The Central Land Council is applying for a review of the unprecedented decision to gift a private company 40,000 megalitres of finite water reserves each year for three decades to grow fruit and vegetables in the desert, largely for export.
In addition to a review under the Northern Territory’s Water Act, the CLC is also seeking an independent peer review of the ‘adaptive management’ plan the Northern Territory Government has asked the company, Fortune Agribusiness, to complete.
The CLC has asked the government to halt all activity in the meantime to ensure the integrity of the the review process.
“We call on the government to immediately stop the native vegetation clearance and non-pastoral use permits for the company, as well as the environmental impact assessment,” CLC chief executive Lesley Turner said.
Meeting in Tennant Creek, an hour’s drive north of Singleton Station, the CLC delegates considered independent hydrogeological advice which confirmed that neither the government’s water license decision nor its approach to managing it come close to addressing the concerns of the area’s native title holders and affected community residents.
“We have received independent expert advice that the license decision does nothing to assuage the grave concerns these groups have raised,” said Mr Turner.
“Our constituents now want us to pursue all avenues for objection because too little is known about how the decision will affect community drinking water for decades to come, including the impact on native plants, animals and sacred sites.”
“There is not enough data to address concerns of constituents or independent scientists” said Mr Turner.
“Frankly, they have no faith in the government’s capacity to manage the license in the public interest and are concerned that its decision is based on little more than guesswork.”
Independent hydrogeologist Dr Ryan Vogwill said the government’s water resource and impact assessment were “simplistic, based on inadequate investigations and very little site-specific data”.
Dr Vogwill said the “rushed approval process” for the Singleton allocation fell “well short of” what would be required for far smaller water allocation decisions in his home state of Western Australia, a world leader in groundwater management.
He found a major flaw of the allocation planning and impact assessment is that it ignores the most culturally and ecologically important places, such as numerous wetlands, springs and soaks.
He questioned whether the NT Government’s ‘adaptive management’ approach will be able to deal with its “insufficient understanding of impact risk”.
“It is fraught with problems and there have been serious issues in this context in other jurisdictions,” he warned.
“Adaptive management needs a really strong understanding of the water resource, biodiversity/cultural values and ground water dependent ecosystems impact potential to be successful, particularly in the long term.“This project does not currently have this.”
Dr Vogwill said the government lacks the five to 10 years of data that would be required to “understand groundwater-environment-cultural linkages in sufficient detail to develop strong management criteria”.
Negative environmental impacts may not show up for a decade or more, “but by then it will be difficult to restrict/reduce the project’s water allocation as approval for the full licence will occur in a similar timeframe”.
Mr Turner said the only credible response to this devastating advice is to seek an independent peer review of Fortune Agribusiness’ ‘adaptive management’ plan. “This government has promised to be transparent, so we expect it to publish all the information independent scientists need to do their job,” he said.
Mr Turner said that without an independent review, the government would be putting the company in charge of managing a precious and finite public resource without scrutiny and transparency.
“We will not let them put the fox in charge of the hen house,” he said.