For decades in the Gouburn Murray Irrigation District, water bailiffs knew every irrigator in their section personally; they knew their family dog, kids and chickens.
It was a time when the Goulburn-Murray Water delivery system was maintained and operated by hand, orders were made in writing and upgrades were custom-built on-site in Tatura. Just ask David Dowell. Or “Dowelly” as he is known.
David, 56, is one of four members of the Dowell family, spanning three generations during six decades, who helped build, operate and maintain the delivery system. Just like the farming families who have been in the district for generations, so too have the Dowell family, passing invaluable knowledge down the line. And they still do.
In 1983 when the Goulburn Weir was refurbished, David worked for State Rivers as a labourer. He went on to the precast yard in Tatura as a 21-year-old building new infrastructure such as bridge beams, bank seats and pits from concrete and steel.
He followed in the footsteps of his father, Maxwell Earnest Dowell, who spent 38 years in a construction gang starting in 1968 working across the GMID. And, his Uncle George (Ozzie) Dowell, who began in 1958, delivering heavy equipment and structures made from concrete or steel by truck to job sites.
These days, as Water Operations Coordinator, one of David’s roles is to host international tours visiting the GMID giving him an outsider’s perspective on the water industry.
"I’ve always said this; water is liquid gold,” David said.
“GMW’s role as operator of the system, providing access to water at an affordable price is crucial to the future of this community.”
David has seen irrigation unite communities keen to get the most from the system, especially during his years as water bailiff and planner from 1988-2009.
“I was shown how to run section nine around Toolamba. I had to drive around to the little red letterboxes in my section. The farmers would put their order in a book which they placed in the letter box. I then wrote each order in a ledger to try and match start events with finish events,” David said.
“You would have to balance your channel flows. Then you drove around and informed the farmer what time he could start. Sometimes, neighbouring farmers would converse with each other as they knew where their water was coming from and work out a different start time if someone wanted to go a bit longer or shorter.
“I’d stay for a coffee occasionally and if someone didn’t understand something I would be able to explain it to them in layman’s terms.”
It is not surprising that David’s son Patrick Dowell, 30, now works in customer service continuing the family relationship with GMW and he says his father, David takes deep pride in his work.
“He knows the system like the back of his hand; he knows most irrigators on the old Rodney side of the Central Goulburn system and where their water comes from,” Patrick said.
“I remember every Christmas up until I was probably nine, Dad getting up around 4.30am so he could be home a bit earlier after doing his morning checks.”
Automation has brought major change this century and with it, better quality of life for the irrigator while the water bailiff is no longer needed for manual labour at all hours of the day and night.
“For the farmer, it means being able to take the family out, take their wives away for the weekend and not worrying about the outlet opening and closing,” David said.
“People around here are doing things differently on their farms now too. They have adapted over the years to be more efficient.
“They started looking at ways to save water – like the orchardists have all been able to use less water by going with the trickle. There’s no more flood irrigation for them.”
For Patrick working at GMW is rewarding and he is able to share his knowledge with those who need it.
“I like to work in a place that provides a good service to the community by keeping food and produce in the region that is so lucky to be ‘fed’ with water,” Patrick said.
“What I enjoy most about my role is helping the customer that doesn’t understand what their entitlements mean and how the system works.”