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History of Salt in our Region

The area around Mildura is rich in the HISTORY OF SALT, with many attributes contributing to the forming of the interesting landscape, engineering and business in the Murray/Darling region.

The Murray Darling Basin

Forty million years ago, through the forces of water and geophysical uplifting, the valley that cradles Australia’s greatest river began to take shape. 

The Murray Darling Basin is part of this natural geographic of the land, where an ancient inland ocean once flourished. Ocean sediments, the weathering of rocks and rainfall over millions of years formed the Murray/Darling Basin’s landscapes and rivers.

It channels water from most of inland Victoria, New South Wales, and southern Queensland from the western side of the Great Australian Divide. It is fed by several rivers including the Darling and Murrumbidgee on it’s journey from the Australian Alps before flowing through South Australia to the Southern Ocean.

The Murray Darling Basin groundwater systems hold more than 100,000 million tonnes of salt. Salinity occurs naturally in groundwater, however human practices such as irrigation and land clearing caused water tables to rise, bringing salt to the surface and into rivers.

Find out more about the Basin by clicking here

European settlement around Mildura

From millennia  Aboriginalpeople have relied on the river’s abundance to survive and thrive. It was first discovered by European explorersHamilton H. Hume and William H. Hovell in 1824. It wasn’t until five years later, however, that Charles Sturt navigated down the Murrumbidgee to encounter the Murray and named it after Sir George Murray, then his exploration party encountered the Darling connection. When Sturt arrived at the junction of the Darling he found that both rivers were too salty for stock to drink. The significance of the start of organised irrigation in the district was paramount to the already high salt content in the groundwater of the Murray Darling Basin. As the amount of water put into the soil increased, the water table under the earth became higher, effecting the growth of native and introduced plantings.  For instance, even though they are managed, today the groundwater systems close to the River Murray hold more than 100,000 million tonnes of salt!

Salt Production

In the first years of the colony, salt was a valuable import and essential for preserving meat. Seeing the need for production and the natural resources at hand to produce it, salt-making efforts began as early as 1790 within Australia. It involved boiling down sea water – around 49 tons of sea water were required to produce one ton of salt – using additives such as egg-whites for the impurities to adhere to and be easily skimmed. (both near Mildura on the border of NSW/Vic).

Camel Trains

Camels were used to transport salt from the Sunset Country (South-West of Mildura) to the Murray River along well worn tracks 100 years ago. Led by Afghan team masters, the camel trains could persist in the sandy terrain where it was difficult for oxen, horses and other forms of transportation. The camel teams carried cargoes of wool and other heavy loads including salt from Spectacle Lakes in the Sunset Country, to the Murray River, where the salt was loaded onto paddle steamers, then returned with precious fresh water and supplies.


Paddle Steamers

Paddle steamers and paddle boats have been on the Murray River and in the Murray-Darling Basin since 1853 when William Randell launched the first steamer the P.S. Mary Ann near Mannum, South Australia. From the 1860s through to the early 1900s, the River Murray was thriving with the putter of paddle steamers, transporting passengers and goods from the Riverland through Mildura to Echuca. Paddle steamers were an important connection with early European settlement and development – towing large barges, paddle steamers weaved the winding course of the Murray-Darling system, supplying stations and towns with supplies, and carrying passengers and various goods to market, including mail, wheat, fruit, salt, wood, wool and other livestock products.

Salt was transported on paddlesteamers to Mildura for ice-making.

Managing Salinity

The only natural way that salt can leave the Basin is by flowing down the river and out to sea through the Murray Mouth in South Australia.

Since the late 1960s, there has been a concerted effort by governments and communities to manage the impact of salinity on people and the environment. The Basin salinity management 2030 strategy has been in place since 2015, and outlines how Basin governments are working together to address salinity and meet agreed targets. Good progress has been made and the work continues.

River salinity can also be managed through Salt Interception Schemes, which are an engineering tool used to divert groundwater and drainage water away from the river system. Smarter land management and improved farming practices are also addressing the problem of salinity in the Basin.

There are currently 15 salt interception schemes (including Murray River Salt) which divert approximately half a million tonnes of salt away from the river and adjacent landscapes each year. These schemes are implemented in conjunction with the Basin Salinity Management 2030 strategy.

As you can see, the mere presence of salt effects many industries, surrounding vegetation and wildlife. It most certainly has had a huge impact on the Mildura region’s historical and current economy. Our hope is, that we have helped you understand and to be interested in the ‘History of Salt’ in our region, and that you have gained an understanding of the importance of this natural resource.