Growing avocados in the desert: the 40,000 megalitre water license application

Fortune Agribusiness recently applied for an annual 40,000 megalitre water licence from the NT Government to develop irrigated fruit and vegetable crops on Singleton Station, located within the Western Davenport water control district.

ALEC made a submission calling for the refusal of the water licence on the basis that this development would have a significant impact on the environment. ALEC requests that the Water Controller immediately refer the application to the Northern Territory Environment Protection Authority to undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment.

What’s the issue?

Fortune Agribusiness has applied for a water licence to develop a large-scale irrigated horticultural development on Singleton Station, 120km south of Tennant Creek. The development is located within the Western Davenport Water Allocation Plan which covers an area of approximately 125 000 sq km. The proposal is to clear 4,850-hectares of land to develop an irrigated horticulture farm, with crops including avocados, mandarins, grapes, jujube, hay and onions. 

The development has the potential to cause a permanent significant damage to groundwater resources, biodiversity and sites of cultural significance. 

Singleton Station NT map

Singleton Station, 120kms south of Tennant Creek, sits in the Western Davenport water control district.

What are they asking?

In the hopes of developing a 3,600-hectare irrigated horticulture farm, Fortune Agribusiness has applied for a license for 40,000 megalitres of groundwater per year for 30 years. In the NT, Fortune Agribusiness would be receiving this water for free from the NT Government. The amount of water requested by Fortune Agribusiness represents nearly 40% of the consumptive pool allocated for agriculture, industry, aquaculture and cultural beneficial uses in the Western Davenport district. 

Fortune Agribusiness water application

Why is it important?

  • If granted, this would be the largest water allocation in the NT. It is a huge development. Water is our most precious resource. 
    • One of the proposed crops, avocados, are a highly water intensive plant.
  • The potential to cause permanent environmental damage. Groundwater dependent ecosystems, groundwater recharge and sites of cultural significance are likely to be negatively impacted. 
  • The process hasn’t gone through a comprehensive environmental assessment process. There is a lack of rigorous assessment and a general lack of information. 
  • The groundwater systems of the Western Davenport region have some of the slowest rates of recharge in Australia, with only a handful of recharge events having occurred in the last 100 years (Noovao & Tickell, 2017; Larkin et al., 2020). 
  • There is a lack of scientific certainty that the development will not cause significant environmental harm.
  • Under the current system, water intensive industries including agriculture and industry receive free water from the government, while some communities are paying for unsafe water.

Fortune Agribusiness avocado crop

Fortune Agribusiness plans to grow avocados, a highly water intensive crop, at Singleton Station.

What do I need to know?

  • The Fortune Agribusiness has requested 40 billion litres of water a year for 30 years. They will reach maximum water use after 12 years. 
  • In 2019-2020, the water use in the district was just over 3 billion litres. This development would be an exponential increase in water use in the region, from just 3 billion to over 43 billion litres per year. This is alarming. 
  • Groundwater levels are modelled to drop by 50 metres after 30 years, negatively impacting dependent ecosystems for tens of kilometres in all directions from the development site. 
  • It is unclear how local communities have been informed about the development and how sites of cultural significance have been identified. 
  • It is unclear how sites of cultural significance and important groundwater dependent ecosystems (e.g. river red gums, ghost gums, desert bloodwoods and stygofauna) will be impacted or protected from this development. 
  • Groundwater mining brings dissolved salts to the surface, which can have a severely negative impact on the land. While the water will evaporate, salt will be left behind. It is unclear what impact hundreds or over a thousand tonnes of salt per year will have on the long-term health of the land.
  • The development had little to no consideration of the impacts of climate change. This is despite the development occurring across a 30 year period, with temperatures to continue rising. The impacts of climate change will increase the intensity, frequency and variability of climatic events, including droughts, floods, heatwaves, wildfires and heavy precipitation events.

What’s ALEC’s take on it?

  • ALEC is strongly opposed to the development. ALEC has serious concerns about the size of the development and the potential for permanent environmental damage to groundwater, biodiversity and sites of cultural significance. 
  • ALEC has requested that the Water Controller reject the proposal, or use their discretion (Under Section 50 of the Environment Protection Act) to refer the development to the Environment protection Authority to undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). 
  • ALEC opposes the clearing of 4,850-hectares without the completion of an EIA.
  • ALEC considers an EIA to be essential to determine the impact of groundwater saline intrusion on soil health and biodiversity within the development zone.
  • Due to the lack of scientific certainty, the precautionary principle should be applied to prevent environmental degradation. ALEC opposes the development as proposed and recommends that a referral for an EIA under the NT Environment Protection Act is made to better understand the significant impact on the environment. This will ensure more information is considered prior to a decision being made to develop this water resource at such a substantial scale. 
  • Due to a lack of consideration and modelling on the impacts of Climate Change, ALEC suggests that an EIA is essential. 

Have a read of our full submission here to understand our concerns. 

What is ALEC doing about it?

ALEC completed a submission on Fortune Agribusiness’ development to the Water Controller. ALEC will closely follow the decision made regarding this water licence application. 

ALEC is continuing its work on water reform, advocating for the equitable and sustainable use of water resources to maintain full ecological function and protect cultural values. ALEC is building alliances in its advocacy for a Safe Drinking Water Act in the NT and is conducting research on water pricing and water theft in the NT.

Where can I find more info?

 

References

Larkin, Z.T., Ralph, T.J., Tooth, S., Fryirs, K.A. and Carthey, A.J.R., 2020. Identifying threshold responses of Australian dryland rivers to future hydroclimatic change. Scientific reports, 10(1), pp.1-15. 

Noovao, K. & Tickell, S. J. (2017) Historic groundwater level changes in the Georgina Basin, Technical Report 21/2017D, Northern Territory Department of Environment and Natural Resources

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