The Fitzroy River and its tributaries drain the largest area of any of Queensland's east coast river systems, entering the ocean at Port Alma, downstream from Rockhampton.

The river was named by the Archer Brothers, pioneer pastoralists, after the New South Wales Governor, Sir Charles FitzRoy, in 1853.

The Basin's northern limit is beyond Nebo, where the Connors and Isaac Rivers begin. The westerly limit is near Blair Athol and Bogantungan, and the southern boundary is the Carnarvon Ranges which enclose the headwaters of the Nogoa, Comet and Dawson Rivers. The Dawson is a large system in itself, running though Taroom and the Theodore irrigation area, and joins the Fitzroy River just north-east of Duaringa.

In addition to the Dawson River, other major tributary rivers are the Mackenzie and Connors which rise in the eastern Dividing Range and converge about 100 km west of Rockhampton. When heavy rain falls over the vast Fitzroy catchment there is severe downstream flooding at Rockhampton – see that entry for further detail.

Despite the size of the Fitzroy system, the river flows are neither as voluminous nor as reliable as others such as the Burdekin. Thus the watershed is but one of several elements of the Fitzroy Basin's geography, the others being the extensive cattle-grazing farm lands and mineral-extraction industries. In the mid-1960s the Rockhampton district alone had two-fifths of Queensland's beef cattle, and the clearing of brigalow lands in the 1960s increased the grazing areas. The Fitzroy Basin Brigalow land development area extended from Nebo to Taroom and from Rolleston to Moura. Brigalow suckers erupt if the tree is ringbarked or cut, and mechanised clearing was needed to remove the rootstock. The process involved scrub-pulling, burning and hormone retardant spraying if necessary.

In the minerals industries, copper, lead and zinc were mined at Mount Morgan and Clermont, and coal has been mined at Blair Athol (near Clermont) and at numerous open-cut sites north and south of Blackwater. They support electrified smelting industries at Gladstone, 100 km south of Rockhampton which, although not part of the Fitzroy River system, is usually treated as belonging to the region. A further coal deposit is mined at Callide, south-west of Gladstone, where a coal-fired power station was built in the 1960s.

The pastoral and mining development was assisted by the construction of a railway west from Rockhampton. Beginning in 1867 (the year after Queensland's first line in the Darling Downs), it got to Blackwater by 1877. Branch lines to Springsure and Mount Morgan were opened in the 1880s-90s, and to Blair Athol and Theodore in the 1910s-20s. The Callide coal line was opened in 1953. Coal is transported to power stations near Rockhampton and Gladstone, but the coal exports are dispatched from deep water ports at Mackay and Gladstone: Rockhampton's river wharves are inadequate for bulk cargo and Port Alma handles about .5% of Gladstone's tonnage.

The clearing of the brigalow lands increased the cattle carrying capacity of those lands by 100% or better. In the Rockhampton statistical division as defined in 1962 there were 1.08 million beef cattle, or 18.4% of Queensland's total, probably enough to support Rockhampton's claim to being the beef capital of Queensland. In 1993 the equivalent area had 1.67 million head, or 17.4% of Queensland's total. In other words, the Rockhampton region had kept up with the vast increases in stock numbers in more remote parts of Queensland. The other growth area has been human population.