WHEN HE VISITED Perth in 2012, Arizona water specialist Robert Glennon remarked: ‘I expected a dry city on the driest continent would be at the cutting edge of water conservation and instead I’m hearing stories about groundwater wells in everyone’s backyard and everyone has a lush lawn.’ [i] Had he known the state’s water history, he might not have been so surprised.
What Glennon observed in Perth is the persistence of what historian Jay Arthur describes as ‘the default country’, a settler Australian ideal of a green, well-watered landscape against which the continent does not measure up. [ii] It was an ideal that inspired generations of ‘water dreamers’, to use Michael Cathcart’s term, to search for an inland sea in the continent’s dead heart. And when water was found to be wanting, they designed schemes to turn the rivers inland and to make the deserts bloom. [iii] In 1896, Western Australia’s own water dreamer, the engineer CY O’Connor, designed a system to transport water from the Darling Range near Perth via a pipeline to the thirsty mines of the Kalgoorlie Goldfields, nearly six hundred kilometres away. Even the engineering schemes of ancient Rome had not been so bold as to pump water such a distance, let alone uphill. At its opening in 1903, Sir John Forrest, the state’s first premier, referred to Isaiah (43:19) when he suggested that future generations would remember this achievement: ‘They made a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’
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