Murray-Darling Basin

Peter Hoey

The history of the Murray-Darling Basin Initiative can be separated into three broad phases:

The Establishment Phase - 1855 to 1915

There are many dates and events which the inter-governmental management of the Murray-Darling had its origins. Perhaps the most relevant date was in 1855 when News South Wales (NSW) passed their Constitution Act 1855 which gave the state possession of River Murray waters from the Rivers headwater to the South Australian (SA) border.

The Act alarmed Victoria (Vic) and triggered the great political wrangles, which were to continue for the next 60 years in the form of the following:

  • two conferences of the Colonies - 1857 and 1863;
  • three separate Royal Commissions in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia between 1884 and 1887;
  • several sessions of the Federal Convention in 1897-98 where the key issue was irrigation (NSW and Vic) or navigation (SA).

Impatient with the politics, the community took over the debates in April 1902 when the Corowa community conference was convened by the River Murray Main Canal League.  The centenary of this event was celebrated in April 2002 when the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council held its 31st meeting at Corowa.

Responding to community pressure, the Interstate Royal Commission on Murray Waters was convened in the same year, 1902, to inquire into the ‘conservation and distribution of the waters of the Murray and its tributaries for the purpose of irrigation, navigation and water supply'.  It was the first official body to propose a program of capital works, essentially to build 75 locks and weirs, for the Murray-Darling system.

In July 1913, the Report of the Inter-state Conference of Engineers recommended a construction program, which included a major storage on the Upper Murray, now known as Hume Dam, Lake Victoria Storage and a number of weirs.  On the basis of this report, construction of Lock and Weir No 1 was commenced by the South Australian Government.

On 9 September 1914, the Prime Minister and three Premiers concluded the River Murray Waters Agreement, establishing a Commission of four, unanimous voting, cost sharing, water sharing - which included SA's Entitlement Flow, construction of Hume Dam, Lake Victoria Storage, 26 locks and weirs between Blanchetown and Echuca, and nine locks on either the Darling or Murrumbidgee Rivers.

By signing this agreement, the governments of NSW and Vict agreed to limit their Constitutional powers to manage the waters of the River Murray as they saw fit, and to provide SA with a share of those resources.  The Commonwealth Government played a magnificent facilitation role in reaching this agreement.

The Construction Phase - 1916 to 1980

From the commencement of Lock and Weir No 1 in 1913 until the completion of Dartmouth Dam in 1979, the governments of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Commonwealth built three major water storages, 16 weirs - 13 of which have locks for navigation - and five barrages.  Today, these physical assets are valued at around $2 billion.

These were the years of construction, and they overlapped with construction of the Snowy Scheme from 1949 to 1975.  The structures enabled the waters of the Murray-Darling Basin, and in particular the waters of the River Murray, to be harnessed for economic use.

The four governments worked together during that period, sharing the costs and the benefits in a fair and equitable way.  Facing considerable challenges, and working through not insignificant disputes which ran for more than a decade from 1960 - the River Murray Waters Agreement, the for-runner of the Murray-Darling Basin Initiative, was perhaps the very first example of ‘cooperative federalism' in Australia.

The Broading Phase - 1981 to the present

In October 1981, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser convened a meeting with the Premiers of NSW, Vict and SA to agree on extending the role of the River Murray Commission to include water quality and other matters.

One year later, on 1 October 1982, the first Murray-Darling Basin Agreement was reached between the four governments.  In this agreement, the role of the River Murray Commission was expanded to include issues of water quality, the environment and recreational use of the River Murray.  The new agreement signalled the beginning of a total catchment management, where for the first time, significant impacts of activities throughout the Basin on the River Murray were to be taken into account in decision making.  It was ratified by the Murray-Darling Basin Act 1983, and passed by the four parliaments in that year.

In November 1985, a meeting in Adelaide of 12 Ministers representing land, water and environment portfolios of the Commonwealth, New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian Governments agreed to establish the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission.

Much has been achieved in 37 meetings of the Council over the last 19 years and a few of theses are listed in Achievemements of the MDB Ministerial Council (PDF 39.4 KB).

The Murray-Darling Basin Initiative is founded on effective cooperation between sovereign governments, and it has a proud history. The following details outstanding examples of cooperation between governments for the common good:

  • 1914 decision to share the waters of the River Murray.
  • Breaking of the Chowilla-Dartmouth impasse in 1970.
  • Salinity and Drainage Agreement of 1988.
  • Queensland joining the Murray-Darling Basin Initiative in 1993.
  • 1995 decision to cap diversions of water.
  • 2003 decision to find more flow for the River Murray.

For more information view Evolving Management of the Murray-Darling Basin's Resources (PDF 1.5 MB) by Dr. John C. Radcliffe.