prosper.
By 1916 however water carters were bringing water in on camels. These hardy animals were loaded with two large 115 litre barrels per camel and travelled around 65 km from the nearest tank to bring the water. The Cheyne Brothers were the first water carters to Coober Pedy. The miners used the water very sparingly and only used it for drinking or cooking. Use of water for any other purpose was taboo. Mind you when it did rain, there was great excitement and a great rush to collect as much as possible and wash both bodies and clothes. Unfortunately it didn’t rain all that much. The average long term rainfall is 160 mm per year and of course, in some years, there was almost no rainfall recorded. In some instances it was so bad that the miners had to abandon the field. Many miners, even today leave the area in the summer when temperatures can reach over 50 degrees centigrade.
In the early years the Government did sink bores to try and find water but the only water found was too salty to drink. This early boring for water must have been a trial as all the equipment had to be transported by camel drawn wagons and the equipment would have been very primitive.
In 1921 the Government did build a 500,000 gallon tank to collect and store rainfall. Materials , including cement, for the tank were carted from William Creek using five wagon teams of fourteen camels each. After the tank was completed it took several years for it to fill as rainfall was quite low at that time. Water from the tank was costly and had to be restricted and in some years it had to be rationed. In 1963 it was rationed at 25 gallons per person per week. Today average usage per person per day in Melbourne is well in excess of 40 gallons. This tank is still there today and used for back up purposes.
In 1967 a solar still was built. It would use salt water from a bore and a large number of glass sheets to convert the salt water to drinking water. Unfortunately it could not produce enough water and eventually fell into disuse when the glass plates were broken by storms.
A desalination plant, using the process of reverse osmosis, was then constructed and is in use today. Water was reticulated through the town in 1981. Before that most people had tanks and water was carted by trucks to fill the tanks. The desal plant can process up to 1,400,000 litres of fresh water per day but is quite costly to produce. Water is pumped from a bore 25 km from town on the Oodnadatta Road. Access charges in 2013 for residences is $165 and the cost of water is $4.70 per kilolitre.
Coober Pedy now has a reliable water supply for miners and tourists alike, but it was not always so.