John Rourke moved from the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA) to
the Murray Irrigation Districts when the Lawson Syphons opened in
1955 as a contract share-farmer. He later bought his own property
and became a member of the Department of Water Resources' Murray
Irrigation Area and Districts Advisory Board, which was instrumental
in driving the privatisation of the irrigation system, now operating
as Murray Irrigation Limited, under irrigator ownership.
The following text is based on an edited transcript of an interview
recorded with Mr John Rourke, in January 2005.
I came to the Deniliquin area because at the time there
was a lot of talk about opening up irrigation west of Deniliquin.
Ian Bolton was the manager of the Water Resources here at the time
and he told me that there was a lot of country to be opened west.
So I stayed for a day and went out and saw a lot of properties,
and I spoke to the Fields at Warbreccan. And at the time they
were more grazing people, but they were interested in the development,
and I asked them about growing rice and they said, yes, they would
be interested. This is around about 1955- the year they opened the
[Lawson] Syphon, because I remember I went out and had a look at
the syphon just before it was completed, and they were doing the
So, anyhow, I decided then to come down to Deniliquin, and in
those days the machinery was pretty ordinary. There was a lot
of steel wheeled machinery and that sort of stuff I had, and I got
it unloaded at the railway station, and of course the next thing
was to take it out to Barham Road to Falonville, that was owned by
And I had it all hooked up, one behind the other, all this machinery,
and I thought, well, I'd better go round to the police station
and find out about how I should do this. So, the old police
station was where the old gaol was in Deniliquin. Anyhow, Bill
Woodnuff was the policeman in charge and I asked him about removing
this machinery, and his reply was, "Get up early in the morning
and head west". So, that's what I did.
Growing the first rice crop
And I remember growing that first rice crop, I had it planted,
and on the day of turning the wheel on to water the crop for the
first time the channel attendant was Crocker, and he said, "Well,
this is the first rice wheel that's been turned on west of
Deniliquin on that [Deniboota] scheme".
It was planted by a chap by the name of Tom Flemming with a Tiger
Moth aircraft, and I remember it was a fairly windy day and in those
days they never had spreaders on planes today to spread the seeds,
so it went in fairly heavy, and we grew a fairly good crop but the
next problem was getting it off.
All the rice had to be bagged. In the early headers that we used,
they were all made for bags, and they used to have binning for taking
bags off these bins as they filled them off the header. And
that was quite a big job to sew all these bags and there was a lot
of handling there to do. But when I first came down here there
wasn't one rice installation in Deniliquin at all. In
fact, the first shed that was ever built here was the one on this
end of the rail, it was a seed shed, and then the next ones that
were built, if I remember rightly, were two or three thousand ton
of paddy alongside that shed. The old sheds are there today
on the railway line.
The push for privatisation
We always reckoned years ago that water was too dear,
we thought we could run [the system] cheaper than the Water
When it first started I remember there was an asset
register put out by the Water Resources, and with that
asset register it was quite a thick sort of a book with
all the things that was wrong with the system. And
I think it might have even more or less frightened a lot
of irrigators, that it was going to cost such a vast amount
of money there to fix up.
At that particular time my brother-in-law [Brain Pearson] was
head engineer in New South Wales of Bridge Construction, in the state
government. And on that Advisory Board we got him here to look
into this asset register. We brought him down, and he could see where
there was a lot of things that didn't want fixing at all, and
if they did want fixing there was ways of making it a lot cheaper,
you know, of doing things.
For example, the Water Resources engineer said that the 17 checks
in the Mulwala canal possibly should be taken out and renewed because
they were old, and that they would fail. Brian Pearson, he
asked the question, "Has any tests been put on them?" and
they said, "No, there hadn't been". So, they
put tests on them and they were as solid as the day they put them
there, when they did the tests. So, the only changes that took
place after that was that they put the radial doors in. Instead
of taking the water over the top, they took it underneath. And
that was a big saving, I think about $17 million at the time, because
that's what the Commission at the time suggested it was going
The government saw from the Advisory Board, that the irrigators
could manage, and I think the government thought, well,
an opportunity. Over time they've opted out and let private
enterprise take over. And it's up to the irrigators now
to decide. You know, they can choose who they want in the Board
and how they want the whole system to run. It's back
on the irrigators now.