The Northern Territory Water Controller has granted a licence to a cattle station that could see the eventual extraction of 40,000 megalitres of groundwater per year.
- The owners of Singleton Station plan to develop a “nationally significant” horticultural project
- The NT Water Controller says the company will need to meet various conditions
- Traditional owners are considering challenging the decision
Fortune Agribusiness wants to develop a $150 million “nationally significant” horticultural project on Singleton Station – 380 kilometres north of Alice Springs – in which up to 3,500 hectares of land would be irrigated to grow onions, rockmelons, citrus, grapes and other crops.
While Fortune’s water application was being considered, the traditional owners of Singleton Station expressed concerns over the amount of water to be extracted.
In February they said they would formally challenge any granting of a water licence.
On Thursday, NT Water Controller Jo Townsend approved Singleton’s groundwater licence in four stages:
- Stage 1 – 12,788 ML/year for a period of two years from the approval date
- Stage 2 – 22,845 ML/year for a period of two years from the approval date
- Stage 3 – 31,779 ML/year for a period of two years from the approval date
- Stage 4 – 40,000 ML/year for a period of two years from the approval date
If Singleton is granted final approval to extract 40,000 megalitres per year it will be the largest single water licence ever issued in the NT.
Conditions for increases
Ms Townsend told ABC Rural that Fortune Agribusiness would be required to meet “certain milestones and management conditions prior to it proceeding to the next stage”.
“There is a lot of onus on the proponent to use the water as allocated and proceed in a staged way to ensure the water is used as it should be,” she said.
Before it can start pumping water, Fortune Agribusiness must meet conditions around groundwater-dependent ecosystems and complete the mapping of the station on foot.
“They need to prepare an adaptive management plan that outlines how they will change, say, their pumping regime or their bore structure, should there be outcomes they don’t expect,” Ms Townsend said.
The company must also apply for land clearing permits, a non-pastoral use permit and a possible referral under the Environment Protection Act, before horticultural development can begin.
‘Simply too big’
Central Land Council chief executive Joe Martin-Jard said the organisation was working through the water licence and was considering whether to challenge the decision.
“We think it’s simply too big,” Mr Martin-Jard said
“We reserve the right to appeal, but that appeal will be based on independent, expert advice that we will be seeking as soon as we can understand the decision a bit better.”
Organisations have 30 days to appeal the water controller’s decision.
‘Incredible amount of work’
Ms Townsend said her team had done an “incredible amount of work” on the water licence approval.
“There is a new groundwater model here, there has been significant work to understand the cultural requirements and also the groundwater-dependent ecosystems in the area,” she said.
“But with any area that has not been widely developed there is uncertainty, and that’s why this licence requires the proponent to do additional work before they can commence extraction.
“There are also triggers that will be in the management plan, so that should the water resource behave in a way that is not anticipated or modelled, there will be certain management action they will be required to take.”
In a statement to ABC Rural, Fortune Agribusiness chairman Peter Wood said the company welcomed the staged approach for its water licence.
“We note that the aquifer we are drawing from has a modelled storage volume of 138,314,000ML,” Mr Wood said.
“The maximum 40,000ML per year withdrawal that the licence anticipates represents less than 0.03 per cent per annum of the overall aquifer volume.
“Now that the water extraction licence has been granted we will work to get the remaining approvals as soon as practicable, including formal approval from the NT Environment Protection Authority.
“In parallel, we will complete the detailed planning for the first stage development, which we hope to commence in mid-2022.”
NT Farmers back licence
NT Farmers chief executive Paul Burke said it was the right decision.
“The process has been a fairly long one, but I guess with this volume of water it needs to be an extremely rigorous process,” he said.
He said the area was already successfully growing hay, watermelon and peanuts, and expected the region would attract more investment in the coming years.
“There’s still significant levels of water available [for other irrigation projects],” Mr Burke said.
“There’s also strategic Aboriginal water reserves in that region, so I think there are some really good opportunities for all Territorians to benefit from what’s happening in that Western Davenport region.”