The History of Irrigation
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Disputed waters

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Debate about control of the nation’s water resources, and the Murray River in particular, is said to have almost derailed Federation. The conflict was most divisive between NSW and South Australia.

NSW wanted the water for irrigation and closer settlement. Sir Henry Parkes had already claimed for NSW the “care of the river” to the South Australian border.

South Australia wanted to ensure enough water remained in the river to continue its highly profitable river boat trading.

Despite Federation, there was still no agreement on the waters of the Murray River by 1902. Landholders in the Berrigan and Finley district, in the grip of severe drought, were among those lobbying vigorously for a decision.

Their agitation resulted in the convening of the Corowa Water Conservation Conference in 1902. Landholders proposed a major canal stretching from the Murray near Berrigan through Finley and north to the Billabong Creek.

While their proposal failed to progress, the conference did launch the 1902 Lyne Royal Commission to consider the conservation and distribution of the Murray and its tributaries for irrigation, navigation and water supply.

In areas where water was not in dispute, including the Murrumbidgee in NSW, northern Victoria and parts of South Australia, irrigation development began in earnest.

It was not until 1915, following another three years of severe drought when even the Murray ceased to flow, that the States and Commonwealth finally signed the Murray River Agreement which outlined a program of works for water conservation and navigation.


Paddle steamers trading up and down the Murray River were an important part of the South Australian economy at the start of the 20th century. Photo: MIL Collection.

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