Critical Events for the Murray Darling Basin

Timeline - The River Murray and irrigation – South Australia

Pre European settlement


Matthew Flinders and Nicholas Baudin explore "unknown southern coast'; mouth of Murray not detected


Charles Sturt's expedition (1829-30) traces the Murrumbidgee River downstream to its junction with the River Murray, and then follows the Murray, reaching the Murray Mouth on Feb 12, 1830

European Settlement

1863 Intercolonial Conference on navigation and management of River Murray; representatives from SA, NSW, Victoria. The River Murray provides the main transport and trade corridor between the States and is particularly important to South Australia and its economy

Self Sufficiency of the Colony / Development of Transport


SA Royal Commission on River Murray to investigate issues of irrigation and navigation reflecting concern that the development of irrigation upstream would threaten the navigability of the River Murray and therefore the SA economy


Irrigation of horticultural crops in the Riverland commenced in a significant way with the establishment of Renmark by the Chaffey Brothers


Village settlements established by SA Government at Gillen, Pyap, Lyrup, Murtho, New Era, Waikerie, Ramco, Holder, Kingston, Moorook (all established in 1894) and New Residence (established in 1895). Most of the settlements had difficulty in pumping water from the river; some were abandoned, some absorbed into subsequent irrigation districts, while Lyrup continues today; and despite enormous difficulties further demonstrated that irrigation could be successfully established


Prolonged drought (the Federation Drought)


Australasian Federal Convention sessions in Adelaide and Sydney - River Murray management discussed. SA’s interest in the River Murray was primarily as a transport link with little requirement for irrigation and water supply; hence the emphasis on maintaining a navigable depth in the river and the requirement for weirs and locks. The consideration of irrigation development subsequently arose – particularly after WW1; and for water supply after WW2 following the construction of the barrages and the resulting protection of water quality in the lower reaches, necessary if water was to be diverted to Adelaide


The Commonwealth of Australia inaugurated on 1 January

Free trade established between States


Corowa Water Conference. The Conference was initiated by NSW interests in irrigation development and water security during drought; its importance shown by attendance by the Premiers of NSW and Victoria, and the SA Attorney-General. Led to the Interstate Royal Commission on waters of River Murray for purpose of irrigation, navigation and water supply


Interstate Royal Commission on waters of River Murray for purpose of irrigation, navigation and water supply. The Royal Commission laid the groundwork and set the framework out for the management arrangements subsequently set in the River Murray Agreement, that endure to today – the waters of the River Murray and its tributaries shared equally by NSW and Vic; with an agreed allocation to SA provided equally by NSW and Vic; the water sharing arrangements to be managed by an independent body


High Court established


SA Government begins draining of Lower Murray wetlands near Murray Bridge, Mannum and Wellington for irrigation agriculture – some private drainage of wetlands occurred earlier


On-going dissatisfaction from SA on the water management arrangements for the River Murray. SA government retains legal counsel for a possible High Court challenge to proposed irrigation projects in Victoria – legal opinions tabled in SA House of Assembly in July 1906

Research and Irrigation


Development of dried fruits industries at Renmark and Mildura; Australian Dried Fruits Association formed by grower associations from both towns


SA Government begins to establish irrigated fruit blocks in Riverland. Kingston, Waikerie, Moorook, Ramco and Holder (former village settlements) reor-ganized. Irrigation is generally organized in district or community schemes as a central pumping system could be utilised to lift water from the River, with channels (later pipelines) to distribute the water by gravity to individual farms. Disadvantages of this approach included the roster supply system and de-pendence on gravity irrigation practices


Berri established as irrigation settlement


Further disagreement between the states regarding arrangements to manage the waters of the River Murray. Premiers Conference agrees a State Engi-neers report on management of the River Murray; and for SA to utilise Lake Victoria, upstream of the SA border, for water storage


Capt EN Johnston of US Army Corps of Engineers employed by SA Government to prepare plan for series of locks and weirs to improve navigation of River Murray


Construction of Lock 1 at Blanchetown begins


End of most commercial navigation on Murray-Darling system


River Murray Waters Agreement on management and sharing of waters of the River Murray signed by the governments of Australia, NSW, Victoria and SA, on 9 September, providing for the construction of a number of storages, weirs and locks; and other matters including the distribution of waters. After 12 years the recommendations of the 1902 Royal Commission agreed and formalised between the States. The Agreement includes minimum monthly volumes to be provided to SA


River Murray Waters Act (Cwth). Ratifies the 1914 Agreement through passage of legislation by each of the States, and the Commonwealth


The River Murray Commission established to put the River Murray Waters Agreement into effect, particularly to ensure that each state receives its agreed share of the Murray's water


Cobdogla established as irrigation settlement


Soldier Settlement Bill passed in South Australia; soldier settlement at Kingston, Waikerie, Berri, Cadell, Chaffey (Ral Ral), Renmark, Barmera


First lock and weir completed on River Murray at Blanchetown


Reports of salinity problems related to irrigation at Cobdogla. Irrigation applications generally exceeded the water storage capacity of topsoils resulting in a large proportion of the applied water draining through the rootzone and perching on underlying aquacludes; the resultant shallow watertables that developed led to surface evaporation and soil salinisation. Tile drainage systems connected to a district or comprehensive collection network were necessary to mitigate this problem – until the 1970’s improved irrigation was not understood sufficiently to provide for remediation

Great Depression


River Murray Waters Agreement amended; five barrages to be built near Murray Mouth to prevent seawater entering river system during periods of low river flow


Mount Bold Reservoir in Adelaide Hills opens, with major impact on the water supply to South Australia: Adelaide's water storage capacity is almost doubled

World War 2


Murray Mouth barrages completed to prevent seawater from entering Lower Murray and Lake Alexandrina. SA can now utilize waters below lock 1 without risk of high salinity - commencement of the pipeline construction era


Morgan-Whyalla pipeline completed -supplies Whyalla, Port Pirie, Port Augusta

Post War boom


Loxton and Cooltong soldier settlement schemes


Construction of the Snowy Mountains Scheme begins in southern NSW


Morgan-Whyalla pipeline extended to Woomera


Mannum-Adelaide pipeline begins providing the first water from the River Murray for Adelaide reservoirs


Severe flooding of River Murray for several months. Widespread damage to some Riverland irrigation districts and to the Lower Murray reclaimed swamps when levy banks failed


Golden Heights Irrigation Area (adjacent to Waikerie) established - the first large private irrigation development in SA from the River Murray. Irrigation expansion became possible as new pumping technologies were developed and the power network was expanded. Golden Heights was an initiative of Waikerie irrigators to expand their district under new, private development arrangements. Other new developments by individuals and corporations, of large vineyards and orchards, were being initiated around the same time – partly influenced by availability of electrical power for the pumps, as the state’s electricity grid expanded. The new developments also used new sprinkler irrigation systems, and plastic piping.


Increasing awareness of escalating salinity and drainage problems in Murray-Darling Basin - reports from various state authorities and River Murray Commission


SA proposes construction of Chowilla dam to protect river communities and Adelaide from drought

Rapid technological development


Waters from the Snowy-Murray Development diverted west to the River Murray catchment for the first time


Construction of Chowilla dam ceases due to construction costs and concerns about salinity


Major drought, elevated salinity levels in SA cause significant irrigated crop damage (in the 42 months from Jan 1965 to Jun 1968, the salinity level at Morgan was above 800 EC for 31 months and peaked at 1400 EC in Feb 1968).


SA ceases issuing new water licences for irrigation and in effect caps the volume of water on for irrigation (noting that use could continue to increase to the level of entitlement, which as a total was about 500 GL)


Replacement of Riverland irrigation district channel supply by pipelines commences – Renmark, followed by Kingston (1973), Waikerie (1974), Berri (1981), Cobdogla, Moorook, Cadell, Mypolonga and Loxton (completed 2007). The initial driver for rehabilitation was to reduce the management costs as old channel supply systems failed. However, the rehabilitated schemes could be managed so to provide for water on order and ultimately for much improved water supply and irrigation scheduling, leading to reduced drainage, efficient irrigation and increased productivity


Murray Valley Salinity Investigation (by Gutteridge, Haskins and Davey, published 1970) conducted for River Murray Commission. Recommendations included works to reduce saline inflows to the River, improved irrigation management, and drainage for irrigation districts in the Riverine zone


Swan Reach-Stockwell pipeline completed


Tailem Bend-Keith pipeline completed


SA Government commits to Dartmouth Dam instead of Chowilla but insists on 20% increase in its entitlement (subsequently Hall Government (pro-Dartmouth) falls; Dunstan elected on a pro-Chowilla policy; but Dunstan eventually agrees to Dartmouth proposal); SA River Murray water entitlement increased from 1500 GL to 1850 GL


Department of Agriculture opens new Loxton Research Centre, making a number of new staff appointments including a new position in irrigation extension

A decline of health of vineyards in some Riverland districts an emerging problem with no obvious solution


Department of Agriculture initiates irrigation research in the Riverland. Many irrigated properties exhibited excess water in the rootzone, due to application of water volumes much in excess of the soil water deficit and as a result root systems were in poor health. Drainage by tile drains did not appear to provide a ready solution and attention moved to consideration of modifying irrigation practices. Ultimately this work, and related irrigation district operational and policy considerations, led to a complete rethink on irrigation management, the adoption of improved irrigation practices, improved water use efficiency and improved productivity


Murray Bridge-Onkaparinga pipeline completed


Snowy Mountains Scheme completed-provides irrigation water and generates hydro-electricity


New SA Water Resources Act. Required conversion of water licences to volumetric water allocations (from area base); a fundamental reform towards improving irrigation efficiency, and also facilitated the trading of water between irrigators


Department of Agriculture advocates for improved irrigation management (in addition to engineering works) as a key strategy to reduce drainage run-off - improved irrigation could reduced drainage and salinity problems, leading to increased farm productivity


Dwyer Leslie Report on Murray-Darling Basin salinity and drainage. Recommendations provided in this report directly led to the Department of Agriculture setting up of the River Murray Salinity and Irrigation Investigation Program (RMISIP) for the River Murray in South Australia.


Rehabilitation of the Berri-Cobdogla Comprehensive Drainage Scheme – Department of Agriculture report to Public Works Committee argues that improved irrigation management important and that dependence on drainage requirements should reduce


Some SA irrigation entitlements reduced following conversion from area based entitlements to volumetric entitlements (eg those unused irrigation entitle-ments with no history of development cancelled) - the first reduction in SA of water previously allocated to irrigated agriculture


RMISIP initiated; themes of irrigation efficiency, salinity management; irrigation extension, irrigation equipment etc. This was a major initiative for the De-partment and led to major change in water management in the Riverland. Programs also developed for Lower Murray Reclaimed Swamps. New extension services developed


Information exchange initiated with the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture aimed at introducing relevant technologies – learnings from irrigation equipment testing and soils and irrigation field services assisted the development of the Australian Irrigation Technology Centre, the Irrigated Crop Management Service, and salinity management in horticulture


Noora Drainage Disposal Scheme – Noora to be constructed to accept saline drainage waters from irrigation districts. Department of Agriculture submission to Public Works sets out requirement to reduce the depressing effect of salinity on horticultural production and the need to maximize the benefits from efficient irrigation

World markets


Murray Mouth closes following low flows during drought period


The River Murray Waters Agreement amended so the River Murray Commission can take environmental problems, including water quality issues, into account


Elevated salinity levels (at Morgan, above 800EC for 18 consecutive months, peak of 1400 EC in July 1982)


Irrigated Crop Management Services (ICMS) initiated in the Riverland – a technology development and transfer initiative aimed to improve irrigation efficiency and crop productivity


Information exchange initiated between the SA Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service Water Management Laboratory at Fresno, California. Officer exchanges assisted development of better estimation of crop water use, district water balances and irrigation scheduling


Agricultural requirements in strategies for River Murray salinity management set out – salinity ‘dose’ concept of salinity level extent, duration above threshold – and crop sensitivity – still holds today


Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council established for providing the policy and direction to implement the Murray-Darling Basin Initiative, when Ministers from SA, NSW, Victoria and Commonwealth meet in Adelaide to discuss resource and environmental problems of Murray-Darling Basin


Murray-Darling Basin Agreement for management of water, land and natural resources across the Basin


Australia-wide environmental strategy (Landcare) launched by Prime Minister (at Wentworth, at the Murray-Darling junction)


First interstate environmental agreement: Murray-Darling Basin Salinity and Drainage Strategy. The Strategy proposed works to reduce saline inflows to the River Murray and thus reduce salinity levels; also allowed a salinity credit/debit account that would permit disposal of saline irrigation drainage to the River


First salt interception scheme commissioned (Woolpunda, in SA)


New Murray-Darling Basin Agreement signed. Murray-Darling Basin Commission established to replace the former River Murray Commission


Murray-Darling Basin Act


Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council agrees to interim cap on water diversions


Permanent cap adopted by the MDB Ministerial Council on the volume of water which can be diverted from Murray-Darling Basin rivers by SA, NSW and Victoria

Focus on sustainability


Commonwealth government $700 million salinity package over 7 years introduced - funding to state governments dependent on meeting federal targets for land clearing and water quality


Murray-Darling Basin Salinity Management Strategy 2000-2015 replaces former Salinity and Drainage Strategy. A salinity target introduced for the first time (effectively 800 EC at Morgan, SA) along with measures to reduce salinity risks in catchments and a continuation of the salt interception program


Millennium drought of 2000 – 2010 commences. Extended period of low inflows (lowest on record in 2006) led to severe economic losses in irrigated agriculture. In 2008/09 water allocations against SA irrigation entitlements were only 18% and did not return to 100% until 2011/12


Threatened closure of Murray Mouth - SA government project to remove sand and develop management policy


The Adelaide Declaration – bipartisan (in SA) political support for improved River Murray environmental outcomes for SA – proposed 1500 GL extra flows


Federal and South Australian governments announce a package of measures aimed at reducing salinity, improving water quality and protecting biodiversity in the Murray-Darling region under the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality and National Heritage Trust


The Living Murray – first step in water recovery (500 GL)


Replacement of Riverland irrigation district channel supply by pipelines concludes (Loxton) – 40 year program of works finalised


Prime Minister announces, partly in response to on-going drought conditions, National Plan for Water Security


Water Act (Cwth) establishes increased Commonwealth responsibility for water management, in response to impacts of drought and ‘over-allocation’ of water for irrigation by the states


Agreement on Murray-Darling Basin Reform. Commonwealth commences water purchases from irrigators to meet water recovery targets


Commonwealth program, Water for the Future


Water Act (Cwth) revised, established Murray-Darling Basin Authority


Basin Plan (signed Nov 22, 2012). Water recovery target of 2750 GL, to be achieved through water purchases from irrigators, and by removal of constraints to environmental flows. Other policies allow for water trade, environmental water management, salinity and water quality management


Click the link below to view cartoons by Tim Dendy.

Water cartoons (PDF 5.1 MB)

Page Last Reviewed: 20 Nov 2017
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