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
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
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