The Future History of Adelaide: Water

Sharon Ede
9 min readJan 3, 2020

This ‘future history’ of Adelaide was based on ‘Los Angeles: A History of the Future’ (1982) by Paul Glover, and is written from the year 2136. It examines how Adelaide became an ‘ecopolis’ — an ecological city — over 150 years, reversing the damage done to the region since European colonisation began in 1836. At the time, there was a proposal for a ‘piece of ecocity’ in Halifax Street, whose features and design principles are referenced as the first fractal of this change. This larger scale proposal did not eventuate, but a smaller scale exemplar, Christie Walk, can be found in the CBD at 105 Sturt Street, Adelaide.

This was written in 1995 at university, as a directed study for history, and reflects my thinking, understanding, available technologies and references at the time. The Ecological Crisis of the 1990s is referred to as ‘EC’ and phrases like ‘200 years EC’ mean 200 years after this Crisis.

Mannum-Adelaide pipeline, image from Wikipedia

One of the most crucial requirements for a human settlement is water, and one of Colonel Light’s reasons for situating Adelaide where it is was that a good water supply in the form of the River Torrens was available.

The Kaurna name for the Torrens is Karra Wirri Parri, which means ‘river of the redgum forest ‘ (Whitelock, 1985a p187). Until 1860, Adelaide and its suburbs depended upon water from the Torrens, from wells and from rainwater tanks.

From the early days of Adelaide’s settlement, the problems of maintaining a clean water supply were evident. The Observer of 25 May 1843 published a letter which read in part:

It does appear strange to me that no steps are as yet taken to supply the town with cleaner water. It would be hard indeed to persuade me that the Torrens water is at all wholesome, if sheep washing with tobacco, tanning hides and so forth, are allowed on its banks….

(in Whitelock,1985a p245).

During the 1870s, the infant mortality rate as a result of typhoid and dysentery was so high that the Mayor of Adelaide set up a Central Board of Health to investigate the problem. Unsanitary conditions were finally recognised as the cause of disease, and the death toll began to drop after the first drainage and sewerage farm opened.

In 1881, Adelaide became the first Australian capital city to be connected to a water borne sewerage system (ABS, 1995 p209). The weir that dammed the River Torrens to form the Torrens lake was also built in this year (Whitelock, 1985a p187).

H2O — Hard 2 Obtain

As a result of the pollution of the Torrens, the necessity of importing water became evident. The Mount Lofty Ranges were catchment areas, but the provision of reservoirs became important with five new reservoirs established to 1937:

Thorndon Park 1858
Millbrook 1920
Hope Valley 1876
Mount Bold 1937
Happy Valley 1896

(in Kwan, 1987b pp56–57)

While the provision of these facilities was a remarkable achievement which allowed Adelaideans access to a secure supply of safe water, the precedent had been set to import water, rather than to deal with the causes of pollution (Clark, 1991*).

The next source of water to be tapped was the River Murray, with a pipeline opened from Morgan to Whyalla in 1944 and later Mannum to Adelaide in 1961 (Williams, 1974 p258).

By EC, Adelaide’s water consumption was upwards of 150,000 megalitres per year, rising to 187,000 during the drought of 1993–94. During this time, over 100,000 megalitres was pumped from the Murray to the Adelaide and Onkaparinga pipelines to slake Adelaide’s thirst. The total storage capacity of Adelaide’s metropolitan reservoirs was 195,540 megalitres, with over 8,500 kilometres of water mains infrastructure required to deliver Adelaide’s supply, and the length of sewerage infrastructure was over 6,000km (ABS, 1995 p206, p208)

Adelaide had a totally imported water supply and an almost total export of waste water from the urban area: ‘To South Australians the Murray is an ‘exotic’ water supply.’ (Nance, et al, 1989 p105). South Australia’s water requirements from the Murray were subject to the Murray Darling Basin Commission after 1983 (ABS, 1995 p207), as well as all events occurring upstream. Professor John Lovering, who was the president of the Murray Darling Basin Commission, warned Adelaideans not to take the River Murray, ‘…a long and tenuous lifeline stretching from the snowfields and rain catchments of the eastern states’ (Williams, 1994) for granted.

The Basin covers over 1,000,000 square kilometres of eastern Australia, and was worth $10 billion annually in primary and secondary production to its users in EC times (Williams, 1994).

No River Murray, no Adelaide. It is as simple as that…Without that water, we wouldn’t be here. You just couldn’t sustain the city.

(Lovering in Williams, 1994)

Adelaide had grown beyond what its natural limits would have been without its precarious grip on water originating hundreds of kilometres away.

In Adelaide at the time, 70% of the water reticulated was used for activities (eg. toilet flushing, watering gardens) where drinking water quality standards were not required — less than 5% of the water was used for drinking purposes (Clark & Fisher, 1989 p2, Clark, 1991*). In addition, the amount of stormwater being flushed into the sea was 150,000 ML annually, on a par with the amount of water the city was importing from the catchments and the Murray (Clark & Fisher, 1989 piii).

The problems of pollution — chemicals (particularly runoff from agricultural activity), bacteria and salinity — degraded the River Murray to such an extent that toxic algal blooms thousands of kilometres long appeared during EC, and Adelaide’s water quality suffered accordingly.

Urban conditions were also a factor in the declining quality of Adelaide’s water. Bizarre headlines such as ‘Tonnes of chemicals used to make reservoir water safe’ were a sign of the times (Altmann, 1992).

Because rainwater was not captured and used, it became stormwater. Unable to soak into the earth, the water ran off of the hard surfaces like roads, concrete, roofs, and entered the sea as a filthy cocktail of numerous substances. According to Schwerdtfeger (in Advertiser Newspapers, 1994), Adelaide’s 500,000 cars left 1,000 tonnes of rubber residue on the roads each year, which was then picked up by stormwater — along with dog droppings, grass cuttings, nutrients, legal and illegal dumping — which ended up in the Torrens, the Patawalonga, and eventually out at sea. This in turn resulted in the death of seagrasses which ‘anchored’ sand along Adelaide’s metropolitan beaches, causing erosion, and the ridiculous spectacle of carting thousands of tonnes of sand from one beach to another. Ian Greening, who had a yacht moored at the Patawalonga during this time, made the ominous observation that the Pat’s mud had gnawed away his high strength steel mooring cable in five days: ‘…there’s definitely something down there.’ (Greening in Lloyd, 1994).

Council policies which altered creeks to flush stormwater away as fast as possible had killed Adelaide’s creeks. A study undertaken during EC revealed that no frogs — an indicator of a waterway’s health — were recorded along creeks which had been turned into concrete channels, ornamental creeks which were lined with concrete or creeks which were highly eroded with no vegetation (Suter in The Guardian, 1995).

Consultant Rob Tanner (in Weir, 1993) said that diffuse-source pollution, not point source pollution, was the biggest problem in maintaining water quality, and that each street and each council be made responsible for the quality of water which came from its area. Education programs were launched to teach people that stormwater was different to waste water, and received no treatment before ending up in St Vincent’s Gulf. The separation of waste water from sewage would have allowed grey water recycling, but it was all mixed in together.

Problems were not confined solely to the quality of the water itself. The systems used to deliver this water and export sewage had aged and deteriorated. During, EC the total replacement cost of water supply and sewerage assets in South Australia was estimated to be $10,000,000,000, and 60% of the water supply assets were trunk pipelines for importing water (Clark, 1991*). Adelaide’s waterworks had become a liability, and the city was running out of time:

According to the State’s peak engineering body, the Institute of Engineers…(burst water mains) would become a ‘common occurrence’ unless $1 billion was spent upgrading Adelaide’s water mains system…(which) was a ‘time bomb’ which could explode and kill people at any time.

(Whittington, 1994)

City Geysers

Burst mains demolished property, caused mini-floods and wasted many litres of precious water. The sewerage infrastructure could not cope either, what with the spills of raw sewage coupled with the 50 billion litres of semi-treated sewage released annually from Bolivar alone (Henschke, 1995).

Clark (1991*) pointed out that centralised systems of water supply (and sewage disposal) had a number of problems: Adelaide was too dependent on the River Murray, and the water was vulnerable to increasing salinisation and activities beyond the control of metropolitan Adelaide; the disposal of stormwater, treated, untreated and partially treated sewage had caused the deterioration of marine ecosystems; the pricing system was not reflecting the true cost of providing the services or replacing the service infrastructure and the whole system was inherently vulnerable to accident, breakdown or sabotage. There was only one logical choice in the face of all the evidence — the water and sewage systems had to be decentralised.

The Greenhouse That Grows Clean Water

During EC, Adelaide experimented with systems of wetlands and the recharging of Adelaide’s aquifers with stormwater, which was able to be utilised for irrigation at a later stage. Composting toilets made some inroads into negating the sewage problem. The task of dismantling the system which was causing the problems proved to be an enormous task, which could only be done by weaning bits of the city from the mains a piece at a time.

The Halifax EcoCity Project provided the first example of an holistic, co-ordinated approach to water management. The EcoCity’s ethos was to make the city responsible for itself instead of drawing on resources from great distances and flushing the residue elsewhere. The EcoCity sourced as much water as possible from on-site by capturing rainfall, and dealt with all waste water and sewage on site. Reed beds were used to provide a final ‘polish’ on the drinking water, which had been recycled through the Solar Aquatics Biological Treatment Plant:

Solar Aquatics technology duplicates, under controlled conditions, the natural water purification processes of streams and wetlands. Housed within a greenhouse to ensure year round biological activity, wastewater is circulated through ecologically engineered aquatic environments where the contaminants and nutrients are metabolised (broken down) or bound up…Algae, bacteria, other micro-organisms, higher plants, snails and other aquatic animals make up the ecosystem food chain involved in the natural purification of wastewater.

Technology from Massachussetts, USA, in the form of Ecological Engineering’s Solar Aquatics System, enabled the EcoCity to recycle both grey water (laundry, bath, shower) and black water (sewage) within an attractive, odour-free on-site sewage plant, which took up a fraction of the space of a conventional treatment plant. The staff of Ecological Engineering took their clients to lunch in the Solar Aquatics Greenhouse. It was difficult to convince people in Adelaide, before the first plant was built, that this would be a pleasant experience — but the plant on the Halifax EcoCity site soon became a major feature of this popular urban eco-tourism destination.

Solar Aquatics, and the later technologies spawned by it, enabled Adelaideans to gradually to ‘unhook’ themselves from the sprawling but centralised system of water management. This decentralised system was easy to service in the event of problems, as only a small area was affected. The little amount of water required for drinking was captured on site. The fact that there are now less hard surfaces on the Adelaide plains of the Tandanya Bioregion means that stormwater has ceased to be an issue — it is simply soaked up by the earth. The seagrasses are flourishing, and our beaches have recovered from the erosion problems which plagued them during EC. Recycled water from biological treatment plants was able to replace the demand from the River Murray, allowing the river to regain its health. The city of Adelaide now maintains the health of its citizens and the hydrological cycle.


Altmann, Carol (1992) ‘Tonnes of chemicals used to make reservior water safe’. City Messenger, 11/11/92.

Advertiser Newspapers (1994) ‘Nauseous Cocktail flushed into waterways.’ The Advertiser, 18/2/94).

Australian Bureau of Statistics (1993) South Australian Yearbook, 1995. Government Printer, Adelaide.

Clark, Richard (1991* estimate — no date given) Towards Sustainable Water Services For Adelaide And The Integration Of Urban Water And Land Management (Paper). Engineering & Water Supply Department, Adelaide).

Clark, Richard & Fisher, AG (1989) Urban Stormwater: A Resource For Adelaide (Paper). Engineering & Water Supply Department, Adelaide.

Kwan, Elizabeth (1987b) Living in South Australia: A Social History (Vol 2: After1914). Government Printer, Netley, SA.

Lloyd, Megan (1994) ‘Pat filth rots steel: boatie’. Guardian Messenger, 18/5/94.

Weir, Leanne (1993) ‘Turning the tide on water quality.’ The Advertiser, 29/6/95.

Whitelock, Derek (1985a) Adelaide: a Sense of Difference. Savvas Publishing, Adelaide.

Whittington, Sean (1994) ‘Burst pipe triggers new ‘time bomb’ fear.’ Sunday Mail, 8/5/94.

Williams, Michael (1974) The Making of the South Australian Landscape. Academic Press, London.



Sharon Ede

Regenerative Cities Activist | Circular Economy Catalyst | South Australian Government | Award Winning Author | |