State Library of South Australia logoDownstream, the River Murray in South Australia
SA Memory. South Australia past and present, for the future

Who 'owns' the Murray?


 Early years    
 Federal Conventions 1897-1898    
 Corowa Water Conference and Interstate Royal Commission 1902    
 River rights and rivalries - the intervening years 1903-1913    
 River Murray Waters Agreement 1915    
 Murray-Darling Basin Agreement 1992    
 Environmental Awareness 1995-    

In the early years of white settlement in Australia, the three colonies through which the River Murray flows used its waters for their own needs, with little accord between them. In the 1880s mass diversions of water for irrigation began and tension between navigation and irrigation interests increased. Several intercolonial conferences and Royal Commissions were unsuccessful in achieving any agreement on who controlled the river.

During the Federal Conventions of 1897-98 colonies intensely debated control of the Murray waters and the rights of each state under a new federal government. The prospect of Federation brought some promise of a more unified approach to River Murray issues, but federal constitutional responsibility was not awarded, and control of a national resource that crosses three state boundaries remained with the state governments.

In 1902 an Interstate Royal Commission was established to investigate the uses of the Murray and its waters. The Royal Commission attempted to strike a balance between irrigation and navigation interests by establishing the proportion of water that each of the states was allowed to take from the river. The Royal Commission started a move towards the establishment of a central body to regulate the uses of the river. It was not until 1915, however, that the River Murray Waters Agreement was signed by the three states and the Commonwealth. In 1917, the River Murray Commission was constituted to administer the Agreement. In practice, state rivalries rather than a uniform and cooperative approach dominated river management.

Increasing demands on Murray waters for irrigation, human and industrial consumption were made in the following decades. In the late 1960s, severe drought coupled with these demands brought increasing public and political awareness of the escalating problems in the Murray-Darling Basin. The closure of the Murray Mouth in 1981 and alarming reports about salinity levels in the Murray contributed to the 1982 changes in the River Murray Waters Agreement, when its role was extended to address water quality, environmental and recreational issues.

The establishment of the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Committee in 1985 broadened the approach to Murray management with the implementation of a basin rather than river authority. Two years later, the River Murray Waters Agreement was replaced by the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement to enable an integrated management of natural resources across the Murray-Darling Basin. A new Murray-Darling Basin Agreement was signed by South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, and the Commonwealth in 1992. The River Murray Commission was replaced by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to advise on natural resource management and water distribution throughout the whole Basin. Queensland signed this agreement in 1996, and the Australian Capital Territory signed it in 1998.

Today, most would agree that the River Murray is under serious threat without effective action and a national approach to improve its health. State and federal governments, local communities, irrigators, agriculturalists, industrialists, tourist operators, and urban water users continue to be divided about what can be done about the river's problems, and who has control of the waters and responsibility for rehabilitation of the dwindling waterway. The difficulties of managing a natural resource that crosses several state borders are being tackled, with coordinated strategies including the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement , and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Control, as well as state actions such as the 2003 South Australian River Murray Act.



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