Beetaloo Dam, history, photos, comments

Beetaloo Dam is on the Crystal Brook about 25 kilometres north of the town of Crystal Brook. It is open to visitors outside of the fire danger season.

Copper was discovered at Moonta on what is now called South Australia's Copper Coast in 1861 (see Wikipedia).

It was also quickly discovered that dams in the area were of little value and all the groundwater was very saline. The desperation for water was such that sea water was boiled and the steam condensed as a source of drinkable water or it was carted many kilometres by bullock dray from the limited supplies available 80 or more kilometres away at 'The Rocks' on the Wakefield River and other places.

It was eventually decided that it would be worth building a dam on the upper reaches of the Crystal Brook, inland from Port Pirie, and piping the water from there, a distance of something like 120 kilometres.

The dam also supplied water to Port Pirie, many small towns and a wide area of farmland.

An article on "The Great Dam at Beetaloo, Australia" is freely available as a pdf file from an 1891 issue of Scientific American. The SciAm article gives plans of the dam and said that around 255 miles (425 kilometres) of pipeline carried water from Beetaloo.

The SA Water page on Mid North South Australian dams states:

"Beetaloo Reservoir is located at Crystal Brook [actually it is 19 kilometres north of Crystal Brook], 19 kilometres east of Port Pirie and was built between 1886 and 1890 to provide a water supply for the Yorke Peninsula. The cost of construction was $331,200. The mid-1880s was a time of high unemployment in parts of South Australia, especially among stone masons and general labourers, so the original plan was to build the new reservoir out of masonry. However, after opening seven new quarries in an effort to find suitable stone for the wall, masonry was abandoned in favour of concrete. In an effort to help the unemployed labourers, the start of the project was rushed to such an extent that the workers and supervisors were already on site before the final drawings had been prepared. Tragedy struck during construction in 1886 when 65mm of rain with hail "the size of tomatoes" fell on the catchment in the space of two hours. A worker named Wilson trying to cross the swollen creek was swept to his death by the resultant floodwaters.

At the time of construction Beetaloo was the largest concrete dam in the southern hemisphere.

Capacity: 3180 megalitres
Catchment area: 4,814 ha
Length of wall: 210.3m
Height of wall: 33.5m
Type of wall: Curved concrete gravity
Area of water spread: 33 hectares"
The capacity given above is that of the reservoir as originally constructed. It was substantially reduced when the spillway was lowered, around 1978. I have not been able to find any official figure for the reduced capacity of the reservoir.

Open hours (maybe)

As of July 2018, it was advertised that the viewing area would be open to the public from 1st May to 1 November, from 9am to 3.30pm on weekdays and 9am to 5pm on weekends and public holidays (unless it is closed for some reason). If the dam is closed to the public there is a gate that is locked before the first picnic and parking area.

This page created 2014/05/07, last edited 2022/01/23
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

This section added

A similar project: Mundaring dam in Western Australia

Curiously, the best source of information on the details of Mundaring Weir that I was able to find was PerthGirl.
Beetaloo dam was built in the late 1980s to provide water to mining towns 120 kilometres to the west; Mundaring dam (or Mundaring weir as it is locally called) was built in the late 1890s to provide water to mining towns 600 kilometres to the east (on the opposite side of 'the Nullarbor' from Beetaloo). Both dams were built in relatively wet areas to supply water to much drier areas. Both were concrete gravity dams and were advanced for their times.

Interestingly Mundaring dam was raised in the late 1940s to increase the reservoir capacity while Beetaloo dam was lowered in 1978 because of concerns over the stability of the wall.

Beetaloo - 3,180 megalitres (before lowering the wall); Mundaring - 63,600 ML (after raising the wall?)

Beetaloo - 4,814 ha, Mundaring - 1,470 square kilometres (147,000 ha)

Wall height:
Beetaloo - 33.5m (before lowering the wall); Mundaring - 42m (after raising the wall?)

Google Earth images of Beetaloo dam

Google Earth image
A Google Earth image of the dam and reservoir.

The dam is 19 kilometres north of Crystal Brook, as the crow flys.

Google Earth image
Google Earth again; more detail in the dam wall area

The four sections of the spillway can be seen on the left. The three newer sections are between the four parallel walls. The remaining part of the old, higher, spillway is on the left side of the left-most of these walls.

Drone photos taken 2018/07/10

Click on (or touch) the images to see in high definition
Dam and reservoir
Beetaloo dam
The remaining section of the original spillway is dark grey and is on the left, the newer, lower spillway is adjacent.

From a different angle
Beetaloo dam
This is a composite of two photos and has made the dam appear to curve in the opposite direction to the actual very slight curve.

The spillway and picnic shed
Spillway area
The picnic shed (and the ugly and unnecessary fence that spoils the view) on the left, the remaining section of the old spillway is adjacent to that, the lowered section of spillway on the right. The concrete blocks on the spillway are there to slow the water that flows over the spillway and reduce erosion.

Note the section of the original, higher, spillway on the left and the lowered section on the right.

Scientific American sketch

From Scientific American
A drawing from an 1891 issue of Scientific American. The article was titled "The Great Dam at Beetaloo, Australia".

Main photo section

The spillways. The nearer one is the remaining part of the original. Beyond that the spillway sections were lowered around 1978 when there were concerns about the soundness of the wall.

My visit on this occasion followed the Bangor fire of January and February 2014. Some of the fire-damaged trees can be seen in this image.

This, and the next few photos were taken on 2014/05/04.

The reservoir
Beetaloo Reservoir

Looking north from the right abutment of the dam.

There had been substantial recent rain and the reservoir level was fairly high.

Beetaloo Dam
From near the right abutment, the top of the lowered spillways and part of the main wall.

I believe that the cement required for the wall was imported from Germany in barrels.

Beetaloo Dam
Two of the three sections of the lowered spillway; the third section, and the old spillway, are hidden behind the walls in the further part of the image.

Beetaloo Dam
The downstream side of the dam wall.

The white material is mineral carbonate that has leached out of tiny cracks in the dam wall. There is very little flow of water through these cracks.

At around the time that the spillway was lowered a diamond drilling rig was used to drill a number of holes from the top to the bottom of the dam and cement grout was injected in an attempt to reduce the seepage. I don't know if this achieved anything.

Beetaloo Dam
Looking back toward the spillways and right abutment from about the centre of the wall.

Beetaloo Dam
There had been three unusually big rains in 2014 to the time of these photos. The first was in mid February, then early April, and the last – a few days before these photos – in late April-early May.

The reservoir would have overflowed if water had not been released. Water was still being released when these photos were taken.

Beetaloo Dam
A telephoto shot from near the left abutment

Beetaloo Dam
Downstream side of the dam

Beetaloo Dam
Showing a little more of the downstream side of the dam

Beetaloo Dam
Downstream side of the dam from the south-east. Some of the bushfire damage from the Bangor fire of January and February can be seen in the foreground and background.

Beetaloo Dam
The four sections of the spillway. The remaining part of the original spillway is on the left.

There is a large and deep erosion channel which was washed out many years ago just behind where I was standing when I took this photo.

Beetaloo Dam
Part of the new spillway is in the foreground, the old spillway in the background.

Beetaloo Dam
The lower part of the new spillway in the foreground, with the remaining part of the old spillway behind.

Beetaloo Dam
Downstream side of the dam

Beetaloo Dam
The old spillway. Since a new spillway was built at a metre or so lower level in about 1978. Following that this spillway will only spill water in rare and extremely high flows.

Beetaloo Dam

Photos taken 2015/09/06 when the dam was overflowing

The new viewing area and the (quite unnecessary and very annoying) new fence.

Note the gap large enough for people to squeeze through beneath the fence on the right. By July 2018 this had been blocked with barbed wire, but a large gate to the left of this area was being left open for fishers to enter.

Beetaloo Dam
Flowing over the spillway that was lowered in about 1978. Note the remaining section of the old higher spillway on the right.

Compare this with the old photos of the dam overflowing before the spillway was lowered.

Beetaloo Dam
The overflow itself

Beetaloo Dam
The full reservoir, 2015/09/06

Picnic shed area
Picnic shed
Showing the fence and open gate
Click (or touch) for a high definition image

I think it was in early 2018 that a government decision was made to open the three reservoirs in the Mid North of South Australia – Beetaloo, Baroota and Bundaleer – for recreational fishing.

So after going to great expense to build about 700m of fences to keep people out (incidentally spoiling their views of the dam and reservoir) the gate was left open.

Barbed wire
Barbed wire blocking a place where people used to crawl through (before the gate was left open).

Dogs aren't allowed into the picnic area, I can't imagine the justification for this. The SA government internet page on Beetaloo says that "they can carry harmful organisms that can easily contaminate the water", although they say nothing about what these organisms are or whether they are a problem in reservoirs not used for human water supplies (such as Beetaloo). Are we to believe that water birds, kangaroos and reptiles don't carry these organism? Are we to believe that these organisms don't live in the many square kilometres of bush from which runoff flows into the reservoir?

The government page also fails to tell us why dogs are not allowed in the picnic area which is many hundreds of metres downstream from the reservoir. (Is Australia the least dog-friendly country in the world?)

This dog couldn't read the signs.

Mustn't let kids have fun; they might bump their heads.
Our kids used to love playing in this little cave.

Not to be taken literally
Signs such as this have been displayed in Laura and several places in the Beetaloo Dam area. While they say that "All visitors require a current RecFishSA fishing permit" I believe that this is only if you want to go beyond the viewing area that overlooks the dam (or perhaps only if you are intending to fish?). SA Water seem to have a nack of saying one thing on their signs and meaning another – see below.

There is beautiful bushwalking country near and upstream of the reservoir, but again, people aren't allowed in. Why? Who knows?

Dogs too are not allowed; no swimming, no camping. Why? Who knows?

Historic photos

The photos in this section are copied from prints that Alan Matthews of Crystal Brook found. I have very little information about them, other than what can be deduced from the photos themselves.

They were taken during and shortly after dam construction, in the late 1880s. Photography was very primitive by modern standards at that time. Glass plates would probably have been used, and it was only in the 1870s that 'dry plates' that could be stored rather than prepared immediately before the photography were developed.

Beetaloo dam site
The Beetaloo dam site

Beetaloo village
The Beetaloo construction village


Beetaloo quarry
Workers in the quarry.

Beetaloo hunters
Some of the dam construction workers with the results of a hunt: several kangaroos and possums, I can't make out what the man in the centre-left is holding.

Beetaloo construction
The dam under construction with some of the works buildings behind


Beetaloo tunnel
Workers in front of the tunnel for releasing water from the reservoir

Beetaloo stone laying
Stone laying.

It looks to me like the timber frame used to support the block and tackle would be as heavy, or heavier, than the stones that are being laid. It's hard to imagine how it would have been easily moved to where it was needed.

Beetaloo dam completed
The completed dam

Some of the village in the background


Beetaloo full and overflowing

Water flowing over the original spillway

The reservoir full and overflowing; photo probably taken a few years after construction.

Compare this with the photo of overflowing from the lowered spillway.

Beetaloo full and overflowing
This photo was probably originally a 35mm slide and must have been taken before 1978. Note that the spillway had not yet been lowered and that there is a walkway across the spillways, I don't know when that was built.


Beetaloo spillway work

Lowering the spillway

This photo was probably taken months or a year or so after the one above. Here the spillway is in the process of being lowered.

Mixed messages, October 2016

Net page
I decided to visit the reservoir on 2016/10/18 because the recent rains would have filled it; in most years there is not enough run-off for it to fill.

I looked up the Net page to check that it would be open to the public (it has been open to the public during the non fire-ban season, so far as I know for the last several years, and this was outside the fire-ban season).

The Net page (a part of which is shown on the right) said it was open.

So I drove to the reservoir. I came across the sign shown on the right 7 kilometres before the reservoir; again, it said that the reservoir was open, but then it said that it was closed as well as open (it brings to mind Schrodinger's cat doesn't it).

I continued on until I came to a closed gate. I asked a bloke who was with a team doing some fencing on the far side of the gate what the story was. He told me that SA Water were working on the road into the reservoir and that the area was closed to the public while the work was done.

This section added

Environmental water release

On 2021/11/01 many people in Crystal Brook (myself included) were surprised to see water flowing in the brook on the upstream side of the town.

Apparently this was due to a release of water from the Beetaloo reservoir to give some relief to the many red gums lining the brook. They had suffered from decreasing flows down the brook for many years.

Decreased flows in Crystal Brook

Starting in 1989 and continuing until my retirement in 2003 (from the groundwater division of the Department of Mines and Energy) I monitored the flow and salinity of the Crystal Brook at Bowman Park, about five kilometres upstream of the town of Crystal Brook. Unfortunately, while I recorded the flow rates, they seem not to be available on the WaterConnect site. (The Unit Numbers of the sampling points are 6531-1284 and 6531-1285.) The salinity increased by around 20% over the period.

From memory, during at least the earlier part of that time there was typically a flow of about three litres per second even in late summer. By 2010 (or earlier) summer flows had ceased. By the time of writing this section even winter flows in Bowman Park were unusual and there was only one small pond in the summer. There is no doubt in my mind that the decreased flow and increasing salinity are due to climate change.

Other reservoirs in the same region: Baroota, Bundaleer


Net page
The image to the right was taken from SA Water's Internet site in October 2016.

Schrodinger's bloody cat was there before me! Not open to the public, but feel free to visit any time of the day or night!

As of February 2020 Baroota Reservoir was being considered as a site for a pumped hydro energy storage scheme. In the proposal a second reservoir would be built at the top of the adjacent range. Water would be pumped from the lower to the upper storage when electricity was plentiful and cheap and it would flow down through turbines to generate electricity when it was in high demand and expensive.


This reservoir was constructed between 1898 and 1903, its capacity is 6.3 GL. The reservoir and its vicinity are open to the public for walking, fishing, canoeing and kayaking.

More information can be found on the government Net site.

Spaniards Gully

I had not heard of Spaniards Gully Native Forest Reserve until October 2020 and do not know how Spaniards Gully came to apparently have the Beetaloo alternative name. For some reason it was getting some publicity in October 2020.

A Northern Forest Native Forest Reserves Resource Document about the Wirrabara Range, Spaniards Gully and King Tree Native Forest Reserves was published in March 2011. It stated:

"Spaniards Gully, also known by the locality name, Beetaloo, comprises 531ha of native vegetation, managed for conservation purposes."

"The Beetaloo Reservoir Reserve (5,095ha) managed by SA Water adjoins the southern boundary of Wirrabara Range and the southern and western boundary of Spaniards Gully."
It is probably not legally accessible from the Beetaloo Dam area.