The History of Irrigation
Historic Irrigation Montage

Drought spreads across southern NSW. Landholders begin serious lobbying of the NSW Government seeking the development of irrigation in the region.


The Federation Drought again decimates the NSW Riverina landscape. There is growing conflict along river and creeks systems over water and landholders increase the intensity of their efforts to have dams and irrigation systems built to secure more reliable water supplies.


Federation:  After considerable debate about control of the nation’s water resources, and the use of the Murray River’s water in particular, the new Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900, Section 100 provided the protection of the States’ rights to the “reasonable use of the water of rivers for conservation or irrigation”.


The Corowa Water Conservation Conference was held in Corowa, NSW, attended by State Premiers and the Prime Minister.  The conference agreed to a Royal Commission “to inquire and report on the conservation and distribution of the Murray and its tributaries for the purpose of irrigation, navigation and water supply.”


NSW begins development of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. 


Construction of Burrinjuck Dam begins to supply water for the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area


The NSW Water Act is gazetted, creating the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission which is to oversee the development and operation of irrigation in state for more than 60 years.


The Murray and Edward Rivers cease to flow because of severe drought. 


World War 1:  Australian troops are called to arms.


NSW, Victoria, South Australia and the Commonwealth finally reach agreement on the sharing of the Murray Rivers resources and the River Murray Waters Agreement is enacted.  Plans are drawn for a series of storages which include Hume Dam which will hold 1,360,000ML, Yarrawonga Weir, Lake Victoria and a series of locks and weirs along the Murray to enhance navigation.


The first sod is turned in the construction of Hume Dam.


The Government begins serious implementation of its closer settlement policy, resuming land from larger properties for lease or sale to settlers, and particularly soldier settlers.  However drought and the lack of reliable water causes some settlers, particularly in the Wakool region, to abandon their properties.


First water is released from Hume Dam.


The NSW Government announces it will begin development of the first large scale irrigation scheme to make use of water from the Murray River. This is the Wakool Irrigation District Stock and Domestic Irrigation District.


Construction of Wakool Irrigation District begins. Before a crowd of 400 NSW Premier Bertram Stevens drives in the first pile to begin the building of Steven’s Weir on the Edward River, downstream of Deniliquin which will regulate flows for the Wakool Irrigation District.


Premier Bertram Stevens turns the first sod in the construction of the Mulwala Canal at Mulwala in April. The first water is supplied to farms through the Wakool Stock and Domestic Water Supply and Irrigation District. Construction of Yarrawonga Weir on the Murray River begins. The weir is to create a pool capacity of 120,000ML.


Hume Dam completed, to stage one, with a capacity of 1,540,000ML, slightly increased on the original proposal.


Yarrawonga Weir is completed. The first stage of the Berriquin Irrigation District, which reaches Finley, is officially opened by the NSW Premier Alex Mair. Construction begins on the Lawson Syphons to provide water to the Deniboota Irrigation District. Premier Alex Mair turns the first sod in August. Work was expected to take four years to complete. World War II begins, resulting in shortages in labour, materials for construction projects, and some foods across the nation.


Construction of the Lawson Syphons is suspended. Experimental rice production began at Tulla Estate, near Wakool. This followed a request from the Commonwealth to the NSW Government and WC&IC to increase rice production to aid wartime food shortages and marked the beginning of rice growing in the Wakool District. Rice production had previously been prohibited in the Murray.


Drought again bites deeply across most of south eastern Australia.


Work resumes on the Lawson Syphons and Deniboota Irrigation Scheme with the appointment of a resident engineer.


The Tullakool Irrigation Area is established for soldier settlement as part of the Government’s Home Maintenance policy.  The Government also creates subdivisions in other areas for soldier settlement including land near Blighty.


Flooding, material and plant shortages, and industrial disputes hamper construction of the Lawson Syphons.


Work begins on construction of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Construction of Mulwala Canal and Deniboota Main Canal are complete.


The arrival of immigrants provide labour for wFloods continue to stop work periodically on the Lawson Syphons and labor shortages also hamper construction. The arrival of migrants helps to ease labor problems. Although the NSW Government is having trouble raising loan funds for infrastructure projects, the Lawson Syphons and Deniboota Scheme are high on its priority list. Construction at the syphon goes to three shifts, 24 hours a day.


The official opening of the Lawson Syphons is conducted by NSW Premier, Hon John Cahill in April, with the first water available to 40 holdings in Deniboota District.


There is record flooding in the Edward and Murray Rivers. Small pockets of land show signs of salinisation, as flood waters mobilise salts in the soil.

Mid 1960s

The recurrence of drought and water shortages raise concerns about Murray River water sharing arrangements, as demand outstrips supply for the first time.


Volumetric water allocations are introduced in the Area and Districts.  Subdivisions are no longer automatically entitled to additional water rights.


Major flooding again affects the region.  Rising watertables and increasing salinisation are identified as significant issues which could affect the health of the landscape.


Construction of Stage 1 of the Wakool Tullakool Sub Surface Drainage Scheme begins.  The scheme is designed to reduce the levels of highly saline groundwater in the Wakool District which is threatening the health of the local landscape.


Dartmouth Dam is completed with a capacity off 3,906,000ML.  Water entitlements are increased.


Irrigators take a “no pay” stand against proposed water price increases. The Government establishes Irrigation Management Advisory Boards allowing irrigators greater involvement in the operation of the irrigation supply system. The Federal Government, NSW, Victoria and South Australia sign the Murray Darling Basin Agreement to develop integrated management for the basin’s natural resources. MORE...


Queensland and the ACT are now also signatories to the agreement. Hydrological modelling predicts that up to half of the region may be affected by watertables within 2 metres of the surface by 2020.


Stage 2 of the Wakool Tullakool Sub Surface Evaporation Scheme begins.  Work is completed by 1992.


The findings of a detailed NSW Government inquiry leads to the separation of the State’s regulatory and commercial operation.  Irrigators ask government to consider privatisation.


Landholders begin to develop regional strategies to deal with rising water tables which threaten productivity.  These strategies evolve into the Murray Land and Water Management Plans.


Box Creek Drainage Channel was built, draining land on the southern side of the Mulwala Canal between Finley and Blighty.


Discussion between local Irrigation Management Boards and government produces framework for legislation which will allow privatisation to proceed. The Barmah Millewa Forest is granted the first “environmental allocation” of water to help restore forest and wetland health.


Murray Irrigation Limited is formed on March 3.  The company’s operating licence conditions include implementation of the $498 million, 30 year Murray Land and Water Management Plans, with a pledge of $116 million State and Federal funding over the first 15 years.


Murray Darling Basin Cap on extractions is introduced, limiting the volume of water extracted from the Murray River system to the 1993/94 level of development.


The Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council establishes The Living Murray which aims to maintain and improve the health of the River Murray System. Widespread drought affects the region with record low rainfall and record low water allocations for irrigation.


The Federal and State Governments commit to the National Water Initiative, giving irrigators more security over their entitlements, but also seeking to expand water trading and provide water allocations to the environment.


Federal Government announces National Plan for Water Security

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The Murray Region

The Murray Region has a large and varied food processing industry and a strong agricultural heritage...

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Historic Map of the Murray Region

Sponsored by Murray Irrigation


The irrigation system in the NSW Murray Valley was developed by the NSW Government between the 1930s and 1960s...

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In 2005 Murray Irrigation undertook an oral history project to record memories of irrigation development and the impact it had on the region...

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