EDO lawyers are heading to Court this week, September 7 – 9, for a hearing over the legal challenge to the approval of the Territory’s largest ever groundwater licence.
Our client, the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC), launched judicial review proceedings in the NT Supreme Court in February 2022 to challenge the decision by the Northern Territory Government in November 2021 to re-grant a groundwater licence to Fortune Agribusiness.
ALEC is concerned that the Singleton Station development is likely to cause serious environmental and cultural harm and destroy nearby groundwater-dependent ecosystems.
The 30-year licence allows Fortune to increase extraction over time up to 40,000 megalitres of water a year, after year 7, to grow irrigated fruit and vegetable crops for export at Singleton Station in Central Australia.
It is by far the largest groundwater licence ever approved in the NT. The licence is more than 2.5X the size of the next largest licence, which is 15,400 megalitres.
The NT does not currently have a water pricing regime and does not charge developers for water.
Our lawyers will argue on behalf of ALEC that the government’s approval breaches the Water Act 1992 (NT) and key provisions in the Western Davenport Water Allocation Plan (WAP) designed to protect groundwater-dependent ecosystems.
The NT Government’s own modelling shows that the Singleton Station development could lower parts of the groundwater table by 50 metres over 30 years. This exceeds the requirement in the water allocation plan, which says that modelled extraction should not cause the maximum depth to water table to exceed 15 metres below ground level.
The licence was approved on the basis that up to 30% of groundwater-dependent ecosystems (GDE) which rely on this groundwater to survive in the area may die however the precise extent of likely GDE loss is not known due to ongoing uncertainty.
ALEC is also arguing that the impacts of water licences must be fully understood prior to the granting of a licence. Matters of fundamental importance such as the mapping of groundwater dependent ecosystems, modelling of groundwater level impacts, modelling of salinity impacts and the borefield design should not have been deferred until after the licence was granted.
The Mpwerempwer Aboriginal Corporation (MAC), which represents Traditional Owners from the Singleton Station area, is also challenging the licence. MAC is represented by the Central Land Council and not EDO. MAC is arguing, among other things, that Aboriginal cultural values were not properly considered when granting the licence. Further details on MAC’s challenge are available here.
Alex Vaughan, Policy Officer for ALEC, said:
“The granting of the largest ever groundwater licence in the NT history at Singleton Station favours big agribusiness over culturally and environmentally responsible water management. Despite widespread opposition to this development the licence was granted.
“It was critical to commence proceedings in the Supreme Court to save water and protect ecological and cultural values. Water is a unique and a truly precious resource. We cannot forget that one of the largest groundwater licences in Australia has been issued in semi-arid Central Australia”.
Elanor Fenge, EDO Managing Lawyer for the Northern Territory said:
“Singleton is an incredibly unsustainable development, and the arid zone is no place for a water licence of this size.
“The approval of Singleton has raised serious questions about the NT Government’s commitment to water security and proper environmental assessment.
“Water allocation plans are legal documents in place to protect and sustainably manage an area’s water resources to provide security for all users, now and into the future. This decision, instead, was based on a non-statutory policy that our client argues circumvented the law.
“The government cannot afford to make decisions about precious water resources on the basis of rudimentary modelling and amidst ongoing uncertainty regarding environmental impacts. Our client is arguing that the full impacts of a licence should be fully understood prior to the granting of that licence.
“Water underpins life in the Territory and is intrinsic to its landscapes and ecosystems. Our client is asking the Government to follow its own laws and consider this licence under the Water Act and the area’s water allocation plan.”