Drinking water from Keelbottom Creek?

Here’s a little-known bit of Townsville history: we could easily have been drinking water from Keelbottom Creek for the last half century – or until we found out that it was radioactive, whichever came first.

The tale is recounted in A Majority of One: Tom Aikens and Independent Politics in Townsville by Ian Moles (UQ Press, 1979). I will quote freely from pages 143-148, re-arranging and omitting material to make my summary more readable.    

Weirs are not enough

We begin in the 1930s:

Ross River had been the principal source of Townsville’s water supply from the time the city was founded. Wells were sunk into the sandy bed of the river or into the gravel beds underneath the alluvial flats forming part of its delta. They soon proved inadequate, and three weirs were subsequently run across the river in 1912 (Gleeson’s), 1928 (Aplin’s) and 1934 (Black School). Since stream gaugings and the collection of other data on possible alternative sources of supply … were not begun until 1923, Aplin’s and the Black School weirs were essentially stopgap measures…

Gleeson's Weir view
Gleeson’s Weir as it is now

It is worth noting that other sources (e.g. this ‘Heritage Information Sheet’ from the city library) give slightly different dates for the weirs.

Townsville’s water supply was insufficient, [however,] even for its normal [pre-war] population of about 30,000, if the “Wet” failed. … Little rain fell for more than eighteen months after completion of the Black School weir, and 1935 was the first year in living memory that the Ross River had actually failed to flow.

…so the newest weir remained empty and, in November 1935 the City Council resolved that “the Crystal Creek gravitation scheme be adopted as Townsville’s future water supply.” However, the state government would not commit the money to it in the absence of proper surveys of other options, and nothing could be done.

Keelbottom or Crystal Creek?

In 1941 … the Nimmo Report advised the state government that a dam across Keelbottom Creek, a tributary of the Burdekin River on the western side of the coastal range to the northwest of Townsville, presented “the greatest potentialities for the water supply of Townsville”, but that, as an interim priority, the construction of a 97km pipeline to Crystal Creek near Mount Spec could supply the city with an additional 4.6 million litres of water daily.

The problem of deciding in what order and to what extent the development of the Keelbottom and Crystal Creek (Mount Spec) schemes should be implemented, became the most divisive and emotive issue in the history of Townsville local politics. … At the beginning of 1943, not only was the “Wet” reluctant to arrive but thousands of additional troops did, imposing an impossible burden on the city reservoirs…

Eventually, after several extraordinary council meetings, a local government referendum, delays due to post-war shortage of materials, and yet another state government report, the Crystal Creek plan was finally approved in 1947 (details in Trove). To be clear, “Crystal Creek storage was not to form any part of the development of their scheme, but Crystal Creek without storage, in conjunction with Ross River, would meet Townsville’s requirements until 1960.”

That is where Moles leaves the story, since his interest was politics rather than water security. I will outline how Townsville’s water supply has developed since then.

Paluma Dam and more

Paluma Dam (TCC Water and Dams pages) “was constructed between 1957 and 1958 on Swamp Creek … A pipeline conveys water approximately 4km from the dam to a discharge point at Crystal Creek. The water then flows via ‘run of river’ to the Crystal Creek Intake where it enters the Mt. Spec pipeline for treatment at the Northern Water Treatment Plant.” Water storage on Mount Spec was already contemplated as a future extension of the scheme in 1947 when the pipeline was approved. The Paluma Dam would have been a much cheaper option than the proposed Keelbottom Dam and was apparently considered sufficient for the expected population growth.

Ross Dam was built with the dual function of flood mitigation and water storage. Stage 1 was constructed 1970-74, with several later additions and changes as per the TCC site. It has done a good job in both roles, although the 2019 floods challenged it and (incidentally) raised calls for the weirs to be removed to let flood waters get away more easily.

Uranium was discovered and (briefly) mined at Ben Lomond, 1976-82, on the headwaters of Keelbottom Creek. It wasn’t a good idea, for lots of reasons (Wildlife Qld Townsville Branch blog).

I have been unable to locate any references at all to Keelbottom Dam after the late 1940s. Other such projects, e.g. Hell’s Gate (my source is unreliable but highly appropriate), are raised repeatedly, decade after decade, but this one just vanished. I’m not sorry: graziers in the area always reckoned “plants grew funny” in the Keelbottom valley under Ben Lomond, and that cattle sickened and died if they were kept there too long.

The Burdekin Dam (Wikipedia) was built, 1984-87, to supply irrigation water to the cane-growing area on the coast, and a pipeline was built to send some of that water to Townsville at need. (That means we ended up drinking Keelbottom Creek water after all, but considerably diluted by mixing with the rest of the water in the Burdekin.)

Recently, of course, the whole cycle of shortages and planning controversies has been repeated. Townsville kept growing, and a run of dry years around 2014 made the problem critical (Green Path). The solution is to be a bigger pipeline from the Burdekin Dam but the process has been so politicised that the completion date is anyone’s guess.

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