1853 - 2007 | Flow of History - Yan Yean Reservoir

1853 - 2007 | Flow of History - Yan Yean Reservoir

When it was first constructed, the nine-metre high dam on the Plenty River to create was then the largest storage dam in the world.

Flow of History

The parched Yan Yean Reservoir was once a mighty testament to a new city's boundless optimism. But at 18 per cent full, is its time trickling out?

From the exposed banks of the Yan Yean Reservoir, Melbourne's water woes come into startling clarity. The bluestones that were once submerged beneath several metres of water only a few years ago lie helplessly bare as they bake in the sun.

As the reservoir lies dormant on Melbourne's northern outer fringe, its dwindling water barely hints at its grand history.

The reservoir was once the heart of Melbourne's water supply, piping water to homes and businesses from the northern suburbs to the CBD.

Once a symbol of Melbourne's burgeoning confidence and modernisation, the reservoir has been offline since 2007 - 150 years after it was built.

On New Year's Eve in 1857, 7000 people descended on the Carlton Gardens to watch water flow through newly laid pipes under the city from what was then among the biggest water storage facilities in the world.

A newspaper report captured the palpable excitement of those who had gathered to see the first trickle of water only to be drenched by a powerful stream projected into the air.

This scene opens the book Yan Yean: A History of Melbourne's Early Water Supply, written by historians Tony Dingle and Helen Doyle.

Dingle says the reservoir gave Melburnian's unprecedented personal access to water, delivering about 136 litres per person per day - only slightly less than the amount the State Government is now recommending Melburnians use.

"For that time that was a huge amount of water, much more than most cities in the world had,"Dingle says.

He believes the mammoth engineering project requiring hundreds of workers was a mark of optimism that defined the era in which it was built.

Today its future is far less certain, and opinions differ broadly as to whether the reservoir still has a place in our water system.

With the reservoir's water supply on hold, some observers believe it should be maintained for its ecological value but the artificial lake should not supply water to Melbourne.

At full capacity the reservoir holds 30,000 megalitres of water, compared with the functioning Thomas Reservoir, which can store more than a million megalitres.

At the time of going to print the Yan Yean reservoir's reserves were down to about 18 per cent.

Associate professor of environmental science Barry Meehan from RMIT University believes the reservoir and catchment area would be better used as a nature reserve. He describes yan Yean as almost redundant as a reservoir.

The reservoir and its catchment area is dwarfed by other dams in Victoria, but from its parched bluestone banks the lake dominates the landscape at the foot of the imposing Disappointment Ranges.

The site is home to a vast array of wildlife free from human interference, including wombats, sea eagles, hawks, ducks and deer.

"They're like little oases, these places. They've been protected from all sorts of activities,"Meehan says. "I do think Yan Yean has another role to play, and I'd like to think these types of treasures would be maintained and preserved."

On the other hand, Melbourne Water is intent on maintaining the dam as a potential source of water supply.

Melbourne Water's manager of water supply, John Woodland, insists the reservoir may still play an important role despite its idle state.

He says Yan Yean is a "key asset"and an important part of the city's system that may yet be used to pipe water to the northern suburbs.

Ďf that water wasn't protected there, it would be lost. Even though we've been through a drought, there is usually great production into that catchment," he says. "Some years we've had huge amounts of water come down through that system, so we've got the ability and flexibility to take that water."

Surrounded by swamp and farmland, the Yan Yean site was chosen because the Plenty River nearby provided consistent flows. The site's height of 183 metres above sea level allows the water to gain sufficient pressure to be piped into Melbourne.

The Yan Yean catchment area covers 2250 hectares, and the dam itself stretches across 963 metres.

The catchment takes in heritate-listed buildings, including the caretaker's cottage and Bear Castle - a small outpost built in 1845 by a local family to guard against bushrangers.

Yan Yean remained Melbourne's main source of water throughout the latter half of the 19th century.

Work began on the reservoir in 1853 to build a massive embankment by clearing a swamp. The lure of the Gold Rush made it difficult to find workers to build the reservoir, but soon a workforce of 400 labourers as well as 100 women and children had moved to the Yan Yean area. A school, shops and pub opened nearby.

Dingle believes the mammoth building task, which required huge amounts of piping to be imported from England, indicated an optimism and confidence in Victoria's future.

"You've got a city which has only been in existence for about 20 years when they decided to go ahead (with the reservoir), so it was a very young place," he says.

The reservoir's role as a water source will most likely be debated for some time, but Dingle believes its historical value is beyond doubt.

"This was a prety spectacular piece of public works. It was the biggest thing in Victoria when it was built."


1853: Construction work begings on the Yan Yean Reservoir with Victorian Governor CJ La Trobe digging the first sod in a ceremony at the site.

1857: The Yan Yean Reservoir is completed and begins pumping water to Melbourne.

1871 - 72: Water from the Yan Yean fails to reach households in Melbourne's east and south east because of low water levels.

1891: As Melbourne's population pushes past 500,000 the Yan Year is supplying about 100,000 households with water.

1939: The catchment area is closed to the public because of concerns about the surrounding environment and wartime security.

1985: The caretaker's house is opened to the public as a visitors' centre offering a snapshot of the site's history.

2007: Yan Yean Reservoir is taken offline because of dwindling water levels.

Carlton Gardens

On December 31, 1857 (New Year's Eve) a crowd of thousands gathered in Carlton Gardens in Melbourne to watch a stream of water flow all the way from the newly built Yan Yean Reservoir, just a few kilometres from Whittlesea.

There had been many naysayers who believed it was impossible to maintain a flow over that distance. The crowd hoped to see an initial dribble of water which over time would grow into a respectable flow. Instead, turning the valve resulted in a powerful spout of water which spouted high into the air, drenching the bystanders and turning the good Victorian ladies present into the competitors in Melbourne’s first wet t-shirt competition.


Yan Yean is still part of Melbourne’s water supply and is a popular park with picnic and BBQ facilities.

The views across the water to the hills are beguiling, especially when a sea eagle drops from the sky to clutch a fish in its talons. Other water birds such as grebes, herons and kingfishers can be seen on and around Yan Yean and a mob of Eastern Grey kangaroos are often grazing by the shores.

Yan Yean Reservoir Park, Recreation Road, Yan Yean, 9am-5 pm,
(open until 6pm during daylight savings)

50 Dunnetts Rd  Yan Yean Victoria 3755 | View Map New Window

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