IT WAS supposed to be the audacious build that would save Bendigo from collapse, but getting water to the city was almost one of the biggest failures in Victoria's history.
And the crisis reached its crescendo 150-years-ago this week, when a huge "explosion" of water rendered a critical part of the so-called Coliban water scheme a complete failure.
The worst part was that it was not the first time something big had gone wrong on the project. It was not even the first time in a month.
Thirsty Bendigo demands year-round supply of potable water
By the summer of 1871 Bendigo desperately needed water.
The settlement lacked a nearby river and trains had been forced to cart water into town five years earlier as a drought raged, historian Geoffrey Russell said.
"Droughts were making life for people on the goldfields miserable. Absolutely miserable," he said.
It was not just the residents of Bendigo who were being hit hard by water shortages.
Whenever water ran low, gold production plummeted and the entire Victorian economy risked grinding to a halt, Dr Russell - the author of Water for Gold! The fight to quench Victoria's goldfields - said.
"Bendigo and Castlemaine were the richest goldfields in the world in the 1860s and '70s, especially with their very deep quartz mines," he said.
"Crucial to getting to that gold at depth - a mile underground in Bendigo - was the availability of water year round. The Bendigo Creek was choked with sludge from miners' alluvial workings and barely ran even in winter."
By the 1860s, workers were building a series of water reservoirs and gravity-fed channels and tunnels from the Great Dividing Range to Bendigo.
"An extraordinary engineer by the name of Joseph Brady designed it, but then it was tendered out to government contractors," Dr Russell said.
"Unfortunately, that's where the government's public works department developed a long-standing reputation for being basically incompetent. It could not properly supervise the construction of major works."
An explosion 'as of an eight-pounder gun'
In the summer of 1870, work was finishing the "Back Creek syphon" - two specially designed pipes intended to help water climb a hill without the need for pumping machinery.
Water would be syphoned into a pipe heading downhill.
"As it (the water) goes downhill it builds up sufficient 'head pressure' - as engineers call it - to push the water uphill, to the area it can restart its journey onwards," Dr Russell said.
The concept had been perfected by the ancient Romans.
Government-appointed project supervisors had decided to reuse cast iron plates originally designed for Melbourne's sewage system, which they ordered to be riveted together into huge pipes.
Testing began on New Year's Eve, 1870 and seemed to be a success.
"The supervising engineer thought everything was OK, so he decided he would ride back home to Taradale," Dr Russell said.
"He only got a few minutes down the track when he heard an explosion ... as of an eight-pounder gun [a cannon], and upon hurrying back to the spot he discovered a large body of water forcing its way out of the pipe at the eastern inlet end."
About 1300 plates had fractured, creating what the supervisor described as "clean breakages right across the solid cast iron".
If there was ever a time for such a failure, the summer of 1870/1 was not it. A Victorian election was approaching and everyone from engineers to ministers struggled to protect their reputations.
A month after the pipes first failed, engineers began a second round of tests.
Within minutes, the pipes fractured again. Water spouted up to 40 feet high.
"The failure appears to be a hopeless one, and if so, £25,000 have been literally thrown away," the Bendigo Advertiser reported in its Monday edition.
'It could have easily been avoided'
The affair was on a scale with some of the biggest project disasters in Victoria's history, according to Rod Andrew, the author of history book Upper Coliban and Lauriston Reservoirs: A History of the Upper Two Supply Reservoirs of the Historic Coliban Supply System.
"It cost a hell of a lot of money, and the thing is that it could have easily been avoided," he said.
The problem ultimately came down to political patronage, Mr Andrew said.
"It was a dodgy engineer in charge who didn't really know what he was doing ... in those days the idea of professional qualifications was only just getting going," he said.
For all the setbacks over the 26 years designing and building the scheme, the end result was a major success which still helps underpin the water supply.
It underpinned Bendigo's growth and guaranteed some of the richest goldfields in history could keep operating.
"It's one of the big 'what-ifs' of history, but I would argue that without the Coliban scheme, Bendigo would have succumbed to drought," Dr Russell said.
"Even if you sat down today with a map of Australia and I asked you where you'd put a city that will eventually have maybe 120,000 people by the year 2021, you probably would not have put it away from a major water course."
Dr Russell added that people would do well to remember the lessons from the Coliban scheme, because many of the issues that drove colonial Victorians to build it have not gone away.
"COVID has not meant droughts go away. We are still recording record temperatures and the population is still growing," he said.
"So if anything, our challenges around water supply are only going to get greater as time goes on."