June 17 - 23, 2018: Issue 364


The Ord River (Main) Dam from the air. The Ord River gorge on the left and Lake Argyle in the foreground.

By George Repin

The Ord River in the Kimberley region of Western Australia is 320 kilometres long with a catchment covering 46,100 square kilometres.  The fertile plains of the lower reaches of the river attracted farmers and pastoralists to the East Kimberley. However, despite the very heavy rainfall in the “wet” season, in the dry “season” the Ord was reduced to a series of waterholes, so that the idea of establishing a significant agricultural industry in the area could not be realised without harnessing the waters of the river.  For over one hundred years the idea of damming the Ord had been discussed but the drought between 1935 and 1942, which had severely affected the Kimberley Pastoral Industry, highlighted that a dam could support the industry.

It was recognised that the only way to transform the semi-desert cattle country into a luscious, year round agricultural area would be by building a dam on the Ord River.  The 2500 gigilitres of water flowing into the ocean each day during the wet season storms would be captured.  It has been calculated that this quantity of water was enough to supply Perth for ten years.

Over several decades much preliminary work was undertaken, including experimental and research stations and extensive surveys, particularly of the proposed dam site.

Finally a grant from the Commonwealth Government in 1959 enabled the Western Australian Government to start work on the Ord River Irrigation Scheme (ORIS) – now known as the Ord River Irrigation Area (ORIA).

A first dam - the Ord River Diversion Dam – officially opened in July 1963 was built to hold back Lake Kununurra.  Construction of the Ord River (Main) Dam started in 1969 and was completed in 1971.  It was officially opened on 30 June, 1972.  The resulting reservoir was named Lake Argyle after the property it partly submerged – Argyle Downs.  It is Western Australia’s largest and Australia’s second largest freshwater man-made reservoir by volume.  The dam wall is 335 metres (1,099 ft) long and 98 metres (322 ft) high.  The earth-fill only dam wall is the most efficient dam in Australia in terms of the size of the dam wall to the quantity of water stored.   When completed the capacity was 5641 gigilitres (equivalent to 11.2 Sydney Harbours).  In the 1990’s after a decision to build a hydroelectric power station at the base of the Ord Main Dam a weir was built across the spillway to raise the storage of water by six metres.  As a result capacity was doubled to 10,763 gigilitres (equivalent to 21 Sydney Harbours).

The Ord River (Main) Dam and Lake Argyle.

Visitors on a viewing platform.  Roadway across the dam visible in the bottom right hand corner.

The power station at the base of the dam discharging  into the Ord River Gorge.

The damming of the Ord River has produced significant changes in the environment.  In Lake Argyle a thriving new eco-system has developed with 26 species of native fish and an estimated population of 25,000 freshwater crocodiles.  The lake, with its surrounding mudflats and grasslands, is a natural habitat of waterbirds in internationally significant numbers.

The dam seen from a tourist boat on Lake Argyle.

One of a number of islands in the lake.

Unfortunately cane toads reached the dam in late 2008.

Like so many other experiments in tropical agriculture the scheme initially failed:
  • The original plan to irrigate rice crops for export to China was abandoned because waterfowl, particularly magpie geese, ate rice shoots more quickly than they could be planted.
  • Low cotton crop yields because of pests, particularly the caterpillar Helicoverpaa armigera, and a drop in world cotton prices resulted in the suspension of the commercial cotton industry.
  • Sugar which had been grown from the late 1990s stopped in 2007.
However, the irrigated areas now successfully produce a variety of fruits and vegetables, while the largest commercial Indian Sandalwood plantations in the world are now in the ORIA.  

Looking down onto a tourist boat in the Ord River Gorge.

(Photographs by George Repin in 2002)

Previous Reflections by George Repin 

The Nineteen Thirties  Remembering Rowe Street  The Sydney Push  Saturday Night at the Movies  Shooting Through Like A Bondi Tram  A Stop On The Road To Canberra  City Department Stores - Gone and Mostly Forgotten  An Australian Icon - thanks to Billy Hughes  Crossing The Pacific in the 1930s  Hill End  The Paragon at Katoomba  Seafood In Sydney  How Far From Sydney?  Cockatoo Island Over The Years  The Seagull at the Melbourne Festival in 1991  Busby's Bore  The Trocadero In Sydney  Cahill's restaurants  Medical Pioneers in Australian Wine Making  Pedal Power and the Royal Flying Doctor Service  Pambula and the Charles Darwin Connection  Gloucester and the Barrington Tops  A Millenium Apart  Have You Stopped to Look?  Gulgong  Il Porcellino  Olympia  Durham Hall  Sargent's Tea Rooms Pie Shops and Street Photographers  The Ballet Russes and Their Friends in Australia  Hotels at Bondi  Alma Ata Conference - 1978 Keukenhof - 1954 The Lands Department Building and Yellowblock Sandstone  The Goroka Show - 1958  A Gem On The Quay  Staffa  The Matson Line and Keepsake Menus Kokeshi Dolls  The Coal Mine At Balmain  The Hyde Park Barracks  The Changing Faces Of Sydney From Pounds and Pence to Dollars and Cents Nell Tritton and Alexander Kerensky  Making A Difference In Ethiopia William Balmain  J C Bendrodt and Princes Restaurant Azzalin Orlando Romano and Romano's Restaurant   Waldheim  Alcohol in Restaurants Before 1955  King Island Kelp  The Mercury Theatre   Around Angkor - 1963   Angkor Wat 1963  Costumes From the Ballets Russe Clifton at Kirribilli  Chairman Mao's Personal Physician  The Toby Tavern The MoKa at Kings Cross  The Oceaographic  Museum  in Monaco  The Island of Elba  Russian Fairy Tale Plates  Meteora  Souda Bay War Cemetery Barrow, Alaska  Cloisonné  Tripitaka Koreana Minshuku The Third Man Photographs and Memories  Not A Chagall!  Did You Listen? Did You Ask?  Napier (Ahuriri, Maori) New Zealand  Borobudur  Ggantija Temples Plumes and Pearlshells  Murano  University of Padua Ancient Puebloe Peoples - The Anasazi   Pula  The Gondolas of Venice Cinque Terre  Visiting the Iban David The Living Desert Bryce Canyon National Park   Aphrodisias   The Divine Comedy Caodaism  Sapa and local Hill People  A Few Children  Cappadocia  Symi Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre   Aboriginal Rock Art on Bigge Island    ANZAC Cove (Ari Burnu) 25 April, 1997  Hotere Garden Oputae  Children of the Trobriand Islands  Page Park Market - Rabaul  Rabual   Kotor, Montenegro   Galleries of Photographs I   Lascaux  Galleries of Photographs II   The Cathedral of St. James – Šibenik, Croatia  Ivan Meštrović  - Sculptor   Delphi   Gallery of Photographs III  The Handicrafts of Chiang Mai Raft Point  San Simeon - "Hearst Castle"   Floriade - The Netherlands - 1982  Russian New Year  Mycenae  "Flightseeing" Out Of Anchorage Alaska  The White Pass and Yukon Route  Totem Poles  Tivkin Cemetery  Krka National Park - Croatia   Tavistock Square and the BMA  Orthodox Easter   Wieliczka Salt Mine  A Walk on Santorini  Indonesian Snapshots Ephesus - The Library of Celsus  Ephesus - Some Places Of Interest  Waimea Canyon and the Kalalau Valley United Nations Headquarters 1958  A Miscellany of Flower Images   Gardens  Bath St. David's In Wales   Zion National Park Nicholas Himona - Artist  Kraków  Lilianfels  Collonges-La-Rouge  Gingerbread Houses   Cape Sounion   Delos  Wroclaw  Colonial Williamsburg  Gruyères   Strasbourg  Coventry Cathedral  The Roman Theatre at Aspendos  Turkish Carpets The Duomo of Orvieto  Rovinj  The City Walls of Dubrovnik Monaco - Snapshots   Bonifacio, Corsica  Autumn in New England USA  The Great Ocean Road   Pompeii   Didyma  Lawrence Hargrave 1850-1915  The Corinth Canal  Malta  Snapshots of Amsterdam Café Central - Vienna  The Forbidden City - Beijing, China  A Ride on the Jungfrau Railway - 1954   Snapshots in the Highlands of Scotland 1954  Must See Sights in Paris - 1954  Corfu Reflections On the Nineteen Thirties The Gold Souk in Dubai  Stromboli 

Copyright George Repin 2018. All Rights Reserved.