Dam builders mark Pindari Dam’s 55th anniversary

19 MARCH 2024

It’s 55 years since Pindari Dam was officially opened by NSW Premier Bob Askin on 21 March 1969. To mark the anniversary, WaterNSW spoke to two former workers, now in their late 80s and early 90s, about their memories of the dam’s construction.

WaterNSW General Manager Regional Operations North, Michelle Yeaman, said WaterNSW was a proud custodian of Pindari Dam, building on the legacy of the dam builders and local visionaries who saw the benefits of building this first dam in the north of the state.

“Fifty-five years later, Pindari remains an important part of the Border Rivers system for irrigation, town supplies and environmental flows,” Michelle said.

The Inverell Times reported on its front page in 1969: “At 3.40pm on Friday the Premier of NSW, Mr R.W. Askin, officially released the first regulated water into the Severn River below Pindari Dam.”

In what was described as an “impressive ceremony” attended by “560 official guests and members of the public”, Ashford Shire president Cr J.R. Black extolled “the virtues of the first dam in the north”.

The NSW Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission was the constructing authority. Citra, a French civil engineering firm, was the contractor.

It was the first time the Commission had outsourced construction of one of the state’s major dams, adopting a model used successfully by the Snowy Mountains Authority.

Today, Pindari Dam is one of 20 major dams across regional NSW operated by WaterNSW. It is situated on the Severn River about 22 kilometres upstream of Ashford and 80 kilometres north-east of Inverell near the NSW-Queensland border.

The dam supplies regulated flows for irrigation, stock and domestic use along the Severn and Macintyre rivers upstream of the Dumaresq River junction, and town water for Ashford, Yetman, Boggabilla, Boomi and Mungindi.

Len Colbert and Dudley Tickle were both contract inspectors at Pindari Dam from 1967-69, supervising the Citra workforce. These are some of their recollections.....

Len Colbert, 92, Wauchope, Contract Inspector, NSW Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission, Pindari Dam 1967-69, recalls:

“A few of us, the first inspectors, were sent across to Snowy, to see how they operated and give us some advice, including how to keep detailed record about contract variations.

“We had to make a lot of manual calculations ourselves because we were testing the concrete to make sure it was up to standard.

“We had a laboratory on site to test the concrete. I lived on site with my family. I had three kiddies at the time. The kids rode the bus to school in Ashford. On weekends we’d go fishing or prospecting for sapphires. All that area is sapphire country.

“On Bastille Day, Citra hired bakery shops in Inverell and closed them down to make a big dinner for local identities all around the area.

“The money was good because we were paid overtime. We worked six days a week.

“I started out on Glenbawn Dam in 1954 and then moved on to Burrendong and Wyangala where I was an electrical foreman before I went to Pindari. After Pindari I went to Toonumbar (dam) at Kyogle, doing the same thing there, contract inspector at the batch house and the quarry.

“After that I stopped doing contract supervision work because most of the big construction jobs were closing down. They eventually offered me a job as second-in-charge at Burrinjuck Dam in 1971 – and I ended up spending 20 years there until I retired in 1991 as officer-in-charge. I was with the Commission just under 38 years.

“Very nearly lost my life in the quarry one day on the Toonumbar job. I went to check one time when they were loading the facer with gelignite. They were using cortex as the detonating explosive. It was a white cord, and if you impacted it, it would go off. The cord was connected to about one tonne of explosive, and I had my back to this young fella, and I heard the sound of a shovel on rock. I looked around and he had this cortex over the edge of the shovel, and he was about to bash it with a rock to cut it. We were all gone if he’d done that. These days it wouldn’t happen because you’d have trained personnel.

“Dudley and I are quite possibly the last of the half dozen or so contract inspectors who worked on Pindari.”

Dudley Tickle, 86, Tamworth, Contract Inspector, NSW Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission, Pindari Dam 1967-69, recalls:

“I’d been married about 5 years and my son was about 3 years old when we lived on site at Pindari. My daughter was born the day I left Pindari – that was the 28th May 1969. The site was virtually all cleaned up by then ready for Operations branch to take over.

“We had a house on site. There was about a dozen married blokes with houses. Those houses were all brought there from another job, and afterwards they were moved over to Copeton.

“It was a hard climate to work in. I remember summer days when the temperatures reached 40. Everyone seemed to mix pretty well. There was a wet canteen where you could have a drink after work.

“We worked 6 days. I remember how the Commission families integrated with the townspeople of Ashford and Inverell. On Sundays we’d go into Inverell to the pool or for a picnic in the park, or to Ashford to play golf. It was about 35 miles from Inverell. Women were fairly isolated but there was a store that brought groceries out to the site.

“I went from Burrendong to Wyangala for its extension and upgrade, then before I went to Pindari I was sent down to Blowering Dam under the supervision of the Snowy Mountains Authority to pick up how to be a contract inspector, as Snowy had done their work under contracts.

“Burrendong and Wyangala were built with day labour with the old Commission workforce but with Pindari it was the first time a contractor was used.

“As contract inspectors we supervised the actual work by the Citra workforce, to ensure it was done to the specifications set down in the contract. We never fraternised too closely (with the Citra workers) as you didn’t want people to think you were letting them get away with the things because you were friends.

“To give you some idea, the placement of rock had to be clean, it had to be put in at a certain volume, and the bench had to be rolled so many times. And we had to keep the contractor up to that with their machinery.

“John Nomblot was the resident engineer for Citra. He had his own workforce which was separate to the Commission’s workforce. The Commission had our own office and staff, as well as a laboratory which was mainly used for testing of the concrete to make sure it was a certain strength and to a certain specification.

“Concrete samples would be taken to the lab after 7 days, 14 days and 28 where they were crushed, and the samples had to be a certain strength.

“Pindari was built the way it was because there was no clay, so the upstream face had to be concrete. Then the downstream side was constructed in benches and tied in with steel reinforcement holding the rock to a certain slope or batter. When you took the steel up the slope and came to a bench, the steel reinforcement would be laid out on the bench after the rolling, then more rock would come in over that, then take another new layer of steel like that up the slope, benching it in as you went to keep the rock batter in place.

“That whole upstream face of rock was rolled. Then rails and water seals were put in for the joints. And there was a continuous pour of concrete from the base to the top of the Pindari wall on the upstream side. Those slabs were a continuous pour. I was at the batch plant and had a shift controlling the concrete strength, one run might be 1700 cubic metres over two days and two nights.

“The concrete was taken in agitator trucks from the batch plant they had on site, then the crane would swing it in, and it would be vibrated in place. We had a 60-foot screed that came up behind it, battering off the concrete and smoothing it, then you would have a couple of men finishing off any small inconsistencies before the concrete went off. You’d leave a strip and form up the next strip, so that when you came back you then had a strip between two columns of concrete.

“Another inspector Len Colbert and I shared alternate 12-hour shifts to check the concrete leaving the batch plant. We took test results, and had to keep control of the water/ cement ratio.”

“If we got a storm in the afternoon and the water collected in the bins at the batch plant, you had to be on your toes to adjust the water mix in the batch house, otherwise the concrete would not have the right strength.

“It’s another era, really.

“After Pindari I went on to a similar role at Carcoar Dam, then Copeton and to Chaffey. By then my son was ready to go to high school and I didn’t want to be moving around too much. I bought a home here in Tamworth and I travelled out to Chaffey, so he didn’t have to travel to school each day from the dam site.

“Then I went down to Glennies Creek to work on the tunnel but that’s when a job came up in Tamworth in licensing. I set up all the irrigators in the Peel Valley in the early 1980s.

“I worked for WC&IC for 39.5 years – close enough to 40 years. When I retired I had 499 and two-thirds days of sick leave owing to me – I needed another one-third of a day to make it to 500 days!”

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