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History of Irrigation in Australia


Farmers have long used irrigation systemsto counteract the scarcity of natural water in Australia, the driest inhabited continent. Irrigation hasimproved crop production while increasing land use in nearly every Australian territory and state. 

Early 1800s

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology defines drought as a period of three months or more where lessrain fallsthan the lowest recorded previousrainfall. By this definition, Australia experienced periods of drought that affected the entire continent on and off throughout the early- and mid-1800s.

Not only did these droughts kill livestock, they also devastated crops and endangered residents. In the 1860s, the drought periods culminated in extreme water deficitsin Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia.

Late 1800s

The 1870ssaw disastrousside effects of drought in Queensland and Western Australia. In Victoria, the drought inspired Alfred Deakin, a minister in the Victoria State Government, to visit California in 1877. He met with the men who designed California's contemporary irrigation systems and convinced them to create similar systemsin Australia.

The designers, George and William Chaffey, made an agreement with the Victorian government and worked to improve water systems. In the 1880s, the Chaffey brothers also began work in South Australia.

Early 1900s

Finally, the year 1900 welcomed the first attempt at large-scale irrigation in Australia. Agricultural engineer Samuel McCaughey began with 320 kilometres of irrigation channels. Hissuccessin irrigating 162 square kilometres encouraged the New South Wales government to begin the processstarting in 1906.

One year later in 1907, the Victorian government created the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission of Victoria. This organisation managed and expanded the use of irrigation throughout the state. Thiscreation also led to a series of legislative effortstoward maintenance, future construction and regulation of water supply systems.

In 1910, John Dethridge, the commissioner for the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission of Victoria, developed a way to measure water flow to individual properties. Thistool, named the Dethridge wheel after itscreator, became widely used across Australia and other countries as well. Today, such countries as Africa, Israel and the United States of America still use the Dethridge wheel.

Meanwhile, the first government-organised irrigation scheme in Western Australia passed in 1916. Known asthe Harvey Irrigation Scheme, it allowed for improved irrigation channelconstruction.

Later, in the 1930s, Western Australia's government expanded the scheme to accommodate itscitizens' needs. The scheme created jobsfor unemployed individuals, who worked to dig the newer channels and built the machinery.


At this historical point, large-scale irrigation schemes increased farming and crop production. Australia'sfarmersstill employ such irrigation tacticsto supply water for crops of cotton and grapes. This encourages active textile production as well as a thriving wine industry.

Other common, irrigation-produced crops across Australia include:

  • Beans
  • Corn
  • Peas
  • Rice
  • Sugar cane
  • Tobacco

    Thissystem still accountsfor large portions of income throughout Australia. In 2002, the irrigated agricultural production in Australia had a value of $11.4 billion. In New South Wales alone, irrigated agricultural production accounted for $2.9 billion. The irrigation industry produces vital revenue and goodsfor most of the Australian continent.

    Modern irrigation schemes allow continuouscultivation, increasing crop yields. Moreover, production in irrigated fields often resultsin three timesthe yields produced in non-irrigated fields.

    To this day, engineers and agriculturalcontractors work to improve irrigation schemes. They experiment with newer techniques to optimise water delivery, while minimising negative environmental impacts.

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