Throughout Victoria's history, drought and a lack of water have been familiar themes, and since the 1850s, the Victorian government has taken measures to safeguard Melbourne's water supply.
Until 1857, Melbourne's only source of water was the Yarra River. As the population grew during the gold rush, the river water became polluted and undrinkable:
Originally the city was solely dependent upon the Yarra water, which was frequently unfit for man and beast... the people of Melbourne had to swallow it, though often rectified with large dashes of execrable rum or brandy.
Weidenhofer, M (ed.) 1967, Garryowen’s Melbourne: a selection from The chronicles of early Melbourne, 1835 to 1852, Nelson, Melbourne, Vic.
Garryowen's The chronicles of early Melbourne is an excellent source of information on day-to-day life in colonial Melbourne.
In the 1880s, the government took control of all rivers and the supply of water through the Water Conservation Act of 1883 and the Irrigation Act of 1887, and built dams on many of Victoria's major rivers. However, as with other attempts to control the environment, these efforts have had serious unintended consequences.
The Snowy River Scheme diverted water from the Snowy River to the Murray River. This had major benefits for irrigators on the Murray, but also seriously affected the health of the Snowy. With most of its water diverted, the Snowy's ecosystem was dramatically altered, if not destroyed.
It was once deep and flooded regularly: now it's shallow, slow flowing, and doesn't flood. Floods allow trees growing next to the river to germinate – without floods the old trees are dying and there are fewer new trees.
On the positive side, irrigation has allowed unproductive, dry land to produce much of our food. However, some of this land contains high levels of salt, left over from when prehistoric oceans covered the land. Irrigation brings the salt to the surface, and because salt is poisonous to vegetation, many irrigated areas have now been rendered useless.
The natural environment has been altered greatly in our attempts to maintain water supplies for domestic and agricultural use. But despite the money the Victorian government has spent on dams, Victoria still doesn't have a secure water supply. Years of drought have meant that we must now rethink how we use water.