History of the river

Aboriginal peoples have had a strong connection with the River Murray for over 40 000 years. In South Australia the river is central to the culture and beliefs of the Traditional Owners, the Ngarrindjeri and First Peoples of the River Murray and Mallee Region. 

The first Europeans explored the South Australian section of the River Murray in the early 1800’s and settlements were established along the river shortly after the state was colonised.

In the 1850s the River Murray was an important trade route, with paddle steamers transporting goods to settlers and miners along the length of the river, and exporting wool, wheat, hides, salt and oats.

From the mid 1800s to early 1900s, the end of the gold rush and impacts of drought resulted in a focus on agriculture and irrigation along the river, with irrigation schemes attracting more settlers. Following the Federation Drought (1892-1902), storage and distribution facilities were developed to improve productivity and protect farmers from the impacts of drought.

The first arrangement between South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and the Australian governments was the River Murray Waters Agreement in 1914. This agreement outlined how water would be shared between the states and allowed for construction of locks and weirs to regulate the rivers for navigation and irrigation, and manage how the river works.

Although discussions to build locks and weirs to help navigation were held as early as 1863, the first lock was built in 1922.

In the 1920s and 1930s six locks were built in South Australia. Five barrages were also built near the Murray Mouth across the channels leading from Lake Alexandrina to prevent seawater entering the lakes during periods of low flow.

Record low river flows across the Murray-Darling Basin during the Millennium drought resulted in devastating impacts on the environment, and the communities and industries that rely on a healthy river to prosper.

The drought highlighted the impacts of over-allocation across the basin and the need for action to balance all water user’s needs.

Today the basin states continue to work together (link to working together page) to secure a healthy working river, now and for future generations. Arrangements for managing the River Murray are set out in the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement and the independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority is responsible for basin-wide water resource planning and management.

Find out more about history across the Murray-Darling Basin.