The Plan to Fill Lake Eyre – Revitalize the Inland of Drought Ravaged Australia

A PLAN TO FILL LAKE EYRE – HERALD MAGAZINE SECTION By MICHAEL SAWTELL
The huge, salt Lake Eyre lies in the centre of Australia—a challenge to us to use it. For several reasons we must investigate again the old theory of filling the lake from the sea.

IN 1950 rain filled the lake  — one of the three or more occasions on which it is filled in a century.

Dr. Clunies Ross, chairman of the C.S.I.R.O., said in a recent lecture that the possibilities of making rain in the inland were “tremendous.”
Ritchie Calder, in his book, “Men Against The Desert,” tells what UNESCO is doing to re- claim the Sahara and other deserts in the Middle East and Palestine.
The late Sir Richard Baker, a former President of the Federal Senate and President of the South Australian Legislative Council, for a number of years took an active interest in the project of filling Lake Eyre from the sea. Sir Richard began his investigations as far back as 1883, and in 1905 said that the scheme was not practicable. But that was nearly 50 years ago. New facts have come to light. Army aerial surveys in conjunction with many ground surveys have increased enormously our topographical knowledge off the Lake Eyre Basin.
We now know that Lake Eyre is 39 feet below sea level, and that when a plane skims over the lake it is flying below sea sea level. The lake covers about 4,000 square miles of country, and about 10,000 square miles of the surrounding country are below sea level. Much of the railway line from Marree to Oodnadatta is below sea level. Port Augusta, 200 miles to the south, is 8ft above sea level, so it might seem that, with modern mechanisation, we could easily cut a channel from Port Augusta and let the sea in to flood the Lake Eyre area.
The intervening country is the great difficulty. The pioneers of the scheme thought that the intervening Lake Torrens, of about 2,230 square miles, whose southern tip is only 35 miles north of Port Augusta, was below sea level. They thought that it was only necessary to flood Lake Torrens, then cut another channel for 60 miles, and let the Lake Torrens water into Lake Eyre. But we now know that the bed of Lake Torrens is about 100 feet above sea level.
ENGINEERS say that, because of the high rate of evaporation – about 100 inches a year a channel at least 200 miles long, 12 feet deep, and more than a mile wide, would be needed tofill Lake Eyre from the sea at

Port Augusta. They do not know if it is possible to cut a channel.

MR. MICHEAL SAWTELL, who is aged 71 years and one of Australia’s best known bushmen, is planning another expedition to the inland – his “annual walk-about.”
He wants to travel from Oodnadatta in South Australia to Nappermerrie— a trip of more than 250 miles which skirts thenorthern end of the Lake Eyre basin.
Mr. Sawtell asked Mr. Ted Pratt, of Adelaide, manager for Kidman Estates, about the trip and received this reply in language every inlander understands and graphically descriptive of the country :
“The only ways of crossing that strip of country are by horse or camel, or by plane. There are some terrific sand- hills from Cowrie to the Macumba Creek crossing. It is hard to cross on horseback. Only certain crossings can be accomplished by motor transport, as the sandhills are badly drifted up. They are practically perpendicular, and it is impossible for miles to ride a horse either up or down them. As regards following the Warburton and getting round the points of these sandhills, they have drifted right into the channel, and this river will be running from the heavy floods up top. Personally I would not take it on with motor transport, even if they gave me the station. I would certainly advise you to keep out of it. You could go from Cowrie to the Haddon Corner by car or jeep, and go from there off to the Birdsville Trackto Mirramitta. From there you could proceed up the Diamantina and across from Miranda to Caldergo, then back to Haddon Corner, through the mud of Lake Torrens, or if they would strike rock at the top end of the FlindersRange, which is about 120 feet  above sea level.”
Why do we want to flood Lake Eyre? We need to fill the lake to increase or stabilise the rainfall. The inland is dry paradoxically because it is dry. When there is no water in Lake Eyre, the evaporation cannot make rain clouds, but with a large surface of water, the evaporation would make rain clouds.
One of the characteristics of a drought is that every day, the great black rain clouds bank up, and although a deluge seems imminent, the prevailing winds from the west blow the clouds away. Then it is that modern science could do something to make those clouds burst into rain. Trees and surface water will most certainly improve the rain- fall and, reclaim the desert, now fighting the Sahara on a 10,000-mile front, by planting in many places our Australian eucalyptus trees.
IF at present the flooding of Lake Eyre from the sea is not practicable, we will have to cosider the alternative proposals of the late Dr. J. J. C. Bradfield, and also of Mr. I. L. Idriess, in his book, “The Great Boomerang,” and learn how to use the vast floods of water that pour down from a huge river basin, before they run to waste into Lake Eyre. The Lake Eyre river basin is the largest in Australia, for it comprises well over half a million square miles of country,including much of the Northern Territory, South Australia, and Queensland. The town of Alice Springs is on the Lake Eyre watershed.
My knowledge of the Lake Eyre Basin goes back to 1900, when I was a drover’s boy for the cattle king Kidman. I have often been with fat cattle from the famous Channel country, down the east side of Lake Eyre
to Hergott Springs, now called Marree. In those days we used to take cattle 80 and 90 miles without a drink. A stage of 120 miles is the record. I have often sat around the camp fire at night and listened to the old drovers talk about the country.
In my day, we had the forum of the camp fire, but now the drovers have wireless and listen to the Forum of the Air. I have talked to those families, the Scobies, the Crombies and others who have lived around the
lake for 70 years or so. IN 1950 I went up with big Tom Kruse, the famous mail-man, the year of the record filling of Lake Eyre. On that trip I saw the Cooper three miles wide with floodwaters. It took us three days to unload the 10 tons of beer that Tom Kruse had on his mail truck for the Birdsville Hotel. We had to unload the mail truck into a miserable little motor punt that would carry only 30cwt. at a time.
The sky was filled with sea-gulls, pigmy geese, all kinds of ducks and pelicans.
The aborigines told me that the river was teeming with fish. Out over the sandhills and “gibber” downs roamed great herds of wild donkeys, wild camels, brumbies, millions of kangaroos, wild dogs and a plague of rats. The whole country was a blaze of colours from the wild flowers. You have never seen wild flowers till you have seen the so called “Dead Heart” in a good season.
I was again in the Lake Eyre Basin in 1953, as the guest of Mr. Walter Kidman. We flew from Leigh’s Creek up the eastside of the lake. I looked down from the plane and saw that there were still great pools of water in the Cooper. We touched down at Cowrie cattle station on the extreme north-east tip of Lake Eyre. It is the driest cattle-producing country in the world. The average rainfall is only five inches a year. Yet in a good season the fat steers from Cowrie can top the Adelaide market. It is a dry country, but the soil in all that Lake Eyre Basin is wonderfully rich and with water will grow almost anything.
FROM Cowrie I flew up to Birdsville and on the way up I looked down upon Goyder’s Lagoon— just like a huge irrigation project, intersected with channels. I have been with cattle when we had to detour 100 miles around the flooded lagoon, which is at the junctionof the Diamantina and Georgina Rivers. From Birdsville I was taken in a truck to Kidman’s head station, Glengyle. I was told that during the big local floods in 1953, the Glengyle aerodrome was nine feet under water All this is the so called “Dead Heart,” I must repeat. From Glengyle I went to the big Kalledgewarra waterhole, the largest waterhole in Australia, right on the edge of the Simpson Desert. That waterhole is at least 18 miles long, 200 yards wide, and in flood time 60 feet deep it never goes dry.
What tremendous possibilities there are if we weired that water-hole for irrigation. Over 50 years ago I used to fish in that water-hole with the aboriginal boys.
Our strange and wonderful in-land is full of such paradoxical facts—the largest waterhole in Australia, in the driest area in Australia.
Source – The Sydney Morning Herald – may 21, 1954
Cover image https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/DetailsReports/PhotoDetail.aspx?Barcode=11441933

Further history:

South Australia’s Inland Depressions
SCHEME TO MAKE DESERT ARABLE
Canal From Spencer’s Gulf to Lake Torren Mr. Sydney Upton, A.M.I.C.E., F.R.E.S., who has been engaged in engineering jobs in the East Indies for the past 20 years, will outline through ‘The Mail’ in a series of four articles a scheme for harnessing millions of tons of waste fresh water which he contends could be used to make the desert of Central Australia ‘blossom like the rose.’
WATERING THE INTERIOR View Of An Old Bushman
By J. C. WARREN’The Vision Splendid,’ from a poem by A. B. Paterson, seems to me a fitting title for the conception of the late Dr. J. J. C. Brad field regarding the redemption ofour arid interior. This ‘vision
Splendid’ is not a new thine
A reader also states that after WW2 the US Army Corps of engineers offered to use their D3 dozers to construct the channel at no cost to South Australia.