The towns of Baralaba, Theodore and Taroom lie on the banks of the Dawson River. Several weirs have been constructed along the river to provide water for cotton and dairy farming in the region. The river catchment, including the Don River and its tributaries, covers an area of 50,800 km².
In the 1920s, shortly after the First World War, Australian Labor Party politician Ted Theodore (1884-1950) launched an irrigation program on the Dawson River for returning soldiers. His intentions was to provide them with arable land along the river for them to take up farming, thus eschewing a post-war recession. After the 1922 Irrigation Act was passed, he started irrigation schemes on the Dawson River, for an initial 8,000 new farmers. However, the scheme was abandoned after he realized the soil was unsuitable for farming and the returning soldiers had no agrarian skills.
The Dawson River was one of a number of Queensland rivers involved in the 2010–2011 Queensland floods. As the river inundated the town of Theodore it was completely evacuated, a first in Queensland's history.