An independent study of the Singleton Horticulture Project has found that it is dependent on a massive public subsidy, promised economic benefits that are overstated, and has significant ecological, cultural and social costs that have not been properly considered.

The report team, led by University of South Australia water economics professor Jeff Connor, analysed the business case put forward for Singleton by Fortune Agribusiness.

Fortune Agribusiness says Singleton will create 110 permanent and 1350 seasonal jobs, but the report finds it delivers little for the Northern Territory. The experts conclude Singleton is likely to generate only 26-36 fulltime equivalent jobs for Territorians, with just 5-8 of those jobs going to Aboriginal communities in the Barkly.

The report says a realistic estimate of economic benefit to Territorians was between $13 million and $28 million a year, rather than the $110 million claimed by Fortune Agribusiness.

By analysing prices paid for water on other Australian projects, the experts estimated the value of the free water subsidy being given to Fortune by the NT Government at between $70 million and $300 million plus.

Professor Connor said Singleton was one of a long line of irrigation proposals that promised more than they delivered.

“The Singleton water project is no exception,” he said. “It seeks the allocation of a large volume of water free of charge in return for employment benefits which are largely illusory, especially as regards the creation of full-time jobs for local indigenous workers.”

The Central Land Council-commissioned report was peer reviewed pro bono by Professor Quentin Grafton of the Australian National University who backed its conclusions.

Professor Grafton found the free water subsidy meant the NT is giving away “in the order of $250m” which “is not justified from either a public interest or a cost-benefit perspective”.

Releasing the report today, Central Land Council chief executive Les Turner said it poses serious questions about the project’s social, cultural and environmental costs.

“Not only has the project failed the economic benefits test, it has also neglected to account for the damage it would do to Aboriginal communities and country”.

Mr Turner said the CLC would continue to stand with traditional owners who oppose the government’s decision to give Fortune 40 gigalitres of finite ground water every year for 30 years.

“We are talking about emptying Sydney Harbour twice, about giving away water worth hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The report finds the NT Government’s lack of proper consultation with Aboriginal communities contradicts the Government’s own policies on Closing the Gap and the Everyone Together 2019-2029 Strategy, and the Government’s obligations under the National Water Initiative.

Review of the Singleton Horticulture Project                                                                    Peer Review by Prof Q. Gratton

The corporation of the native title holders for Singleton Station, south of Tennant Creek, will today serve a claim against the Northern Territory Government.

The Mpwerempwer [pronounced emPUrra-empurra] Aboriginal Corporation is asking the NT Supreme Court to set aside NT Families Minister Kate Worden’s decision to grant Fortune Agribusiness a 30-year groundwater extraction licence for Singleton Station for up to 40 giga litres per year.

The controversial decision concerns the largest amount of groundwater the NT has ever given away – free of charge.

Fortune Agribusiness plans to grow thirsty crops in the desert, largely for export, and is a co-defendant in the claim in which the Central Land Council is acting on behalf of Mpwerempwer.

“We’re asking the court to declare parts of the extraction licence invalid or to quash it altogether,” CLC chief executive Les Turner said.

“We will show that the minister didn’t comply with the NT Water Act, failed to consider Aboriginal cultural values and other important matters, and that her decision was seriously irrational,” he said.

“We will argue that her decision is uncertain – not even a proper decision – because she left so many significant matters to be decided later.

“This uncertainty means that what Fortune Agribusiness is eventually allowed to do might be very different from what it proposed in its licence application.

“The water licence decision is unconscionable considering the impacts of climate change on highly vulnerable desert communities.”

Mr Turner said Minister Worden, acting as the delegate of NT Water Security Minister Eva Lawler, also failed to give Mpwerempwer procedural fairness.

In December the CLC asked the government not to grant any more licences in the water control district which includes Singleton Station until the Wester Davenport water allocation plan has been reviewed.

It called for the freeze due to its grave concerns about the over-allocation of groundwater.

Earlier this month Jo Townsend, the water controller and chief executive of the Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security, told the CLC that she would defer her decisions on new or bigger water licences in the region until a new Western Davenport water allocation plan is declared.

Mr Turner commended that result, saying, “This buys more time to review the science of our aquifers so all the water isn’t given away. This includes Singleton”.

The CLC encourages the NT Government to incorporate scientific best practices in the new water allocation plan and ensure there is enough data to make robust licence decisions.

“More facts, more knowledge, more understanding of our aquifers is needed. Only then can Aboriginal cultural values and the environment be fully protected.”

16 February 2022

The CLC has asked the NT water controller not to grant any more water licences in the Western Davenport water control district, south of Tennant Creek, until the district’s water allocation plan has been reviewed.

“We are very concerned about the risk of over-allocation of groundwater,” CLC chief executive Lesley Turner said.

Already granted licences in the district’s central plains management zone, including the controversial 40,000 mega litres-per-year licence for Singleton Station, take up a massive 51,104 mega litres of water per year.

“Two new licence applications from Neutral Junction Station, southwest of Singleton Station, and Murray Downs Station, southeast of Singleton, add up to 9,475 mega litres per year,” he said.

“If they are also granted, the 60,879 mega litres that are currently estimated to be available would be almost completely used up. This is an unacceptable risk.”

“We urge the water controller to decline the new water licence applications in the interest of the region’s traditional owners, native title holders and Aboriginal residents until a new plan based on a conservative estimate of water availability is in place.

“Their cultural connections and responsibilities for the plants, animals and sacred sites sustained by this groundwater are very much at stake, as are emerging small Aboriginal horticulture businesses.”

The district’s water allocation plan rates the risk of over-allocation as extreme and states that even if water allocation is staged and adaptive management plans are used the risk will remain high.

The expert panel that recently reviewed the water controller’s decision to grant the unprecedented Singleton Station water licence echoed these concerns.

It recommended a review of water availability estimates and said such a review “may result in a reduction in the ESY [estimated sustainable yield]”.

A week ago the water controller declared a new water allocation plan that extends the previous plan for 12 months, pending a water planning review.

“The water controller must also review water availability and certainty as part of this review and not kick the can down the road and leave the job to developers,” Mr Turner said.

The CLC represents traditional owners and native title holders on the water advisory committee which is expected to contribute to the next water allocation plan.

“This process will have no legitimacy without a full review of estimates of water availability backed by rigorous testing and data, rather than the guesswork on which the current plan is based,” Mr Turner said.

“Until further research into groundwater availability has been carried out no further licences must be granted.”

14 December 2021

The Central Land Council is exploring all legal avenues to challenge the Northern Territory Government’s decision to uphold the largest allocation of groundwater ever gifted to a private company in the NT.

“We are alarmed and appalled at the lack of procedural fairness it has afforded the traditional landowners and have no confidence in its decision,” CLC chief executive Les Turner said.

“The government can only rebuild trust if it scraps the licence and starts from scratch, doing a full public assessment of the potential impacts, as its own review panel proposed.”

“We are getting legal advice about our options. The licence is simply too big, too risky and threatens our sacred sites – and the review panel agrees.”
Mr Turner said the decision shows that the government only pays lip service to Aboriginal cultural values.

“The government leaves the company to identify how much water there is, to assess and monitor the impact of the licence on our water sites, such as soakages, trees and dreaming tracks.

“It has abrogated its responsibility to protect our sites and country and handballed it to Fortune Agribusiness.
“As one of our council members reminded no fewer than three NT ministers at our recent council meeting in Tennant Creek: this is not terra nullius – empty land.
“It is rich in important sites that are at risk if the company takes the water it has been so irresponsibly gifted – and again, the review panel agrees.”

The Northern Territory Government tailored guidelines for Fortune Agribusiness, allowing the company to destroy almost a third of groundwater-dependent ecosystems, many of them home to important sites.

“These guidelines only apply to the Western Davenport water control district and fly in the face of the protections for groundwater-dependent ecosystems in the district’s water allocation plan,” Mr Turner said.

“These guidelines were developed to meet the needs of Fortune Agribusiness,” Mr Turner said.

“The government’s decision to uphold the full licence reflects a development-at-any-cost approach that bush voters simply won’t tolerate.”

The CLC submitted expert anthropological and hydrogeological advice to the Singleton licence review panel.
It demonstrated, and the review panel agreed, that the water controller failed to take into account both the flimsiness of the data on which the Western Davenport water allocation plan is based and the existential threat the water licence poses to more than forty sacred sites in the region.
16 November 2021

Grace Kemarre Robinya of Tangentyere Artists has won the $10,000 Vincent Lingiari Art Award for her painting Raining at Laramba.

Chosen by this year’s judge Hetti Perkins, Ms Robinya’s painting was one of 26 finalists responding powerfully to the award’s theme Ngawa, Ngapa, Kapi, Kwatja, Water.

Raining at Laramba depicts country around Napperby Station, where Ms Robinya and her husband worked and raised their family.

Ms Perkins said the work “stood out as an unequivocal, elegant and profound statement about kwatye. It captures the dramatic vistas of rain in desert country and conveys the transformative and life-giving power of water”.

Ms Robinya used to live in the Laramba community, on Napperby, where residents are still forced to drink water that contains three times the level of uranium considered safe.

Born in Ntaria in 1942, she is an accomplished figurative painter whose works frequently feature her signature clouds with sheets of rain.

Her vibrant works for Tangentyere Artists powerfully evoke important life events, locations and contemporary life in the Alice Springs Town camps, where she lives today.

Of her winning work, she said simply, “It’s always raining, summertime, when stockmen mustering. Makes those hills look blue in the north. Raining, raining, all the time raining. Clouds are coming.”

Her work has been included in 55 exhibitions, and she has been a finalist in five significant awards, including the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award.

The exhibition opening at the Tangentyere Artists Gallery in Alice Springs last night is the third collaboration between Desart, the Central Land Council and Tangentyere Artists since they launched inaugural Vincent Lingiari Art Award in 2016.

This year’s theme asked artists from across Central Australia to reflect on the significance of water for their collective survival on their country.

“The scandalous situation in Ms Robinya’s home community of Laramba illustrates perfectly why we have seen such a strong response to this year’s theme,” CLC chief executive Les Turner said.

Hetti Kemerre Perkins, curator, writer and daughter of the CLC’s first director Charlie Perkins, shortlisted 26 of a record number of 47 entries.

The award was co-curated by Ms Perkins and Marisa Maher, curator and assistant manager at the Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre in Mparntwe/Alice Springs.

Ms Perkins said the artists’ response to the theme ranged from works that were overtly political, with their calls to stop fracking and memories of now destroyed landscapes and important sites and send an urgent message about the importance of water.

“The water underground and overhead, in soaks, rockholes and creeks is our lifeblood, an essential part of the ancient ecology that we are part of.

“This delicate balance cannot be tampered with and the NT and Australian governments need to sit up and take notice of the truth our people are telling them, and nowhere more clearly than in our art,” she said.

Congratulating the winner, Desart CEO Philip Watkins said “Grace’s work is evocative of all that brings joy with rain, its life giving force, and its cultural significance.

“Safe, clean water is a fundamental right, yet many communities continue to struggle for this.”

“All the artists’ works in this exhibition respond to the emergency and fight for water rights”, he said.

The members of the CLC voted for their favourite award entry during their August council meeting near Vincent Lingiari’s home community of Daguragu.

On Wednesday night, Timothea Palmer accepted the CLC Delegates’ Choice Award on behalf of her mother, Leah Leaman, from Vincent Lingiari’s granddaughter Rosie Smiler.

The painting of Ms Leaman, who works out of the community’s Karungkarni Art and Culture Centre, celebrates her love of fishing in rivers and waterholes, of wetland brolgas and bush flowers.

Her work Following the Waterways tells the story of a couple, “the last of their kind”, who “followed the waterways by foot all the way from here to the coast … with their beloved dogs, billycan, hook spear and rolled-up little calico swag, never getting lost.”

Desart member art centres and artists with strong links to the CLC region were eligible to enter in the Vincent Lingiari Art Award.

The exhibition runs until the 13 October and features a walk through gallery developed with Agency Projects at

The award is supported by the Peter Kittle Motor Company and Newmont Australia.

It kicks off a festival of Aboriginal art and culture this week in Alice Springs, including Desart’s Photography Prize which opens this Thursday and celebrates its 10th anniversary.

9 September 2021

Media contacts: Elke Wiesmann,, 0417 877 579 and Carmel    Young,, 0411 534 913

Desart, the Central Land Council and Tangentyere Artists are proud to present the third Vincent Lingiari Art Award on Wednesday, September 8.

The winner of this year’s $10,000 prize, chosen by art curator and writer Hetti Kemerre Perkins, will be announced at 5:30pm at the Tangentyere Artists Gallery in Alice Springs. 

The exhibition features paintings and sculptures by 26 finalists who have responded to the theme Ngawa, Ngapa, Kapi, Kwatja, Water, which reflects just some of the many languages of Central Australia.

As CLC chair Sammy Wilson has said, “water rights are the new land rights”, and with a record 47 entries this year’s theme has certainly resonated. 

“We chose the theme because without safe, secure and adequate sources of water the spiritual, cultural and physical survival of our constituents on their own land is under threat,” CLC chief executive Les Turner said.

“This year’s Vincent Lingiari Art Award highlights the campaign for Aboriginal water rights the Northern Territory land councils kicked off last year with their call for a safe drinking water act,” Desart chief executive Philip Watkins said.

The chair of Tangentyere and inaugural winner of the Vincent Lingiari Art Award, Marlene Rubuntja, said the award “gives Aboriginal artists the opportunity to work to themes that are important not only to us but to everyone. Water is life”.

Ms Perkins said the artists’ response to the theme covered a range of viewpoints, from overtly political works with their calls to stop fracking to the beauty of cultural stories as old as water itself. 

She co-curated the exhibition with curator and assistant manager of the Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands art centre, Marisa Maher.

“It’s great that despite the Sydney lockdown we are still able to work collaboratively on this important exhibition,” Ms Maher said.

The winner of the CLC delegates choice award, selected by the council members on Vincent Lingiari’s country, will also be presented by Mr Lingiari’s granddaughters on the night.

Tangentyere Artists’ COVID plan is in place, and those wishing to attend must register via

The event will be live screened on Desart socials, Insta: @desartinc.


Elke Wiesmann – Central Land Council 0417 877 579

Carmel Young – Desart Inc   0411 534 913

Traditional owner representatives will only get 45 minutes to make their case against the massive Singleton Station water licence during a secretive review panel hearing and have been barred from listening to the other opponents and the proponents of the licence.

The public and the media are excluded from the hearing on Friday, 3 September, in Darwin which will review the controversial 40,000 megalitre-a-year, 30 year licence decision.

Fortune Agribusiness, the company that wants to use the water to grow export crops in the desert, and the government department that supported the grant of the licence will appear before the panel in secret, without any interested parties present.

“The public and the landowners are being kept in the dark about the most audacious attempt to give away a public resource to big business in the Territory’s history,” Central Land Council chief executive Lesley Turner said.

To make matters worse, the licence review is being rushed through before a review of the region’s water allocation plan that must conclude at the end of this year.

The existing plan rates the risk of changes to future estimates of water availability as ”extreme” and the new plan could include a much lower estimate of the amount of water available for Fortune Agribusiness’ and other development projects.

 “This hasty process illustrates everything that’s rotten about NT water policy,” Mr Turner said.

“We provided hundreds of pages of expert evidence about sacred sites threatened by the NT’s largest-ever water licence and about very concerning hydrogeological problems, but our lawyer gets less than an hour to present on highly complex issues and answer questions.”

The CLC’s request to listen to the presentations from other applicants has also been declined.

“This is even though a recent four-hour review hearing about two water licences at Larrimah allowed applicants to be present for the entire hearing. What are they trying to hide about Singleton?”

The other applicants to the Singleton licence review panel hearing, the Centrefarm Aboriginal Horticulture, the Environment Centre NT and the Arid Land Environment Centre, also have just 45 minutes each to present new information and respond to questions.

In the case of the Larrimah water licence decisions the report from the review panel to the Environment Minister Eva Lawler was kept secret.

“We fully expect that the panel’s report about Singleton will meet the same fate but we appeal to her to do the right thing and make the report publicly available,” said Mr Turner.

Singleton Pastoral Lease and surrounding water drawdown areas across Neutral Junction Pastoral Lease, Warrabri Aboriginal Land Trust and Iliyarne Aboriginal Land Trust,
Northern Territory, Australia.

An anthropological survey commissioned by the Central Land Council has revealed that the drawdown area of the Northern Territory’s largest water licence is home to dozens of groundwater-dependent sacred sites that the licence puts at great risk.

The country around Singleton Station, where the NT Government plans to gift Fortune Agriculture 40,000 mega litres of water per year for 30 years to grow export crops, is rich in songlines and Aboriginal cultural sites that depend on underground water for their very survival.

More than 80 traditional owners, native title holders and affected remote community residents spent much of June visiting the region south of Tennant Creek with independent anthropologist Susan Dale Donaldson and identified 29 different groundwater-dependent sacred sites and related dreaming tracks that would be threatened by the massive water licence. 

The named sites include waterholes, soakages, springs, and sacred trees across the Singleton and Neutral Junction stations and the Warrabri and Iliyarne Aboriginal land trusts.

“Our people are responsible for the protection of the places that embody the Dreaming. Damaging these sites that represent their deceased ancestors threatens their spiritual wellbeing and their vital cultural connection to their country,” CLC chief executive Les Turner said.

“That’s why we urge the NT water security minister to take the findings of the survey very seriously as she reviews the controversial water licence decision.”

The survey participants worry desperately about how the sheer scale of the planned water extraction will affect their rights to hunt and collect bush foods and medicine, develop their country and teach their next generations.

“There is a lot of Ngappa Wirnkarna (Rain Dreaming) around the Singleton area. Karlu Karlu (the Devils Marbles), Wakurlpu, Warlaparnpa – all these places were made by Nappa Wirnkarra, all these places will be affected if there is no water,” traditional owner Michael Jones said.

“The story will be there, still alive, the song will be there and still be sung, but we will be sad when we go to that place all dead. The story will be weaker for younger people because the places will be ruined.

“We take them to soakages that are gone and to country that is sick. We have lost other soakages when they put in bores.”

Although the region’s water allocation plan highlights the lack of knowledge about Aboriginal cultural values in the drawdown area as an “extreme” risk, the licence conditions the NT imposed on the company don’t include the need to protect Aboriginal cultural sites.

Sacred site clearance work has only been carried out around the 3,500 hectare area on the cattle station that would be cleared for export crops, but the drawdown area that would be impacted by the unprecedented volume of the water extraction is five times that size.

Mr Turner said the CLC commissioned the survey of the drawdown area because the NT failed to carry out a baseline assessment of cultural values on which the company would base its so-called adaptive management plan.

“We had absolutely no confidence that this critically important survey work would be done in time and to a rigorous standard because the government is clearly only paying lip service to the rights and interests of remote community residents and traditional owners,” he said.

“Remember, the decision to grant the licence is not based on solid scientific data but on mere guesswork and if the modelling turns out to be even slightly wrong, those sites are in mortal danger.

“If there is even a small drop in the water table, our soakages will disappear for good, our springs will dry up and our animals will die along with our trees.”

“By the time we see any warning signs, by the time stands of sacred trees that are part of a songline begin to look sick, it is already be too late because the changes are irreversible,” said Mr Turner.

Survey participants also reported feeling disempowered by the water licence decision, with David Curtis saying that extracting water from the desert “makes no sense. We can’t be certain it can be recharged and rain is not as reliable as it used to be”.

“I can’t believe the government did this. Aboriginal people should have control over water, it is part of our country. We thought we had land rights but what good is land without water?” Mr Curtis said.

Maureen O’Keefe, who grew up in the drawdown area, told Ms Dale Donaldson: “We know what’s about to happen, there is about to be a water crisis. We have to stop it before it happens.”

12 August 2021

For a summary of the survey report please go to and contact us for images.

The Central Land Council executive insists that the NT Government withdraw amendments scheduled for debate today which threaten traditional owner rights in jointly managed NT parks and lower the bar for the NT’s already poor water regulations even further.

Meeting in Alice Springs today, the executive intervened after the government repeatedly ignored calls to scrap the controversial amendments.

“They are clearly not listening to us, they are being very sneaky and they are only paying lip service to our land and water rights,” said CLC chair Sammy Wilson.

“This government is a threat to joint management and the water reforms we have been crying out for.”

CLC chief executive Lesley Turner said the amendments to the Territory Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act are so badly written that they threaten joint management of 20 national parks, such as Watarrka/Kings Canyon and the Iytwelepenty/Davenport Ranges National Park that the traditional owners have leased to the government for 99 years.

“We are very concerned that the amendments, which give the government a new power to authorise development on parks without needing the consent of traditional owners, could breach the leases for jointly managed parks and allow the owners to start a process of terminating them.”

“It’s scandalous that the government admitted to us that there are problems with its controversial amendments but said that they’ll pass them regardless and talk to us later about how to fix them,” he said.

“That’s what you get when you try to pass complicated legislation quickly and don’t have a scrutiny committee or any process of public consultation, accountability and transparency.”

Mr Turner also deplored the tabling of amendments to the Water Act designed to further reduce the already weak protections of our most precious resource.

“The government pretends it is merely tidying up the legislation but its real aim is to give more power to the water controller who is part of the department that is talking to developers about how they can get water licences.

“The amendments will allow the water controller to grant licences that bypass the strict conditions to protect water and cultural values we desperately need.

“We want to reform the Water Act first to remove clear conflicts of interest, for example by making the office of the water controller an independent body,” he said.

MEDIA CONTACT: Sasha Pavey | 0488 984 885|

The Central Land Council has urged the NT Government to withdraw a raft of controversial legislative amendments designed to further undermine the already weak protections of the Territory’s water.

The council is seeking the withdrawal of the proposed Territory Economic Reconstruction Committee (TERC) Omnibus Bill and the Environmental Law Bills which are due to be tabled at the August sittings of the Legislative Assembly and would significantly amend the NT Water Act 1992.

“The government must withdraw all water-related amendments until it has released a comprehensive water reform strategy for public scrutiny,” CLC chief executive Lesley Turner said.

The CLC is concerned the proposed changes fast track development but neglect urgently needed reforms to protect remote community drinking water, create a genuinely independent water regulator and overhaul water planning processes to make them more transparent.

“We are very concerned that the proposed amendments will further lower the bar for water licence approvals and shift ministerial oversight to unelected public servants,” Mr Turner said.

“The changes will make it easier for developers and speculators to get 30-year groundwater licences for free and for the responsible minister to shift accountability for decisions to the unelected water controller.”

The CLC has written to the Chief Minister to protest about the lack of public consultation about the proposed changes and the inadequate information about the bills it has received since it met with senior government staffers and the water controller in early June.

“Staff of the Department of Environment assured us that no further legislative reform would proceed without consultation,” Mr Turner said.
“We are appalled to find more substantive amendments to the Water Act published on the department’s website, without notice, just weeks later.

“Having failed to properly inform traditional landowners and invite public comment the government now seems intent on preventing us all from considering the wide-ranging implications of the proposed legislation,” Mr Turner said.

“What happened to the chief minister’s commitment to transparent government?”

Under the current Water Act the water minister must identify special circumstances, for example that the scientific understanding of a water resource is well established and certain, before granting licences for more than 10 years.

MEDIA CONTACT: Sasha Pavey | 0488 984 885|

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. 

Read a summary of Dr Vogwill’s advice

Native title holders on Singleton Station.

Native title holders and community residents have asked the Central Land Council to fight a water licence decision on Singleton Station if it is approved unchanged. Fortune Agribusiness has applied to pump up more than 40 billion litres of water annually, for 30 years, to grow fruit and vegetables on the pastoral lease south of Tennant Creek.

If the government grants the controversial application, the company would be able to take, free of charge, every 12 months more than four times as much drinking water as Alice Springs uses in a year.

It would be the largest private water allocation in the Territory’s history and would irrigate one of Australia’s biggest horticulture projects.

Native title holder Roger Tommy said the company is asking for too much. “We don’t want them to take all that water, we may have no water left for our communities,” he said. “They can have two bores, but no more than that. If you got a big mob of bore, you’re using up too much water.”

Senior knowledge holder Donald Thompson, who grew up in the region and worked around Singleton, said the proposal may be too risky.

“We’re worried that the country will dry out, and with no water there’ll be losses of all the animals and wildlife,” he said. “That’s why we’re talking really strongly to the government about this proposal.”

Traditional owners, residents, businesses and scientists are concerned that too little is known about how the company’s plan would affect native plants, animals, sacred sites and community drinking water in years to come.

A big meeting of native title holders and affected residents in Tennant Creek in February said independent water scientists must be allowed to check the licence, its conditions, the company’s ‘adaptive management framework’ and the way the government plans to manage the licence – a process known as ‘peer review’.

If that review shows it is too unsustainable and risky the meeting wants the CLC to fight the decision.

“We’re worried about the water levels dropping and we want to consult with people who know how much water there really is,” Mr Thompson said. “We got to know how much [water] is in the ground because that’s an important resource that could be lost. That knowledge should inform the decision. The government should find it out first, before they start making big project decisions.”

Elder Michael Jones implored the meeting to think about future generations. “Twenty to 40 years down the track – will the traditional owners have enough water?” he asked.

“Our kids got to survive, and the animals. They need to do more testing about how long that water is going to last.”

Independent water scientist Dr Ryan Vogwill has reviewed the Northern Territory Government’s water planning on which the Fortune Agribusiness application is based. He warned the meeting that the planning is “high risk” because it is based on too little information.

Dr Vogwill said the planning ignores the most culturally and ecologically important places, such as wetlands, springs and soaks, an oversight he called a “major gap”.

“There are more gaps than there are areas with a high level of understanding”, he said.

Water expert Dr Dylan Irvine, from Charles Darwin University, has also criticised the lack of data. “There’s modelling from Fortune Agribusiness. The issue with that model is it’s based on scant data, and we don’t know what the impact on salinity is going to be in the shallow aquifer region,” he said.

Dr Vogwill found there were “high levels of uncertainty” about the modelling and about how plants and animals would be affected. He wrote “the Murray-Darling is a good example of what happens” when lots of water is taken out of a system before we know what will happen down the track.

Tim Bond, a senior government water planner, told the meeting “we know enough about what’s likely to happen. We have put together a model based on our best estimate”. He said more research and monitoring would happen after a licence decision.

The government plans to practice ‘adaptive management’, saying it could cut back the water allocation if there turns out to be less water than it thinks.

The company would “get a little bit of water and if all goes well they get a bit more”, Mr Bond said.

“Adaptive management means that you are reacting to a problem when it has already happened,” executive member Michael Liddle countered. “There’s too many unknowns to take this risk.”

“You can’t give us a straight answer and we’re not happy with the whole process,” he said.

The process “is fraught with risk that may result in undesirable impacts on the environment or big reductions in allocations that may have serious project feasibility or negative economic outcomes,” according to Dr Vogwill.

No wonder small Aboriginal-owned horticulture pilot projects around Singleton are feeling threatened.

Centrefarm applied on behalf of the Iliyarne Aboriginal Land Trust for a 1,000 megalitre water licence for a horticultural operation south of Wycliffe Well. The company also trains young people at its horticulture training centre near Alekarenge, with promising results.

It fears these projects could become unviable if all of the Singleton application is granted.

“Teenagers who have been disengaged from school have been attending to learn about horticulture and are growing, harvesting and selling their own veggies to the community,” Centrefarm’s Joe Clarke said.

“The project is giving these young people opportunities to work on country, but its future depends on nearby Aboriginal-owned projects having sustainable access to groundwater that could be threatened by the massive Singleton application.

“It would be a real shame if the allocation put our training centre and Iliyarne’s plans at risk. These young people are the future and they must be the priority,” he said.

Native title holder Heather Anderson struggled with the idea that horticulture companies would get the water for free from the NT Government. “Water is not for free, water belongs to the land. It should stay there,” she told the Guardian news site.

The ‘free’ water is worth a lot of money, and that attracts companies to the Territory. “If this water was being extracted from the Murray Darling Basin, we’d be talking in the order of $20 million a year for that water use,” Dr Irvine told the ABC.

Mr Liddle does not believe the government will ask the company to pull out fruit trees and irrigation lines later on, if its “guesswork” turns out to be wrong.

Native title holders with their painting of Singleton Station.

“No future government will have the political will to cut back the water allocations of companies that have already invested millions of dollars,” he said.

Nobody may find out if there are problems because the government trusts the company to do the monitoring.

Maureen O’Keefe grew up around Singleton, where her parents worked and met.

“We’re not worrying about money, we’re worrying about life,” she told the meeting.

“We have climate change and we don’t have rainfall every year. I’ve been crying for this country. All the springs will be dried out. Then we got no name for them anymore. All the cultural sites will suffer and we will have no stories to tell for our kids,” she said.

CLC chief executive Joe Martin-Jard is also concerned that the government’s planning does not take into account global heating. “We’re mining a very precious, finite fossil resource that is likely to dwindle even further due to climate change and more frequent droughts,” he said.

“It would be extraordinary if it made such a far reaching decision based on assumptions and guesswork.”

Environment groups said the application should be rejected because even small errors in the government’s modelling could cause irreversible problems.

“There is no guarantee of how or when those water resources and the communities and ecosystems that rely on them would recover,” Kirsty Howey, from Environment NT, told the Guardian.

“And we’re not sure that they would, in fact, ever recover. That means that extreme caution should be exercised.”

CLC executive member Michael Liddle agreed. “Our water is too precious to rush this or get it wrong.”

“Too precious to rush this”: NT Government’s water controller urged to delay huge horticulture water license decision until impacts are known

The Central Land Council has called on the Northern Territory’s water controller not to approve a 40,000 megalitre-a-year water license application for Singleton Station, south of Tennant Creek, until more is known about the impacts of the proposal on more than 1000 affected residents.

“We are very concerned about the lack of scientific data about groundwater availability and how such a massive and unprecedented proposal would affect the water our people, animals and plants are relying on for their long-term survival,” said CLC executive member Michael Liddle.

Fortune Agribusiness last year applied for 40,000 megalitres of publicly owned water to be set aside each year for 30 years, for free.

This is more than eight times the amount of water Alice Springs uses in a year and would become the biggest groundwater licence in the history of the Territory.

“It would be extraordinary if the government made such a far reaching decision based on assumptions and guesswork,” said CLC chief executive Joe Martin-Jard.

“There are big gaps in our knowledge about the region’s groundwater and how it moves between the network of aquifers.”

“We’re mining a very precious, finite resource that is likely to dwindle even further due to climate change and more frequent droughts,” he said.

“That’s why we want the government to collect data to verify its assumptions and modelling about how much water is really underground and test the impact of irrigation on groundwater dependent ecosystems and cultural sites before allowing this proposal to go ahead.”

The CLC is also concerned that the controversial application, if granted, will set a dangerous precedent that may jeopardise proposed small and sustainable Aboriginal-controlled water horticulture projects in the region.

Its constituents want to know a lot more about the potential impacts of the proposal, including on their drinking water, before a careful and evidence-based decision on the application is made.

In November, following a community meeting in Alekarenge, the CLC asked Water Minister Eva Lawler to delay a decision until after the ceremony season to allow a meeting of affected remote community residents, traditional owners and native title holders to go ahead in Tennant Creek on 24 February.

However, it has learned the water controller plans to make a decision about the allocation next week.

Any allocation could be followed by what the government calls ‘adaptive management’, where the allocation would be varied over time, in line with how much water will be found to be actually available.

“Does anyone really believe that if their guesswork turns out to be wrong they will ask the company to pull out fruit trees and irrigation lines later on?” Mr Liddle asked.

“No future government will have the political will to cut back the water allocations of companies that have already invested millions of dollars.

“Our water is too precious to rush this or get it wrong. Our communities deserve to know the facts before a decision is made.”

Download the CLC Fact Sheet on the Singleton Station water allocation decision.

The four Northern Territory land councils condemn the unacceptable lack of protection for safe and adequate drinking water in the NT.

Meeting in Darwin with NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner and opposition party leaders, the land councils called for urgent legislation to ensure that all Territorians have access to safe drinking water.

The land councils want all parties to commit to enacting a Safe Drinking Water Act that provides regulatory protection and accountability for the safe and adequate water for all.

Communities throughout the NT – from the north to the south – are experiencing poor water quality and water stresses, for example Kintore, Yuendumu, Willowra, Yuelamu, Ntaria (Hermannsburg), Imanpa, Mutitjulu, Willora, Wutunugurra, Alekarange, Utopia, Alpurrurulam, Warruwi, Bulla, Numbulwar, Ngukurr, Milingimbi, Wurrumiyanga and Laramba.

Central Land Council chief executive Joe Martin-Jard said residents of the Laramba community, three hours northwest of Alice Springs, are drinking water that contains three times the level of uranium than is recommended as safe by the World Health Organisation.

“The lack of legislative protection out bush is discriminatory and constitutes negligence by the Northern Territory Government,” he said.

“That’s why we want whoever forms the next NT government to bring in legally enforceable minimum standards for drinking water quality and security.”

“All Territorians, not just those living in major towns, have a right to safe and adequate drinking water,” Northern Land Council Chairman Samuel Bush-Blanasi said.

“Bush voters deserve to know how the parties are planning to ensure they can enjoy this right.”

The land councils say existing water legislation must also be amended to prioritise future drinking water reserves over all other uses.

“These legislative changes must be supported by an overarching water security strategy to protect our most precious resource,” Tiwi Land Council chief executive Andrew Tipungwuti said.

“Any party vying for the bush vote must commit to significantly increasing spending on repair, replacement and maintenance of ageing remote water infrastructure and installation of proven technological solutions to better use non-potable water.”

Anindilyakwa Land Council chair Tony Wurramarrba added that all funding decisions about water infrastructure and services must be transparent, and involve the land councils.

“Too many of our communities are running out of water or are forced to drink polluted water. We need to be involved in deciding on water infrastructure and services on Aboriginal land,” he said.

CLC: Elke Wiesmann / 0417 877 579 /

NLC: Leah McLennan/ 0427 031 382