Singleton Station Water Licence
The approval of the largest groundwater licence in the history of the Northern Territory puts arid ecosystems at risk of being destroyed. This enormous licence is simply too big to be sustainable and must be overturned.
What is the project at Singleton Station?
The Singleton Horticulture Project is the proposed development of 3,500ha of intensive irrigated horticulture by Fortune Agribusiness Ltd on Singleton Station, 400 kilometres north of Alice Springs.
Fortune Agribusiness acquired a 40 gigalitre (GL) licence from the NT Government for the project, and seeks to grow fruit and vegetables such as mandarins, avocados, grapes, onions and carrots. 70% of this produce will be for export.
The Water Licence
How do you get fruits and vegetables to grow in the desert?
With huge quantities of water!
In November 2021, Fortune Agribusiness was granted a 30-year licence for the extraction of 40,000 megalitres of groundwater per year (after an initial eight years of staged extraction). In total, the water licence grants a whopping 1 Trillion litres over the entire period making it the largest groundwater licence in the Northern Territory’s history.
Why is the water licence staged?
Due to major uncertainty and risk associated with the development, the water licence stages the maximum amount of water that can be extracted over the first 8-years of the project:
- Stage 1 (Year 1-3): 12 788 ML/ yr
- Stage 2 (Year 4-5): 22 845 ML/ yr
- Stage 3 (Year 6-7): 31 779 ML/ yr
- Stage 4 (Year 8-30): 40 000 ML/ yr
What does 1 trillion litres of water look like?
1 trillion litres could provide enough water for 5.5 million Australian households for a whole year!
1 trillion litres is also:
- Twice the size of Sydney harbour
- 30 x the annual water consumption Darwin Water Control district each year
- 110 x the annual water consumption within the Alice Springs Water Control District
Ok so how much are Fortune Agribusiness paying for all this water?
Zilch. Zero. Nadda. Nothing. NT Water laws provide water for FREE. The value of this water is estimated at $70-$300 million dollars.
How big is this licence compared to other states?
The Singleton water licence is for 40GL and will have a total of 146 bores —
144 for horticultural production and 2 for the community and services hub. By way of comparison, the Singleton water licence is nearly three times the size of the largest groundwater licence in NSW with the ten largest groundwater licences in the state of NSW ranging from approximately 7GL to 15GL. The number of bores associated with these individual licences ranges from 3 to 11. It’s important to note that these statistics exist within the context of a state is now grappling with the impacts of over extraction of its water resources.
Environmental and cultural values at stake
1. Water - How much will groundwater depletion will occur?
The project is modelled to draw down the groundwater table by 50 metres after 30 years of extraction. Groundwater depletion occurs across a 50km area, with depletion highest at the site of extraction.
This goes against the Northern Territory Government’s Western Davenports Water Allocation Plan.
Groundwater dependent ecosystems
The licence threatens Ground Dependent Ecosystems as their roots are incapable of accessing water below 10 to 15m.
Groundwater-dependent ecosystems (GDEs) are defined as ecosystems that require access to groundwater to meet all or some of their water requirements so as to maintain the communities of plants and animals, ecological processes they support, and ecosystem services they provide.
Major groundwater dependent ecosystems in the region comprising of bloodwoods, ghost gums, bean trees, coolabah trees, fig trees, river red gums and bush orange may be impacted, as well as soaks and creeks.
ALEC alleges the NT Government applied the wrong criteria when assessing the
impact of the licence on GDEs. Rather than correctly applying the Water Allocation
Plan for the area, the decision was based on a policy document which only protects
70% of GDEs.
2. Fauna: Are there threatened species that may be impacted?
At least 8 Threatened species may be impacted by the land clearing development. The threatened species include.
- Grey falcon - Falco hypoleucos
- red goshawk - Erythrotriorchis radiatus
- greater bilby - Macrotis lagotis (
- black-footed rock-wallaby - Petrogale lateralis
- night parrot - Pezoporus occidentalis
- Princess parrot - Polytelis alexandrae
- Australian painted snipe - Rostratula australis
- painted honeyeater - Grantiella picta
The brush tailed mulgara - Dasycercus Blythi and southern marsupial mole - Notoryctes typhlops were removed from the NT Threatened Species list in late 2021 as they are no longer nationally threatened. These species are also possibly present at the development site.
3. Sacred sites
Anthropologist Susan Dale Donaldson identified 29 groundwater dependent sacred sites that may be impacted from the development. All the sites identified have features associated with GDE such as: soakages, bean trees, orange trees, coolabah trees, creeks, swamps, supplejack trees, ghost gum trees, and bloodwood trees.
Where exactly is the development?
Singleton Station is a pastoral lease 120km south of Tennant Creek, 370km north of Alice Springs, located on Kaytetye country. Ali Curung is the nearest community, approximately 30km west from the development site.
Who is Fortune Agribusiness?
Fortune Agribusiness acquired Singleton Station in 2015. There is very limited information publicly available about the corporation.
There have been links that Fortune has ownership links out of Australia. These have not been conclusively verified.
Can Fortune access this water now?
No. As part of their water licence approval, a number of conditions were imposed upon Fortune Agribusiness. Water cannot be accessed until all conditions are satisfied, and must be met by 31st December 2023. This means the proponent must first have approvals for their:
- land clearing permit;
- non-pastoral land use permit;
- environmental approvals.
In addition, the proponent must complete further works to overcome some areas of significant uncertainty. This includes plans and programs that must be provided to the Water Controller for approval by 1 June 2023.
The documents that must be provided are:
- Maps and spatial data demonstrating the predicted impact on groundwater
levels and to identified Aboriginal cultural values.
- A salinity impact assessment;
- An adaptive management plan;
- A monitoring program to assess the impact of taking water upon the groundwater system;
- A groundwater dependent Aboriginal cultural values impact assessment;
- Updated impacts upon groundwater dependent ecosystems;
- A program to assess the Water Resource on the Land.
What approvals have Fortune Agribusiness received to date?
Fortune Agribusiness have an approved groundwater licence. However, this is being challenged by the CLC and Arid Lands Environment Centre in the Northern Territory Supreme Court. These matters will be heard on the 7th-9th September 2022.
Fortune Agribusiness are yet to receive their land clearing permit, non-pastoral use permit and environmental approvals. These must be attained before 31st December 2023 as per conditions of their water licence approval.
Where is the water coming from?
In Central Australia, nearly all water is obtained from groundwater systems.
There are two major regional aquifers in the region around Singleton Station. These are the Georgina and Wiso Basins. There is connectivity between the two basins with water flowing north-west from the Georgina Basin into the Wiso Basin. The limits of the Georgina and Wiso Basins are poorly defined due a lack of information. It is understood that the Georgina Basin is recharged through Taylor Creek and runoff from the Davenport Ranges. The intersection of the Wiso and Georgina Basin roughly correlates with the Stuart Highway path across the Water Control District. As a result, Fortune Agribusiness is likely accessing water from the western corner of the Wiso basin.
Water has been allocated through the Western Davenport Water Allocation Plan within the Western Davenport Water Control District. Water is being accessed in the ‘Central Plain Management Zone’.
What is an estimated sustainable yield (ESY)?
The ESY governs the amount of water that is allocated for beneficial uses under a water allocation plan (e.g. the Western Davenport Water Allocation Plan or Alice Springs Water Allocation Plan).
As stated by the Environmental Defenders Office, ‘one of the most important features of any water legislation is a requirement to set limits on extractions for each water resource, and that this limit be based on the best-available science and evidence regarding environmental and cultural requirements within the catchment’.
In the Northern Territory there is no statutory definition for the ESY or established methodology. As a result, there is significant variation in definitions of estimated sustainable yield across different water allocation plans.
For example, compare the definition of ‘estimated sustainable yield’ in the Ti Tree WAP 2020-2030:
“To meet the requirements of section 22B of Water Act 1992, the ESY is the amount of water that can be taken from the water resource to support beneficial uses without compromising key cultural and environmental values, or ecosystem functions or the productive base of the resource or declared water quality standards, criteria or objectives.”
With the definition of ‘sustainable yield’ defined in the Berry Springs WAP 2016-2026:
“the amount of groundwater that can be extracted from an aquifer on a sustained basis without impairing water quality or causing environmental damage”
And the definition of ‘sustainable yield’ in the Western Davenport WAP 2021-2022:
“The level of water extraction from a particular system which, if exceeded would compromise key environmental assets, or ecosystem functions and the productive base of the resource.”
There is great variation between these definitions, with some emphasising cultural values, some water quality and others focused solely on ecological considerations. None, however are based on the same methodology, nor does the Water Act
indicate they are legally enforceable.
Could the ESY in the water allocation plan be wrong?
Yes. There are limited bores that can verify the model, 25% of the estimated sustainable yield is not accounted for in the model and impacts upon groundwater dependent ecosystems from pumping is largely inferred. There is an ‘extreme’ risk that the regolith resource and the ESY is downgraded in later WAPs, and that groundwater dependent ecosystems and cultural values could be impacted.
There is significant uncertainty underwritten by deficiencies within the Western Davenport Water Allocation Plan. This includes:
- Limited data to verify modelling assumptions used in determining sustainable yields, including aquifer storage and recharge events;
- The precision and accuracy of the data and modelling is not qualified in the WAP, beyond that it is clouded in ‘uncertainty’;
- The regolith resource which accounts for 34,000 megalitres of the estimated sustainable yield is not included in the model for the region, with the resource remaining as an unverified resource;
- At the time of granting the licence, the impacts of groundwater pumping on GDEs is inferred and not known;
- There is an ‘extreme risk’ that if the estimated sustainable yield is underestimated then cultural values and GDEs could be impacted;
- Untested assumptions around the response of groundwater recharge to rainfall events.
- There have only been four recharge events that have occurred in the last 100 years;
- Limited baseline surveys have been completed across the water control district, instead relying on remote sensing data. This is despite the Western Davenport Water Allocation Plan emphasising the need for ‘detailed mapping of GDEs including identification of priority conservation areas and types; research into GDE groundwater use and vulnerabilities to change’;
- There is no scientific basis for the ‘Guideline: Limits of acceptable change to groundwater dependent vegetation in the Western Davenport Water Control District’ which is used to justify up to 30% of GDEs being destroyed;
- There is no modelling for climate change impacts on groundwater resources and GDEs, despite evidence for temperatures to warm in the region and evaporation rates to increase;
- There is limited understanding of salinity impacts from groundwater extraction upon the region;
- The impacts of groundwater extraction upon stygofauna are not known in the region;
- Failure to complete key actions from the ‘WAP implementation Activities’, such as developing an: ‘Integrated annual report on monitoring and compliance’, ‘Traditional Owner advisory group (or equivalent) advice’, ‘independent review and evaluation report at conclusion of the WAP’, that ‘a WAC is proposed to oversee implementation of the WAP including the adaptive management framework’, and that ‘the WDWAC should meet at least twice a year to provide external oversight of implementation’.