Old mill on New Town Creek, 1880s (ALMFA, SLT)

Settlement and survival depend on the availability of water – for drinking, growing crops and attracting potential food sources, as well as for washing, drainage and turning mills. In the selection of sites for both Hobart and Launceston, in 1803 and 1804 respectively, securing a reliable supply of clear water for drinking was a prime motivator – and was part of the reason for the abandonment of the Risdon Cove site in 1804 for the more abundant and permanent supply flowing from Table Mountain (Mount Wellington). In 1831 an aqueduct was constructed to bring water from the rivulet at the base of Mount Wellington to the town. An exceedingly dry summer in 1834–35 led to the passing of the Water Act (1835), which aimed to ensure a supply of pure water for Hobart Town.

By 1843 the polluted state of the rivulet and the resultant spate of disease epidemics led Major Hugh Cotton to make an impassioned plea for the incorporation of the City of Hobart. Three years later a Board of Commissioners was elected to manage the affairs of the city. The first major waterworks, comprising a storage reservoir, iron pipes and sandstone fluming, were constructed in 1861 to conduct water from Mount Wellington to the Waterworks on the Sandy Bay Rivulet and thence to the city and suburbs via the Hill Street reservoir. An upper storage reservoir was completed in 1888, and by 1900 a Water Act regulated construction, extension and maintenance work on the supply pipeline, with a Waterworks Department levying rates to fund the works. A Metropolitan Drainage Act followed, to ensure the discontinuation of those practices which had led to the pollution of the town rivulet. As Hobart grew, shortages of water led, always after considerable debate, to the construction of the Ridgeway Reservoir (1919), the Lake Fenton water scheme (1939), then, after enormous growth in the 1950s, the Hayes–Bryn Estyn water scheme (1963), which took water from the River Derwent at Hayes and served the whole metropolitan area.

In the north, the citizens of Launceston obtained their fresh water from the Cataract Gorge by boat until the first pump was erected in 1825 on planks placed over the North Esk River. Many schemes for obtaining water came and went before the Launceston Water Act (1856) empowered the Council to raise the finances to build a scheme which would supply the inhabitants of the city. The Launceston Waterworks, opened the following year, diverted water from St Patrick's River via a tunnel into Distillery Creek, whence it was conducted to the city in mains, with reservoirs on high grounds outside the city adding to the supply. To commemorate the inauguration of the city's water supply, in 1858 a large ornamental fountain was erected in Princes Square, where the water was initially brought into town prior to reticulation.

Settlers in the midlands towns of Campbell Town and Ross were well supplied with water from the Macquarie and Elizabeth Rivers, and in 1901 investigated bringing water from the Western Tiers to increase production from their farms. Meanwhile, inhabitants of Bothwell and Hamilton on the Clyde River had to fight long and hard to achieve a reliable supply of clean drinking water, due to the conflicting demands of townsfolk and farmers. While settlers on the east coast of Tasmania often had only enough water for their basic needs, those on the west coast had water in abundance due to the much heavier rainfall on that side of the island. (See also Irrigation.)

Further reading: The Cyclopedia of Tasmania, Hobart, 1900; W Pratt, The right of the inhabitants of Hobart Town to an independent supply of pure water, [Hobart, 1847]; H Cotton, Lecture on irrigation, Hobart, 1843; J Button, The rise and fall of the Hobart Rivulet, Hobart, 1978; M Mason-Cox, Lifeblood of a colony, Hobart, 1994.

Margaret Mason-Cox