LETTER TO THE EDITOR
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.
Sheffield, Tasmania (formerly Alice Springs)
UPDATE March 1: Richie Hayes, who runs the Rocky Hill operation, declined to comment.