George and William Chaffey were Canadians who had worked on irrigation schemes in California. They were invited to Australia by Victorian parliamentarian Alfred Deakin during a time of drought. The Chaffey brothers established their first irrigation settlement at Mildura in northern Victoria, followed by one at Renmark, South Australia. Initial bumper harvests were followed by hard times as the 1890s depression hit, but the region known as Sunraysia recovered to become the fruit bowl of Australia.
Alfred Deakin served in various roles in the Victorian Government, including Minister for Public Works and Water Supply. He headed a Royal Commission into the drought conditions of the 1880s and in this role travelled to the United States to investigate irrigation, meeting the Chaffey Brothers in California.
It seems the Chaffeys were attracted to Australia by the potential to make money from land sales. They laid out the towns of Renmark and Mildura, dug irrigation channels, and produced a splendid prospectus attracting new settlers from Britain and around Australia to take up small holdings. Steam-driven pumps were used to raise the water from the Murray River into a holding billabong, from which it was directed into the irrigation channels.
All went well for a few years, but the Chaffeys were funding new developments from the sale of land. The recession of the early 1890s hit hard as the land boom collapsed. Banks foreclosed on many of the land holders. Despite good harvests in the early years, problems arose with salinity and there were legal disputes among the settlers. The Chaffey’s company went into liquidation in 1895 and control of the scheme was taken over by the Victorian Government’s Mildura Irrigation Trust.
In 1896 a Royal Commission into the scheme blamed the Chaffey Brothers for the problems at Mildura, saying they had entered into the scheme without enough capital and had made serious errors in planning. George Chaffey returned to America, but his brother William remained in Mildura, as did George’s son Ben. William became a leading figure in the community. For many years he was President of the Australian Dried Fruits Association and in 1920 he became the first mayor of Mildura. He operated an orchard and also established the Mildura (later Mildara) Winery.
In 1903 a rail link was established between Mildura and Melbourne, which solved the problem of transporting fruit crops to city markets. Over the following decades the irrigation region prospered. After World War II, many European immigrants, particularly those from Italy and Greece, took up properties in the area. The area continues to supply more than 70% of Australia’s dried vine fruits and much of the nation’s citrus.
By 2007-08, irrigated land comprised less than 0.5 per cent of all agricultural land in Australia but yielded 28 per cent of the total value of agricultural production. The Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) accounted for 38% of Australia’s irrigating agricultural businesses, 53% of all irrigated agricultural land and 54% of irrigation water applied. (ABS – Irrigation Water Use)