Ord River development and irrigated agriculture, Western Australia

Page last updated: Monday, 25 October 2021 - 2:35pm

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Tropical agriculture on the Ord River in Western Australia's Kimberley region began in 1941. Fourteen thousand hectares of irrigated farmland started with the opening of the Kununurra Diversion Dam in 1963. Lake Argyle – the largest freshwater storage on mainland Australia – was created in 1971.

The (now) Department of Primary Industies and Regional Development supports tropical agricultural development by assessing land and water suitable for irrigation.

Development history of the Ord River area

The Durack family made the first attempts at tropical agriculture on the Ord River in 1941 with an experimental farm. 'The Frank Wise Institute of Tropical Agriculture, formerly known as the Kimberley Research Station (KRS) started in 1945 from the original Carlton Reach Research Station, set up by Kimberley Michael Durack with help from his brother William Aiden Durack in 1941, and support from the WA Department of Agriculture and the WA Public Works Department, being the first serious attempt at tropical agriculture on the banks of the Ord River' (Wikipedia viewed 21 June 2017).

In 1963, the Kununurra Diversion Dam across the Ord River was built, marking completion of the first stage of the Ord Irrigation Scheme.

This investment also led to the establishment of the town of Kununurra, built as the service centre for the scheme.

Irrigated agriculture development

Some of the developments are:

  • Lake Argyle was created in 1972 to support irrigation expansion and is the largest freshwater storage on mainland Australia. Its storage capacity is 10 760 million cubic metres or nearly 20 times the water volume of Sydney Harbour. Lake Argyle was formed where the Ord River enters the Carr-Boyd Ranges, 40 kilometres south of Kununurra.
  • Ord Stage 1 – 14 000 hectares (ha) of irrigated farm land. Existing irrigated farmland is being used for a variety of agricultural crops including maize, cotton, mango, citrus, watermelon, rockmelons, pumpkin, chickpeas, sandalwood and chia.
  • Ord River Irrigation Expansion Stage 2 – Goomig Farmlands. Following the 2012 release of an additional 7400 ha of Goomig lands for irrigated agriculture, we supported development of the region’s agricultural industries by assessing the land and water resources, farming system research and crop trials.
  • Ord River Irrigation Expansion Stage 3 – Cockatoo Sands. In 2012, we started soil and water investigations of the Cockatoo Sands (red loamy sands) near the Ord River Irrigation Area, Kununurra. The investigations identified about 6500 ha of Cockatoo Sands and about 2400 ha of Pago Sands on Carlton Hill Station suitable for fodder or perennial crops. The Cockatoo Sands have great potential because they are well-drained and have capacity to support agriculture throughout the wet season. As part of the Water for Food government program, we investigated an additional 30 000 ha of Cockatoo soils north of Kununurra for possible expansion. This area is known as the Bonaparte Plains.
  • Ord River Irrigation Expansion: Mantinea Development area. In 2014, we contributed to the expansion of irrigated agriculture in the Kimberley by providing resource assessment information for 9070 ha of the Mantinea Development area, 30 kilometres north-west of Kununurra.