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Exploring the beginning of irrigation in the Goulburn Valley

At the recent meeting of the Murchison Historical Society John Dainton from Shepparton was guest speaker. He has conducted wide-ranging research and has compiled a wealth of information about the beginning of irrigation that started in Murchison and has developed to the extensive system that we see today, throughout Victoria and beyond.

The first public funded irrigation system supplying many farms started flowing from a site on the banks of the Goulburn River near Murchison township in 1885. John Dainton’s great grandfather built the brick lined well shaft that is still in existence. It is not accessible to the public but we were able to obtain permission, and visited the site following the talk and afternoon tea. It is amazing to view the remnants of the works and to ponder on the skill of the people involved who had the vision and ability to build, largely by manual labour, this original water supply for many farms.

The following is written by Historian Anne Tyson from Merrigum, to provide information for those enjoying Irrigation Tours during locally arranged Heritage Open Days.

‘The importance of the United Echuca and Waranga Waterworks Trust’s (UE and WWT) 1885 pumping station on the west bank of the Goulburn River south of Murchison lies in the fact that it was the very beginnings of the first publicly-funded irrigation scheme in Australia, the Goulburn River Scheme. This was the earliest of the large-scale irrigation schemes that would profoundly change the development of agriculture and patterns of settlement in Victoria.

The pumping station was the Trust’s temporary solution to the pent-up demand for ‘water for the northern plains’ while the Goulburn Weir, a ‘National’ (State) project, was being constructed.

Timber inlet tunnel on the river bank is no longer in existence.

From 1882, utilizing government loans, the Trust had created an extensive system of channels awaiting both stock and domestic water and irrigation supply from the promised gravitational system based on the projected weir on the Goulburn. Difficult drought years, which led to an increasingly frenzied demand for water supply across the north of the state, and delays in construction of the Weir, led to the reluctant acceptance of the pumping station at Murchison.

A brick-lined circular shaft 3.7m in diameter and 14.5m deep connected with a timber-lined horizontal tunnel 21m long which ran from the bottom of the shaft to the steeply-sloping river bank. A timber sluice gate, operated by a gun metal screw, with a grate to prevent debris entering, led from the river into the tunnel. Two Robison Bros (South Melbourne) patent 26inch horizontal centrifugal pumps were fixed in the shaft, as close as possible to the river water level so as to maximise efficiency. Each had a delivery pipe of 838mm in diameter (the brick work at the top of the shaft reveals the opening for these pipes). The pumps were driven by a pair of powerful horizontal compound engines, with multi-tubular boilers.

The two pumps were capable of delivering approximately one tonne of water per second or about 20,000,000 gallons per day. Staff were stationed with the pumps around the clock.

The water was discharged to a brick- lined settling pond before flowing into the Trust Channel’, which was 137 km long and 2.5 metres wide. The Channel travelled to the west, across Gunn’s Swamp (soon to be deepened and extended to become the Waranga Basin) on an embankment, and thence further west to the Campaspe River, passing south of Lake Cooper. From this, lesser branch channels ran north or north- west towards the Murray. The Commissioners of the Trust, in a phenomenal achievement (although many of the channels were later derided as ‘gutters’), had endeavoured to ensure that no farmer would be more than a mile and a half from water. Some sections of the Trust Channel are still used, some sections can be seen but unused, and some have been filled in.

Flume number 4

Initially the volume was only adequate to provide stock and domestic supplies. The pumps first supplied irrigation water in May 1886, a very limited number of applicants receiving water for up to fifty acres. These were the pioneer vine and fruit growers at Ardmona and Mooroopna who were the most vocal in their demands for irrigation water. The Goulburn scheme thus preceded the Chaffeys’ famous private scheme at Mildura. Huge publicity had been garnered by the brothers’ entrepreneurial approach, the audacity of their scheme and the speed of its realisation, but irrigation from the Murchison pumps had commenced over a year before the Mildura scheme, where water was not sent down the channels until mid-October 1887. Large-scale irrigation in the Goulburn Valley and indeed in Australia can be said to date from May 1886, from the pumping station at Murchison.

The pumps continued to supply the western Goulburn Valley until the Weir was completed in 1891, when they were removed and sold.

With the construction in 1910 of the East Goulburn Main Channel servicing the eastern Goulburn Valley centred on Shepparton, and the building of the Eildon Weir and Dam (1915-1929, with subsequent enlargement) providing a greatly increased volume of water, the pioneering irrigation scheme that commenced at the Murchison pump site became the largest and most productive of Victoria’s irrigation schemes, the area described as the Food Bowl of Victoria.’

As the channel water is not currently flowing it was possible to also see remnants of a timber structure, flume No. 4 located south of the Pump Site, which is fully exposed. A flume is like a bridge or aqueduct built to allow water, as in this case the Stuart- Murray Canal, to flow over a creek or natural drainage depression. This clear view of the flume was an added bonus to our excursion that was primarily to view the Pump Site.

Kay Ball, Murchison & District Historical Society Inc.