WHEN a lifelong Waratah resident discovered the big concrete water reservoirs behind the Calvary Mater Hospital were empty, she got the shock of her life.
"We're only three streets away, and until the other day we thought they still had water, and so did all my neighbours, I can tell you," the resident said.
Worried that the empty reservoirs were a sign of water shortage at a time of drought and bushfires, she called the Newcastle Herald.
Although the reservoirs can be seen from nearby Braye Park, many people would be unaware of their existence.
Hunter Water says the four reservoirs were decommissioned in the early 1990s because of increasing leaks and "water-quality risks associated with open reservoirs".
"We were able to provide sufficient storage for the water supply network through the North Lambton reservoir, and by increasing capacity at South Wallsend," Hunter Water said.
"Localised demand also fell with the closure of manufacturing facilities over the past two decades."
Waratah's first reservoir was in Braye Park, described in an undated and anonymous History of Waratah as dating from 1902 and made of "brick with a concrete cover".
The first of the four adjoining reservoirs was designated No.2 when built in 1919. It was followed by No.3 in 1926, No.4 in 1927 and No.5 in 1930.
Hunter Water says it has 90 reservoirs all told, with 75 operational.
It says the Waratah reservoirs were only ever a storage facility. No water could run into them from a catchment area.
Using them again would not "increase drought resilience" in the region.
It says the two reservoirs closest to the Mater, No.2 and No.3, were transferred to the Hunter New England Health District in 2015, after a study in 2010 to "understand the immediate and long term issues with the reservoirs site".
The study put the cost of repairing the two reservoirs at more than $21 million.
From the first it was realised that the hill at Waratah would be an ideal site for reservoirsHistory of Waratah
"To be clear, there was no intention to bring them online at the time, nor is there now, as they would have limited operational benefit and cost our customers a considerable amount of money to repair," Hunter Water says, saying the study was part of its due diligence before the land transfer to Hunter Health.
Hunter Health says it took six months to turn one reservoir into a car park for Mater staff, freeing up other Mater parking and taking the total number of spaces to 970.
Access was cut through to the adjoining reservoir but Hunter Health says it has no immediate plans for this area.
As an indication of the region's water needs, Hunter Water says the reservoirs have a combined capacity of 179 million litres, or "less than one day's average water demand for the region".
Hunter Water annual reports show the organisation typically supplies 200 million litres a day to the Newcastle, Lake Macquarie, Maitland, Cessnock and Port Stephens local government areas.
The History of Waratah says Waratah pioneers found their first water in natural springs and "shallow wells". Later, water tanks were "chiefly combined to the better class of houses".
Others paid "nine pence to a shilling per hogshead for water of doubtful quality".
The Hunter District Water Supply and Sewerage Board was founded in 1892 and took over Maitland's Walka Water Works - Newcastle's main reticulated water source at the time - as well as reservoirs at Buttai and East Maitland.
"From the first it was realised that the hill at Waratah would be an ideal site for reservoirs," the history says.
"The first million gallon (4.5 million litre) reservoir on Waratah hill, built of brick with concrete cover, was ready for use by November 1905. It was not intended that this would be sufficient."
BHP's Newcastle steelworks and a growing population led to the construction of Chichester Dam, finished in December 1924.
The second, 1919, Waratah reservoir, held eight million gallons (36 million litres).
All up, the four held 39.4 million gallons - the equivalent of 179 million litres, the same volume quoted by Hunter Water.
Correction: The print edition of this article wrongly numbers the Hunter Health reservoirs in the sentences relating to the car park work.
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