Territory Water Controller assures residents Tennant water is safe
Letter to the TDT Editor from Jo Townsend, Northern Territory Controller of Water Resources
On 8 April 2021, I as the Northern Territory Controller of Water Resources, granted a water extraction licence to Fortune Agribusiness Pty Ltd to develop an intensive 3,500 hectare horticultural project on Singleton Station, in the Western Davenport Water Allocation Plan area.
The licence provides up to 12,788 mega litres per year at commencement and increases to 40,000 megalitres per year at full development.
The licence is the largest groundwater allocation granted in the Northern Territory and has been issued for a 30-year term.
The licence comes with strict conditions that must be met before any extraction can occur; and with staged entitlements that are linked to groundwater use and groundwater dependent ecosystem requirements that must also be met and approved.
This monitoring will be published by Fortune Agribusiness as a requirement of its licence. A copy of the Statement of Decision and the Licence that has been issued is available from the Interactive Licence Register at https://depws.nt.gov.au/water/water-information-systems/water-licensing-portal
I have received concern and interest in this decision from some groups and individuals from Alice Springs, Darwin and from Katherine.
There have been some comments made about this decision and its impacts on water availability that I would like to assure residents in Tennant Creek in particular, given your community is in closest proximity to the project.
The water extraction is from the Western Davenport Water Allocation Plan Area, located approximately 150km south of Tennant Creek.
This area is known for having very significant volumes of groundwater of reasonable quality, across three water management zones.
The largest is the Central Plains Management Zone, which is estimated to store 138 million megalitres and has a groundwater consumptive pool of 87,720 ML per year. This is the system where the water under this licence will be extracted from.
There is no risk to the water that supplies Tennant Creek which draws its water from the Cabbage Gum and Kelly Well aquifers and is in the Tennant Creek Water Control District.
The Western Davenport region was identified by the Northern Territory Government over 10 years ago as an area that is very prospective for horticultural production because of its good soils, mild climate and the sufficient availability of groundwater for irrigation.
The groundwater systems that underlie the Western Davenport Water Allocation Plan area are subject to good levels of recharge but this recharge occurs irregularly.
The Central Plains Management Zone groundwater consumptive pool of 87,720 megalitres per year is based on allowing this recharge to be allocated for consumptive use, with a very small reduction in overall stored water.
By way of example, if all of the allowable consumptive use (that is 87,720 megalitres per year) was extracted continuously for 100 years, the impact on the water in the Central Management Zone would be less than a four per cent reduction in total stored volumes.
It is simply not accurate to describe water use in this region as ‘draining the aquifer’ or to suggest that variability in climate or environmental assets have not been considered.
The detail about how the groundwater systems in the Western Davenport Region and the management rules to allow for protection and use of the water resource are outlined in the Western Davenport Water Allocation Plan 2018-2021.
This plan was advised by a Water Advisory Committee and subject to community consultation through its development.
There is also a very detailed technical report written by the Department to advise me on the specific modelled impacts of this decision which is attached to my Statement of Decision here.
I understand the community’s concern about the reliability of the recharge, groundwater dependant ecosystems, size and duration of the water extraction being proposed by Fortune Agribusiness.
Because of the regularity of the recharge and because there are other environmental, social and economic factors to be considered I have included additional requirements of Fortune Agribusiness and the Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security (DEPWS) that feature in this licence, including:
No water infrastructure or water extraction can occur until approvals for land clearing and non-pastoral use permissions have been obtained and until there has been a referral and decision on environmental impacts under the Environment Protection Act.
These approvals must be completed before 31 December 2022.
No extraction can occur until a salt mobility study, an adaptive management triggers and response plan and specific on site confirmation of groundwater dependent ecosystem mapping has occurred.
These are subject to approval by me as the Controller of Water Resources.
The licence is staged according to meeting development milestones and subject to adaptive management. There are four stages as follows:
- Up to 12,788 ML/yr for a period of 2 years as part of stage 1
- Up to 22,845 ML/yr for a period of 2 years as part of stage 2
- Up to 31,779 ML/yr for a period of 2 years as part of stage 3
- Up to 40,000 ML/yr for the remaining period as part of stage 4
Water under this licence will not be released from one stage to the next until it is agreed that the groundwater resource is behaving as predicted and the level of impact to the environment or other uses is no more than that what was predicted in the application; and that water is being used as projected.
There are also time-frames on progress to ensure this project delivers as is broadly intended.
If it cannot meet its milestones for development water for the next stage will not be released.
At full development the project must use it minimum entitlement which is equal to 90 per cent of its annual total maximum entitlement in any one of three consecutive years.
If it fails to do so, the licence will be amended and the unused water returned to the consumptive pool.
A 30-year term has been applied to this licence because of its size, its staging requirements and to support the cropping decisions of the proponent which are predominantly permanent crops including citrus and grapes.
The licence also requires public reporting on its use, its monitoring and adaptive management plans.
There has been commentary about Fortune Agribusiness being backed by Chinese investment and having supply agreements for up to 70 per cent of its horticultural produce with Chinese owned or based companies.
This is not a determining factor in the granting of the licence under the Water Act.
The bona fides of the company and its capacity to use the water as intended is however relevant, and is discussed in my decision.
Pricing has also been raised. This is also not a consideration in the decision.
There are no charges for water that is allocated under the Northern Territory Water Act and no regulatory means to do so.
There are valid arguments for pricing in the Northern Territory around ensuring it is valued and used efficiently.
Companies, such as Fortune Agribusiness, have said that pricing is a deterrent in highly under-developed areas (such as the Western Davenport region).
These companies often refer to the costs they bear in terms of on-site studies to support their water applications, infrastructure and other ongoing costs they will incur, to turn their business plans into reality.
It is not for the Controller of Water Resources (or DEPWS) to present the economic and employment benefits and opportunities that flow from an individual project in a region or to outline how and when this occurs.
I understand that Mr Peter Wood and members of his team from Fortune Agribusiness are planning a visit to Tennant Creek in the near future to make those presentations.
It is however, the purpose of the Water Act, through the granting of water licences, to ensure water is allocated for development across industries such as farming, mining and petroleum and industry uses as well as for drinking water for communities, towns and cities.
The Western Davenport region is still highly prospective for development and there continues to be 36,000 ML per annum of water available to be licenced for use alone in the Central Plains Management Zone of the Western Davenport region, including more than 26,000 megalitres per year through the Strategic Aboriginal Water Reserve.
Anyone wishing to download or review this water licence can do so via nt.gov.au/environment/water
Jo Townsend, Northern Territory Controller of Water Resources.
This letter appeared in the Tennant & District Times, 16 April 2021.