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NT Water Controller just granted the largest water allocation in Territory history. What happens next?

The NT Water Controller has granted a licence that could see the eventual extraction of 40 billion litres of groundwater per year - the largest water allocation in Territory history. 

Fortune Agribusiness will receive the water for free from the NT Government to develop “intensive irrigated horticulture” on Singleton station. More than 70 percent of the produce will be for export. 

A water licence of this size will have a significant impact on the environment. The water table will be lowered by up to 50 metres. Ecosystems will suffer and potentially be destroyed. Too little is known about the impact on cultural sites and the drinking water supply of almost 1,000 Aboriginal residents in the region.

This decision is really disappointing, but the fight isn’t over yet. There is a role for all of us to play in resisting this decision.  Keep reading to learn what the decision means, what is going to happen next, and what you can do about it. 

Can Fortune Agribusiness start pumping 40 billion litres of water tomorrow? 

No. There are eight conditions that have to be met before Fortune Agribusiness are entitled to pump any water. Under the licence, they have until 31 December 2022 to meet these conditions. 

The conditions include:

  • Obtaining Environmental Assessment approvals;
  • Obtaining a non-pastoral land use permit;
  • Obtaining a land clearing permit;
  • Further mapping and on the ground surveys of groundwater dependent ecosystems. If the predicted impact from this mapping exceeds the Guideline limits then the bore fields may need to be redesigned or a revised pumping scheduled for the existing borefield design;
  • Undertaking an assessment of potential salinity impacts to the land and water resources;
  • Developing an adaptive management plan that establishes clear and measurable objectives including quantitative triggers and limits which will initiate adaptive management actions. Adaptive management responses may alter the development’s pumping schedule;
  • Developing a monitoring program to assess the impact of water taken on groundwater levels. 

This means there will be extensive regulatory requirements that must be met and continue to be met for the development to be able to access water.

If all these conditions are met, is Fortune Agribusiness entitled to all 40000ML?

No. The licence has been granted under a staged allocation, there are four stages:

Stage 1 (Years 1-2): 12 788 ML/Year
Stage 2 (Years 3-4): 22845 ML/ Year
Stage 3 (Years 5-6): 31779 ML/ Year
Stage 4 (Years 7-29): 40000 ML/ Year

To proceed to the next stage, Fortune Agribusiness will need to use a minimum of 90% of the allocation of that stage and ensure that the level of environmental degradation does not exceed the Northern Territory Government required standards as per the existing guidelines and water allocation plans. For these standards to be upheld, it is vital that there is comprehensive monitoring and compliance. 

If there are so many regulatory layers around this development, why should we care? 

The potential impacts from this development are huge. This is the largest water licence in the Territory’s history. The impacts include:

  • Lowering the water table by up to 50 metres over the 30-year period.  Any vegetation or fauna that relies on shallow groundwater will die;
  • Potential impacts on the drinking supply of 1000 nearby residents;
  • As 40 billion litres of irrigated water evaporates, approximately 40000 tonnes of salt will be left on or near the surface over the life of the development. This salt will pollute the soil and may pollute the aquifer and any caves;
  • The development damaging and potentially permanently destroying groundwater dependent ecosystems for a projected 50km; 
  • Up to 30% of all groundwater dependent ecosystems nearby the development site will be allowed to be destroyed;  
  • The Northern Territory Government is setting a precedent for the industrialisation of pastoral land, signalling to developers that the Territory is willing to give away billions of litres of precious public water for free. 

In addition, we have serious concerns at the existing capacity of the Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security, as well as that of the Environment Protection Authority (EPA). This approval is surrounded by regulatory obligations, but monitoring, compliance and enforcement can only be done if the resourcing is present. The Department and EPA are already stretched in their resourcing capacity.  The EPA only has a $750, 000 budget yet they are responsible for the oversight of hundred million dollar projects across the Territory. 

Can we challenge this decision?

Under Section 30 of the Northern Territory Water Act, we have 30 days to send the water licence application for review. This review would be sent to Environment Minister Eva Lawler to determine whether the decision to grant the licence is upheld or whether the decision needs to be reconsidered.

This means ALEC and other groups have the next 30 days to refer this decision to Minister Lawler.  

It is highly likely that Section 30 will be used by ALEC and/or others, but we will first seek independent advice before making a decision publicly. 

What can be done right now?

We need your help in continuing to put public pressure on decision-makers about this licence. 

We urge you to pick up the phone and make a quick call to the Environment Minister’s office and the Water Controller’s office to raise your concerns. 

Environment Minister Eva Lawler

(08) 8936 5566

NT Water Controller's office 

08 8999 4455

A water licence of this size would have a significant impact on the environment. Traditional Owners and the Central Land Council continue to voice strong concerns. More than 21,000 people have signed a petition opposing the licence. 

We all need to take action to help resist this decision. You can help by phoning Minister Lawler and the Water Controller's office and leaving a respectful and strong message against this decision. 

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