Water Journal : Water Journal August 2011
regular features 38 AUGUST 2011 water awa news -- member profile My Brilliant Career Captain Ken Nelson (1921--) ED BSc CEng EurIng FIEAust FGS MICE MInstRE In the late 1940s, Victoria was undertaking large-scale irrigation and water supply schemes, building new dams and enlarging some of the existing ones. At the time there was a shortage of construction engineers, so Chairman of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission (Victorian Water Commission), Ronald East (later Sir Ronald), recruited graduate engineers from British universities. One of these was Ken Nelson, who tells here the story of his rewarding career as an engineer and his contributions to the water industry. I was born in 1921 in a small coal-mining town in South Wales, where my father was a mining engineer. Later, in 1941, I commenced a civil engineering course at Cardiff University. It was a dramatic year for Britain in World War II. At the beginning of the year, Germany was at the peak of its power. Late in 1940 Hitler had decided to bomb Britain into submission. Cardiff was a particularly attractive target because it had numerous large docks unloading vast quantities of arms and food from across the Atlantic. Throughout the blitz years (1941--1944), every night teams of 40 to 50 students and staff, including professors, undertook fire- fighting duties extinguishing incendiary bombs at the university, which caused injuries and even one death. By the end of the war, the air raids had killed 60,595 British people. Meanwhile, the students attended lectures and studies as well as they could. At the end of my first year I was awarded the Page Prize in Engineering. I enlisted in the Royal Air Force initially, but later was commissioned into the army. I served three years in the Far East -- two years in Burma during the war and another year in Singapore after the war, where the Chinese nicknamed me Lin Fatt Kwai ('curly-headed devil'). I was in the Siege of Imphal, surrounded for four months by 100,000 Japanese troops and wholly reliant on supplies dropped from the air. We were on half-rations and I lost 13kg during the siege. In fact, during the Battle of Imphal, tens of thousands of British and Japanese soldiers died. During this period I applied my electrical engineering knowledge and skills in a signals unit and, when there was a shortage of distilled water for batteries, designed and created a distiller. It was made out of a 44-gallon petrol drum of water heated by a makeshift fire. We collected the evaporated water using copper tubing, which ended up in another drum of cold water to condense the water, which was then collected in a small pan. It was so successful that I was commissioned to make more on the same design for surrounding signal units. On retirement, I was granted the military title of Captain. A New Life in Australia I returned to engineering studies in Cardiff in 1947, only to find numerous student friends had been killed. At the end of my course, Professor W Norman Thomas (CBE) recommended me for an engineering position in the Victorian Water Commission in Australia. On arriving in Australia in March 1950, I became the graduate assistant of the Chairman, Ronald East. At this stage the commission was engaged on a large- scale developmental scheme in the state, consisting of numerous irrigation and water supply projects. In my first year I was employed on the Cairn Curran Project, near Maldon (Castlemaine). The storage capacity of the dam was 150,000 megalitres impounded by embankments of compacted earth- fill, paved with stone on the water face. I was involved in supervising the foundation excavation and spillway work. In October 1950 I was transferred to the Central Gippsland Irrigation Project at Heyfield. Three months later, there was an emergency. In the middle of the irrigation season, a six-foot triple-tube concrete siphon collapsed in the only supply channel from Glenmaggie Dam to the irrigation area. The 23-year-old siphon had been undermined. I was one of the engineers who worked for 14 days in three shifts, working around the clock, to create a temporary siphon. After spending six months on the Tarago River Diversion Project -- responsible for all the operations at one tunnel heading (3m by 3m cross-section and 3.2km long), under the direction of the Tunnelling Superintendent -- I returned to the Central Gippsland Project. With my extra experience, I became responsible for all construction on the new supply channel from the Glenmaggie Dam to the new irrigation areas and for the water supply of Heyfield, which included constructing a new service basin and two new pumping stations. River Catchment Proposal During the late 1950s, the commission considered creating new river catchment authorities, similar to the river boards in Britain. In November 1955, I took 12 months leave of absence to study these boards and, in the following February, was appointed an engineer with the Glamorgan River Board (Wales), responsible to the Chief Engineer, Mr W E Wright, for research and the river gauging section. When I returned to the Victorian commission, the proposed River Catchment Authorities bill was being debated in the Victorian Parliament. I attended these debates with Ronald East. The proposal failed because of strong opposition to methods planned for financing the schemes. I had hoped to become an engineer for one of the proposed catchment authorities but, instead, continued to be responsible for advising existing river improvement trusts, municipal authorities and public bodies on river improvement schemes. In 1959 I was appointed Executive Engineer and Technical Secretary to the Water Loss Committee and was responsible for investigations into methods of improving water distribution and the efficiencies in irrigation systems. Later, in mid-1966, I became the Engineer-in-Charge of the Farm Water Supply Branch of the Soil Conservation Authority of Victoria. In the late 1960s many state governments became concerned by environmentalists' objections to large-scale irrigation and water supply schemes. As a result, the commission ceased large- scale irrigation schemes (including large dams). In Victoria no new public irrigation schemes were undertaken after 1970. This resulted in an increase in demand for small private farm water supply services, particularly in the building of small earth dams. For three months in late 1980, I was a consultant to the Institute of Hydrology in Wallingford (Oxford), advising on procedures for setting up an agricultural hydrological consultancy.
Water Journal September 2011
Water Journal July 2011