The Murray River, Australia’s longest river, is bordered by three states: New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. This has led to ongoing disputes about water entitlements. The first agreement on the distribution of the Murray Waters was ratified by the Commonwealth Government and the three state governments in 1915. The Murray River Waters Agreement was the culmination of multiple Royal Commissions and years of negotiation.
In the second half of the 19th century, the primary importance of the Murray River was as a transport route, with paddle steamers carrying produce and supplies. This made Port Elliot in South Australia the principal seaport for goods from the farmlands along the river. Produce unloaded at Goolwa was taken by tramway to the port for export overseas and to the other Australian colonies. However, as railways became more extensive, the traffic on the river declined and a series of droughts from 1895 to 1902 made the Murray less navigable.
In the 1880s, a number of irrigation schemes were established on the Murray in both Victoria and South Australia. The potential use of water for agriculture, with its attendant infrastructure of dams and locks on the river, led to conflict. Sir Henry Parkes, at the time Premier of the colony of New South Wales, was prepared to concede ownership of the river waters to South Australia east of the state border, but maintained that the rest of the river was by law the property of New South Wales, saying:
any parties who had planted works in the fairway [of the river] were trespassers on New South Wales territory.
While each of the colonies had conducted its own Royal Commission(s) on the matter, it was the Commonwealth’s Royal Commission in 1902, the year after Federation, that eventually led to an agreement. During the negotiations, South Australia remained committed to maintaining the navigability of the river. The other two states were chiefly interested in irrigation.
Agreement between what were now states, rather than colonies, was slow in coming. By 1911, however, the state premiers were prepared to put their hand to a document: the Murray River Waters Agreement. The agreement required ratification by all four parliaments, which was not achieved until 1915. It was proclaimed in 1917, along with the formation of the River Murray Commission (now the Murray Darling Basin Authority). The Commission (was responsible for the construction of locks and dams on the river, including the Hume Dam near Albury NSW.
For more than a hundred years, however, wrangling over water has continued. Navigation is no longer an issue, but water quality and the environment now have to be balanced against requirements for agriculture. The original Murray River Waters Agreement has been updated on a number of occasions and eventually evolved into the Murray Darling Basin Plan. The allocation of water from the Basin is an issue that continues to concern farmers from Queensland’s cotton fields to the vineyards of South Australia.