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The History of SA Water

The History of SA Water

SA Water's history began in 1856.

SA Water's story has four stages. The first was fixing water supply. The second was removing waste. The third was treatment and reuse of sewage. And the fourth – which we are in now – is production and re-use.

From Settlement to Piped Water (1836 – 1862)

Historical image of water carting in AdelaideWhen settled in 1836, the only real water source for Adelaide was the River Torrens. The river became problematic as it was used not only as drinking water, but water-for-all-purposes. This included waste disposal. Water carting from the river to homes was big business. But disease quickly spread: Dysentery was rife in Adelaide's early years and clean water was urgently needed.

In 1856, the earliest version of our organisation was set up: the Waterworks & Drainage Commission. The commission needed to solve the water supply and sewerage problems of the city.

By 1860, the first supplies of reticulated water reached Adelaide homes from the Kent Town Valve House.

In 1862, the first reservoir water was piped from Thorndon Park Reservoir.

Problems of Supply and Sewage (1863 – 1938)

Historical image of a Sewer Man - 1937In the 40 years between 1862 and 1903, five more reservoirs were built. In that time, Adelaide's population reached 200,000 and sewage management was an increasing issue.

The Deep Drainage Network was started. By 1881, that system became functional. In that year, we became the first city in Australia to use a water-based sewerage system.

In 1920, five years after the first major drought (1914-15), a series of locks and weirs along the River Murray was started. The locks and weirs were designed to keep the river at consistent levels. They were completed over the next 10 years.

In 1929, the Waterworks & Drainage Commission became the Engineering & Water Supply Department (E&WS). 

While water supply was still a focus, sewerage and drainage works were keeping pace with each other.

In 1938, during the Great Depression, two significant milestones were reached. South Australia's largest reservoir opened at Mount Bold and most of Adelaide was connected to sewerage.

The Mount Bold Reservoir covers 308 hectares. From 1938 to 1961, it was powered by a small hydro-electricity plant.

From Supply to Security: Water for the Future (1939 – today)

Major pipelines have been an important part of our history. In 1944, the Morgan to Whyalla pipeline was completed. Just over 10 years later, in 1956, River Murray water reached the suburbs when the Mannum to Adelaide pipeline was finished.

By 1955, Adelaide became the first Australian city to have 75% of its suburbs connected to the sewers. Then, in 1966, the Bolivar Treatment Works opened.

In 1976, the first Water Resources Act was implemented in South Australia. Now adapted to meet today's needs, the Act ensures water resources are managed for the benefit of South Australians.

Between 1976 and the late 1990s, a series of filtration and treatment plants were built and began operating. Then, in 1995, the State Water Laboratory and the Australian Centre for Water Quality Research were combined to form the Australian Water Quality Centre (AWQC). The AWQC is now recognised as one of the best water quality testing services in Australia.

In 1999, a desalination plant opened at Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island. Until then, Penneshaw did not have state-supplied water. In the same year, the Virginia Pipeline Scheme was finished. This became the first – and largest – reclaimed water scheme of its type in Australia.

By our 150th anniversary in 2006, we were continuing to focus on the security of water supply for South Australia. This became vital during the Millennium Drought (2002-2007). Living in the driest state, on the driest inhabited continent, means water supplies can be a big issue.

In 2007, plans to build the Adelaide Desalination Plant were announced. By October 2011, it was producing and delivering drinking water to our customers. The plant helps to insure the state against future drought. You can read more about it here.

The Role of the River Murray

Historical image - building the Mannum to Adelaide pipelineThe River Murray is an ancient river. European interaction with the river began in 1832, when explorer Charles Sturt wrote an account of his trip.

The history of the river itself stretches back more than 60 million years. It has existed since Australia split from the giant super continent, Gondwanaland. 

Aboriginals have occupied the river valley for at least 40,000 years. The river plays a major role in Aboriginal Dreaming stories. According to the Ngarrindjeri, the Murray was just a stream. It became the mighty river we know today when local 'hero' Ngurunderi chased a giant cod (Ponde). As the fish swam ahead of Ngurunderi, it widened the river with sweeps of its tail. When Ngurunderi got to Tailem Bend (Tagalang), he threw a spear at the giant fish. The spear caused the cod to surge ahead of Ngurunderi, creating a long, straight stretch in the river.

The River Murray was central to trade in the 1800s. Cargo carried upstream by paddle steamers went to settlers and miners in the Victorian goldfields. Cargo carried downstream was produce from outlying areas: wool, wheat, hides, salt and oats.

The river flow was regulated by the construction of storages, locks and weirs. Six were built in South Australia in the 1920s and 1930s. At the river mouth, five barrages were built across the channels leading from Lake Alexandrina. The barrages prevent seawater entering the lakes system during periods of low river flow.

The significant contribution of the locks to the state's development has been irrigation and navigation. River water has turned populated areas along its banks into thriving townships. Orchards of citrus and stone fruit, and grapes and vegetables benefit from the water. A consistently navigable passage down the river has also seen tourism boom.

Sustainable management of the River Murray is critical if South Australia's development is going to continue. We need to improve the health of the Murray, because it's a unique ribbon of life for South Australia. You can read more about that here.

Our history - in pictures

We have a comprehensive library of historical images on our Flickr site. Images are available to use under Creative Commons licensing. You can view the library here.

  • Major faults

  • Reported

  • Various suburbs
  • 15/03/2017
  • Water Quality
  • Some Adelaide Hills customers may notice changes in the taste and/or smell of their tap water, as we work hard to reduce the impact of an algal bloom in the Summit Reservoir.
    The algal bloom is causing a naturally occurring compound called geosmin, which can affect water taste and odour, but is harmless to health. The water remains safe to drink.
    We expect customers in the following areas may notice this change: Mount Barker, Balhannah, Oakbank, Verdun, Hahndorf, Heathfield, Stirling, Crafers, Lenswood, Lobethal, Woodside, Brukunga, Mount Torrens, Birdwood, Gumeracha, Kersbrook, Cudlee Creek, Wistow, Nairne, Littlehampton, Strathalbyn, Clayton, Milang, Langhorne Creek and Bridgewater.
    We have made changes to our treatment processes at the Summit Water Treatment Plant to reduce the level of geosmin in the water.    
    Our testing shows no algae has been detected in the network and it has been completely removed as part of our normal treatment process.
    If our customers have any questions or concerns, please contact us on 1300 SA WATER.
  • See all major faults

  • Scheduled works

  • Underway
  • Farnsworth Dr
  • Morphett Vale
  • 28/04/2017
  • Supply Interruption
  • Estimated start time (water off): 02/05/2017 09:00 AM
    Estimated restore time (water back on): 02/05/2017 04:00 PM

    We’re committed to improving your services and are undertaking maintenance work in Morphett Vale. Water supply in the surrounding area may be impacted during the above times. Traffic restrictions may also apply.


  • See all scheduled works