Government gets caning over Singleton water gift



“The Water Controller should not have made the decision to grant the Singleton Water Licence.”

Water licence protest. Photo Vin Lange.

That was the blunt recommendation from the Central Land Council this morning to the panel reviewing the biggest ever allocation of water in the NT.

Before the gifting of 40GL a year from 144 bores, the ground water model should have been refined and the “uncertainty in the Western Davenport District generally” addressed, said the CLC.

And the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC) agreed: It presented a 16 page submission put together by the Environmental Defenders Office and compressed into 45 minutes of a secret gathering that the NT Government was at pains to declare as a “meeting not held in public”.

The issues with the Water Controller in the NT go beyond Singleton, says ALEC GM Jade Kudrenko: Multiple roles of NT Water Controller Jo Townsend may be creating conflicts of interest. She is in a position to change rules on which subsequent licence grants may be based which were not permitted previously.

Ms Kudrenko says these issues are likely to move front and centre in the Singleton wash-up in the next few months.

Meanwhile the CLC said in its submission today: “Hydrogeological investigations of groundwater dependent ecosystems (GDEs) at a local scale need to be integrated with the regional groundwater and geophysics investigation and the monitoring regime covering water levels and quality.

“This will require additional drilling. Monitoring and investigation of hydrology, hydrogeology and biology must be done at the same sites, at the same frequency and timing to ensure consistent overlap of these datasets.

“To determine the degree of groundwater dependence and impact risk to aquatic GDEs will also require individual aquatic GDE water and solute balances to be derived from monitoring data.

“Accordingly, the CLC submits that the Minister should substitute the Water Controller Decision [by appointing] a review panel to advise her … it is important that someone with hydrogeological expertise is appointed on the review panel given the grounds raised in the submissions above are required to be considered by someone with such expertise.”

The CLC also says while the ministerial review process is under way all other remaining approval processes relating to the Singleton Horticultural Project should be halted … no works should be undertaken, including vegetation clearing, until the ministerial review process is completed.

Similarly ALEC says the Minister acting as Minister Lawler’s delegate should overturn the Water Controller’s approval and substitute it with a refusal of the Singleton Licence.

“The Minister is required to determine whether or not the decision to approve the Singleton Licence was a good decision in the circumstances.

“The Water Controller’s decision … was, all things considered, unsound and lacking in merit [and] unlawful on a number of grounds.

“The decision failed to comply with binding provisions in the Western Davenport Water Allocation Plan (WAP) regarding limits of acceptable change to groundwater levels; an unacceptable level of uncertainty regarding environmental impacts and the nature of the project itself; and it was a decision that lacks evident and intelligible justification and was so unreasonable that no reasonable decision-maker could have possibly arrived at the same conclusion.

“Knowledge about the groundwater sources from which the water will be extracted is extremely limited and based mostly on conjecture.

“The decision to approve the Singleton Licence was made despite significant knowledge gaps and in the absence of proper environmental impact assessment.

“A decision was further made to grant a thirty year licence – rather than a licence for the ordinary period of ten years.

“The publicly available documentation regarding the Singleton Licence is underwhelming and scant, and in no way proportionate to the scale and environmental and cultural impacts of the project.”

The submission from the Central Land Council is also a litany of shortcomings by the Water Controller such as “the level of uncertainty has not been quantified and insufficient investigation has been undertaken.

“The Water Controller should not have granted the Singleton Water Licence for a term more than 10 years given the uncertainty underlying the Groundwater Model and the potential impacts arising from granting the Singleton Water Licence.

“The Groundwater Model presented in WDWAP (Western Davenport Water Allocation Plan 2018 – 2021) is simplistic and based on inadequate investigations and very little site-specific data.

“Aquifer testing data is sparse and is typically restricted to short duration and single borehole tests which cannot determine storage properties.

“We submit that the conditions in the Singleton Water Licence are vague and deficient in addressing the uncertainty in the Groundwater Model.

“To be effective, an adaptive management framework needs a strong understanding of the water resource, biodiversity and cultural values of the GDEs (groundwater dependent ecosystems) and potential environmental impacts on GDEs.

“This understanding does not currently exist for the Singleton Water Licence and it is unclear if investigations proposed as part of the Conditions Precedent in the Singleton Water Licence will provide an appropriate level of understanding … the use of criteria are not consistent with those used in other jurisdictions in Australia.”

PHOTO at top: Communications and Campaigns Manager Jess Xavier reluctantly fixes a “go away” sign on the door of ALEC’s office this morning: The environment NGO had hoped to share a video link-up dealing with the Singleton water scandal with locals and the media. The Gunner Government said no. Secrecy out of control.


Last updated 6 September 2021, 11.53am (minor edits).


  1. Government control of groundwater in the NT, as highlighted by the Singleton process, betrays the imperatives of sound environmental management and community wellbeing.
    Clearly critical information is only now being revealed through the scientific investment of CLC and ALEC.
    Such probity is shockingly absent in the NT government that rolls over endlessly to “validate” and sugar coat the short term agendas of big business.

  2. As a former irrigator in the SA Riverland, this is madness. What is happening to salt disposal? Water evaporates, salt does not. Witness our swampies and replace the pads with soil.
    Because this development is in a remote area, the environmental damage is assumed to be out of sight out of mind, but will inevitably show up in the long term viability of the project, and the developers will walk away with fat pockets and heaps of salt encrusted land in their wake, as has happened in both WA wheat lands and SA and leaving someone else to pay for the damage.
    There are better ways to guard against food insecurity by using the existing science as Gerry Harvey is doing with cucumber production and the Costa group has done with tomatoes (Guyra) and is currently happening on an impressive scale in Dubai.
    But the problem is deeper than that and rooted in our mentality on water. No other arid zone worldwide would mine ancient water, flush the toilet with it then treat it as a waste product, as we do, as happened with the Inplex project, which should have been the subject of a Royal commission.
    Look at the situation in USA where water is bought and sold as a commodity as is happening in Australia, and now they are running short, thus raising food prices.
    This Government is not even looking backwards, let alone south. I had a call from a Darwin man asking me to call in for a hearing test a week ago.
    He did not know that Alice Springs was 1500 km away and that’s the same with the thinking and planning of this Government.
    We don’t really matter, if south of Berrimah (and that’s a true story, believe it or not!)

  3. @ Trevor: I believe you. Same here, we’re 300 km from Alice Springs. Last year the policeman who stopped me at a Covid check point just north of Alice Springs on the Stuart Highway didn’t know how to spell Yuendumu.


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