Rocky Hill vineyard threat to our drinking water


Sir – I am a hydrogeologist with long experience in Central Australia.
Undoolya Station and the Rocky Hill Grape Block (pictured) have recently applied to triple the amount of groundwater they extract for agriculture enterprises.
The area of current extraction, about 20 km south east of Alice Springs, is also identified as the sole source of Alice Springs drinking water for the next 300-plus years (Alice Springs Water Plan, NT DLRM website).
Scientific appraisals of groundwater in this area indicate the drinking water in this aquifer is a non renewable, hence finite resource. The current extraction license of 1 GL/yr in effect gifts a significant portion (10% of current Alice water use; $1.9m of water at domestic tariff) of the future Alice drinking water reserves to agriculture.
In 2010, the proposed Angela Pamela Uranium mine was perceived by many in the community as a threat to the Alice Springs groundwater supply. However, as far as threats to this groundwater resource go, the “elephant in the room” is this Rocky Hill Grape Block.
A NT Government report in 2000 on Alice Springs Aquifer Protection Zones states that the only permitted land use in that area is grazing.
Instances of pollution of underground water supplies beneath vineyards from mobilisation of salts by irrigation, metal contamination from pesticides and nitrate contamination from fertiliser are documented throughout the scientific literature.
Thus, as the Rocky Hill Grape Block lies directly above Alice Springs drinking groundwater supplies, there is a real and ongoing health risk posed by this pollution threat. Any decision to encourage further agricultural activities in this region by granting additional water extraction licenses is clearly not in the public interest.
A better course of action would be to remove the risk and initiate a Government buy back of the current water license and the land title of the Rocky Hill Grape Block and surrounding areas of Undoolya Station.
This land could then be designated as a water protection reserve so that these precious groundwater resources are protected and preserved for the use of future generations.
Failure to act on this matter now has the potential to expose the Government to even more costly future remedies such as water treatment of 10GL/yr, borefield relocation and compensation claims.
Robert Read
Sheffield, Tasmania (formerly Alice Springs)

UPDATE March 1: Richie Hayes, who runs the Rocky Hill operation, declined to comment.


  1. Come on, they have been growing hay and other stuff like grapes and melons there for 25 odd years I know of. There has never been a problem until the experts come along!

  2. Ease up Robert, ‘ol boy. You and I both know that Rocky Hill water reserve is the unlikely “Plan B” for Alice Springs future supply and to develop would cost in the order of $50m to $80m.
    Better to wait 20 years for new technology yet to be developed, which includes better ways of filtering and disinfecting of the existing Roe Creek borefields.

  3. Robert Read is not saying anything new. I still possess flow charts produced by the NT Department of Primary Production / Industries and Development / Primary Industry and Fisheries from the mid to late 1980s depicting the proposed stages of development of the horticulture industry in Central Australia up to the year 2000.
    This was a period of time when horticulture research in the Centre reached its zenith, especially with the involvement of Senior Technical Officer, Frank McEllister.
    In the late 1980s I was based in an office at AZRI adjacent to Frank’s office. I also was responsible for the management and operation of a darkroom to produce large images and charts which couldn’t be done conventionally, on behalf of various sections within the primary industry department at AZRI.
    Occasionally Frank requested me to reproduce these horticulture industry flow charts, and it was with his permission that I retained copies for my own records.
    These were quite detailed and ambitious plans; but what stood out glaringly to me was that there was no mention of Rocky Hill in any of these documents.
    Frank McEllister explained to me that the Mereenie aquifer in this vicinity was reserved for the future water supply of Alice Springs and therefore was off-limits to the horticulture industry.
    This period coincided with the formal announcement of the NT Government (July 1987) to proceed with the development of the Undoolya Subdivision, a satellite town adjacent to Alice Springs. Unsurprisingly, this is a period of time in our recent past that no-one is willing to discuss these days.

  4. In response to the two Davids.
    These problems take some time to become evident, and then are very expensive to fix.
    How much monitoring do you think has been done under the irrigated area?
    The limitations of the Roe Creek borefield are that the large fractures, which have made it such a wonderful aquifer to date, close up with depth. Nothing to do with filtration.
    The cost of developing Rocky Hill is huge, but the time is not all that distant when there will not be a choice.

  5. Robert, you don’t even live here, so why do you say OUR drinking water?
    We never have any problems until the experts get involved. You live in Tasmania, is there nothing for you to do over there?

  6. The thing is, do we want development with proper water management? It would be a good thing. It will bring work.
    Tourism is not as big a risk as some mining companies which put our under water at risk.
    I ask how much water a tourist uses a day and how much rubbish they create.
    Some of the water in mines takes hundred years to come back to drinkable levels.

  7. @ Dave Purdue. Posted 28th February @ 3:23pm.
    Dave, that is hardly a fair comment. There are countless people who don’t live in Alice, but still retain an affection for a town that was and still is, or could be, an iconic town in the centre of Australia.
    People live in Alice, work elsewhere, come and go, and a vast majority have a spiritual connection to the place that isn’t severed by time and distance.
    If Robert is interested in the community from afar, what is the crime in that?
    Alice needs friends who care about the town and it has ever been so. An expert is someone who thinks they know everything about everything, until then, cut some slack and let’s celebrate that the place is not under razor wire yet, but that people are still free to come and go and find a tree to sit under and dream of what was, what is, what can be.

  8. The Rocky Hill usage at a far greater rate than its present consumption has already been factored in to the 300 year estimate. We have in fact allowed a horticultural industry large enough to supply the Alice with fruit and veg.
    However, if you wish to take your level of thinking to that of the “expert,” if we didn’t use any water at all we could still have a supply in a thousand years
    Talk about a “drip under pressure”! You should also keep in mind that the 300 year estimate is worked on there being no recharge. There is recharge!
    We just haven’t researched it sufficiently to scientifically acknowledge and measure it.
    Governments find it convenient to ignore it altogether as that allows them to avoid any responsibility for the protection of the recharge capability of the aquifer.
    With recharge factored in Mereenie will support a much higher usage rate, possibly for thousands of years provided the balance is right.
    Also, modern irrigation and farming practices monitored properly are completely compatible with the underground aquifers here as indeed they are throughout the world.
    In fact Robert, if you are right and there is no recharge how, then will the polluting salts and heavy metals leech their way into the aquifer?
    Cant have you cake and eat it. So don’t panic mate, go dam the Franklin, save Tassie’s economy, and leave us to our own devices. Something tells me we can do better without your input.

  9. Rocky Hill is using water – so what! They have turned desert into green and are providing food.
    Richie Hayes has foresight and hard working determination, but for mining companies to pollute the water supply with Fracking it is OK, right?


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