The History of Irrigation
Home > Personal Memories > John Rourke

John Rourke

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.


Key topics: rice growing, rice harvesting, privatisation, advisory board, asset register.

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 finishing touches.
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 the Fields.
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 Resources.
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 to cost.
The government saw from the Advisory Board, that the irrigators could manage, and I think the government thought, well, here's 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.



You'll need to get the Flash Player to hear the audio.

ng issues with this audio player, please click here to download the MP3 sound file and listen to it on your computer's media player.