Changing face of the River Murray

River in flood in 1956. Photo supplied by Murray Bridge & District Historical Society.

River in flood in 1956. Photo supplied by Murray Bridge & District Historical Society.

Can you imagine how the lower section of River Murray was before the 1800s; a much wider river only hemmed in by limestone cliffs on one side and rich pasture lands on the other? Since Charles Sturt navigated the Murray in 1830, the river has undergone many changes.

In 1881 man-made changes had begun by the draining of swamps and building of levee banks. Very valuable land was reclaimed for agriculture.

Captains on steamers found it hard to navigate the river with the varying water levels and becoming stranded upstream when the water was low. This caused long delays in river trade as goods, mail and passengers could not be delivered as they had to wait until the rains came.

Port Mobilong was the most convenient and accessible port on the Murray. In 1915 a water sharing agreement was made between states to allow enough flow for river boats to continue trading so locks and weirs were built.

During this time willow trees were planted along the banks for support at low river levels and to help captains navigate the channels. The willows survived in times of flood, of which there were many. The highest floods known to white man were 1870, 1931 (115 feet), and in 1956 the river level was 120 feet.

The Irrigation and Reclamation Department was formed in 1910 to control waterworks along the Murray. The reclaimed areas below river level were gravity fed, land flooded and drained and water pumped back into the river. In 1929 reclaimed swamp lands on both sides of the river, "Swamp Settlements" had 10,000 acres for dairy farmers, orchards, vineyards and vegetable growing, watered by irrigation from the Murray.

In 1914 the river was so low that saltwater fish were being caught at Murray Bridge with the salt water killing the freshwater fish and causing a stench. Captain Arnold carted fresh water from 10 miles above Mannum for the railways and household purposes for Murray Bridge.

Much has changed since those early times - we have a larger population than ever before, and water is required for survival.

The river has shown us many times through flood and drought it cannot be completely tamed. We will learn to use it wisely.

"A Community Saving Our Past"