Fitzroy River (Western Australia)

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Fitzroy River
Fitzroy River at Fitzroy Crossing.JPG
Fitzroy River, looking north from bridge at Fitzroy Crossing
Physical characteristics
 • locationWunaamin Miliwundi Ranges
 • elevation486 metres (1,594 ft)[1]
 • location
King Sound
Length733 kilometres (455 mi)[2]
Basin size93,829 square kilometres (36,228 sq mi)[3]
 • average84.78 cubic metres per second (2,994 cu ft/s)[4]

The Fitzroy River is located in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia. It has 20 tributaries and its catchment occupies an area of 93,829 square kilometres (36,228 sq mi), within the Canning Basin and the Timor Sea drainage division.

It often floods extensively during the wet season, and is known as the major remaining habitat for the critically endangered sawfish.



Fitzroy River flowing through Geikie Gorge

The first people to live along the river were the traditional owners of the areas around the river, including the Bunuba and Nyikina people to the west, and the Walmajarri and Gooniyandi people to the east, who have lived in the area for at least 40,000 years.[5] The Nyikina and Bunuba people know the river as Mardoowarra and Bandaral Ngarri respectively; the river and its vast floodplains are of great spiritual, cultural, medicinal and ecological significance.[6] The Nyikina word Raparapa,[7] translates as "alongside the river".[citation needed]

19th to 21st centuries[edit]

The first European to visit the Fitzroy River was George Grey in 1837 aboard HMS Beagle. The river was subsequently given its European name by Lieutenant J.L. Stokes in February 1838 after Captain Robert FitzRoy R.N. The Fitzroy River flows for 733 kilometres (455 mi) from the Wunaamin-Miliwundi and Mueller Ranges into King Sound south of Derby, and has a catchment area of 93,829 square kilometres (36,228 sq mi)

The first settlement that appeared along the river was Yeeda Station settled in 1880. The initial owners of the station were the Murray Squatting Company composed of William Paterson, George Paterson, Hamlet Cornish and Alexander Richardson.[8] The company took up the property in the newly opened West Kimberley in 1880 and established the station with both cattle and sheep.[9]

Sandy Billabong, near Yungngora community

Other stations were established along the river further upstream during the 1880s including Noonkanbah Station, Gogo Station, Fossil Downs Station, Liveringa and Lower Liveringa Station.[10]


The surrounding area is also known as the Fitzroy Valley and is a distinct physiographic section of the larger Canning Basin province, which in turn is part of the larger West Australian Shield division.

Tributaries and catchment area[edit]

The Fitzroy has 20 tributaries, including Margaret River, Christmas Creek, Hann River, Sandy Creek, Geegully Creek, Little Fitzroy River, Collis Creek, Adcock River, Cunninghame River, Yeeda River, Mudjalla Gully and Minnie River.

The catchment area occupies an area of 93,829 square kilometres (36,228 sq mi)[3] situated within the Canning Basin and the Timor Sea drainage division extending from Halls Creek and the Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges in the east through to Derby and King Sound to the west.[11]

It flows through three shires: Wyndham-East Kimberley, Halls Creek and Derby-West Kimberley are found within the catchment area. The two main population centres of Derby and Fitzroy Crossing and 57 smaller Aboriginal communities are also found in the watershed making it home to about 7,000 people of which 80% are Aboriginal.[11] The catchment area of the Fitzroy river was in 2012 found to be extensively pegged by mineral exploration companies[12]

Most of the land is under pastoral lease holding with about 44 mostly cattle stations operating within the catchment area. Some of the properties include: Mount Elizabeth, Mount Barnett, Glenroy, Mornington Sanctuary, Bedford Downs, Ruby Plains and Springvale to the east. Noonkanbah, Cherrabun, Gogo, Louisa Downs, Fossil Downs and Leopold Downs and found in the central part. To the west are properties including Liveringa, Myroodah, Mount Anderson, Mowla Bluff, Yakka Munga and Yeeda Stations.[11]


Alexander Island in the Fitzroy River

Extensive flooding during the wet season created a need for an adequate crossing. It was because of this that the town of Fitzroy Crossing was founded.[citation needed]

Flooding occurred along the river six times from 1892 to 1903. The 1903 flood washed away telegraph lines and "great numbers of cattle and sheep were drowned", with bodies of animals later found hanging in trees. The heavy rains experienced in the area were the remnants of a cyclone.[13]

In 1935, the Fitzroy got its first bridge – a low-level concrete structure, which was built up into a wider structure in 1958. This bridge could be closed for several months at a time during the wet weather and travellers were then forced to use a flying fox, which operated about 200 metres south of the crossing. When a new bridge was erected in 1974, the focus of the town grew away from its original site. The current town of Fitzroy Crossing is one of the fastest growing in the Kimberley region. Over 80% of its population are Aboriginal[citation needed].

The river flooded after heavy rain events in 1949 and 1954. The 1954 event came immediately after a drought and the swollen river washed away stock from both Noonkanbah and Liveringa Station. At the height of the flood the river level was 10 feet (3 m) above the low level crossing. The mouth of the river was estimated at being over 7 miles (11 km) wide as it discharged the floodwaters.[14]

Record floods occurred in 1983, 1986 and 2002[15] with approximately 13 metres of water over the old concrete crossing. The flow rate down the 15 km-wide flood plain at Fitzroy Crossing was estimated to be 30,000 cubic metres per second. In flood, it is possibly the largest river in Australia.[citation needed]


One channel of the Fitzroy River, looking north from Willare Bridge, dry season 2006

The Fitzroy River was diverted in the 1950s as part of the failed Camballin Irrigation Scheme to store the water to irrigate crops of cotton, sorghum and other feed crops. This part of the river covers an area of 12 hectares (30 acres) when full.[citation needed]

There have been other proposals over time to dam the river at Dimond Gorge.[citation needed]

In April 2007, the then state opposition leader Colin Barnett announced plans to dam the river, should he become elected, to provide a water source for a new irrigation venture to replace the Murray-Darling Basin which had experienced significant water shortages as a result of the 2000s Australian drought. His 20-year plan also included piping the water further south as an additional source for the Perth Integrated Water Supply System. However, these ventures were not pursued when in government.[citation needed]


The Fitzroy has been called the "world's last stronghold" for the critically endangered sawfish. In December 2018, the largest mass fish deaths since the monitoring of the fish in the Fitzroy River occurred. Associate Professor David Morgan of Murdoch University said that the fish had died due to heat and a severe lack of rainfall during a poor wet season. They also become more vulnerable to predators such as crocodiles when water levels are low. This raised concerns about plans by Gina Rinehart to divert water on her Liveringa property.[16]


  1. ^ "Bonzle Digital Atlas – Map of Fitzroy River, WA". 2008. Retrieved 26 November 2008.
  2. ^ Western Australian Land Information Authority. "History of river names – F". Retrieved 4 September 2011.
  3. ^ a b "Australian Natural Resources Atlas – Landscape – carbon, nutrients, water and productivity – Fitzroy River (WA)". 2008. Archived from the original on 4 August 2008. Retrieved 26 November 2008.
  4. ^ For station at Dimond Gorge
  5. ^ "Ausanthrop – Australian Aboriginal tribal database". 2012. Archived from the original on 29 November 2014. Retrieved 28 April 2012.
  6. ^ "About the Fitzroy River region". 2012. Archived from the original on 3 March 2012. Retrieved 28 April 2012.
  7. ^ Barnes, Barney (2011). Raparapa, Stories from the Fitzroy River Drovers. Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation. p. 1.
  8. ^ Cathie Clement (2012). "Richardson, Alexander Robert (1847–1931)". Alexander Robert (1847–1931). Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 30 April 2013.
  9. ^ Anne Porter (2012). Paterson, William (1847–1920). Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 30 April 2013.
  10. ^ "Fortune of Pioneer". The Barrier Miner. Broken Hill, New South Wales: National Library of Australia. 27 November 1954. p. 11. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
  11. ^ a b c "Fitzroy catchment subregion overview and future directions" (PDF). Government of Western Australia. 1 October 2009. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 March 2015. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  12. ^ "Big jump in mining in Kimberley". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 19 November 2012. Retrieved 24 April 2013.
  13. ^ "The weather". The Morning Bulletin. Rockhampton, Queensland: National Library of Australia. 21 January 1903. p. 5. Retrieved 24 March 2013.
  14. ^ "Fitzroy has mouth of seven miles". The West Australian. Perth: National Library of Australia. 1 May 1954. p. 1. Retrieved 14 June 2012.
  15. ^ Mason, Flur-Elise.(2002) "River peaks at 88-year high". (Peaked at Willare at more than 13 metres; its highest level since 1914). Broome Advertiser, 7 March 2002, p.3,
  16. ^ Moodie, Claire (1 June 2019). "More than 40 dead sawfish on Gina Rinehart's cattle station fuels concern about water plan". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 1 June 2019.

Further reading[edit]

Coordinates: 17°25′39″S 123°33′52″E / 17.42750°S 123.56444°E / -17.42750; 123.56444