Singleton water licence: a death sentence for arid ecosystems



Due to a perceived conflict of interest, the Environment Minister Eva Lawler deferred the decision to approve the controversial Singleton Station water licence to Minister Kate Worden.

With only four days to consider complex evidence before handing down her precedent-setting decision, yesterday Minister Worden upheld the extraction of 40 billion litres of groundwater annually from 144 bores.

The independent review panel made a series of recommendations for further conditions on the licence, yet concerningly, not all have been adopted.

The licence guarantees the destruction of arid ecosystems and shows a flawed commitment from the Government for water security for all Territorians.

This decision is a death sentence. The licence guarantees the death of 30% of the groundwater dependent ecosystems throughout that vast arid area.

The Territory has failed in their duty to ensure development is not at the expense of vulnerable ecosystems. This scale of government-sanctioned environmental degradation is astonishing.

The amendments will have little effect. The licence is simply too big.

Gifting an enormous volume of water to a private company in an arid zone is a short term gain but in the longer term it’s unsustainable. We’ve seen in other parts of the country that buying back water licences costs the taxpayer a lot of money.

During a Ministerial Review in September, ALEC argued that the Water Controller’s decision to grant the licence was unlawful on several grounds including breaching the Water Act and posing unacceptable levels of uncertainty regarding environmental impacts.

The requirements and outcome of the review demonstrates that when the Territory Government is so narrowly focused on economic development, more than ever, independent environmental organisations are critical.

Organisations like ALEC and the Environmental Defenders Office provide otherwise lacking scrutiny and rigour to decisions that will have lasting impact on our communities and ecosystems.

We need a stronger and more transparent process based on rigorous scientific assessment before water licences are granted to protect the health of our ecosystems and ensure drinking water for future generations.

ALEC and other interested parties have 60 days to seek a judicial review.

We are consulting with some of Australia’s top water law experts. Together, we will choose a course of action that will result in the best outcomes for the environment.

Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC) General Manager Jade Kudrenko.


UPDATE Nov 17 @8am

The Central Land Council says in a media release that it is exploring all legal avenues to challenge the decision.

It quotes its chief executive Les Turner (pictured) saying 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,” says Mr Turner.

“Te 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 government allows the company to destroy almost a third of groundwater-dependent ecosystems, many of them home to important sites, Mr Turner says.

“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.”

“These guidelines were developed to meet the needs of Fortune Agribusiness.”


  1. The reason given for not rescinding the license was that the NT Gov had followed procedures.
    I would like to know, what procedures allow anyone for that matter to GIVE AWAY a nations resources to somebody, anybody because they are the Govt (who don’t own the resources – they belong to the people). What is to stop them from giving it to me, for instance! If they follow Procedures.
    That lame excuse was used by the criminals at the Nuremburg Wartime Trials: “We were following procedures “and it didn’t prevent them from being hanged!
    My thoughts are we should FOLLOW PROCEDURES to get rid of this Govt and its Independent Review Panel once and for all, before they do any more damage!

  2. Territorians have been well represented by ALEC, ECNT and CLC.
    I just heard Hon. Eva Lawler speaking about the decision on the radio. How disgraceful on so many points (especially coming from our Minister for Environment, Water Security and Climate Change)
    – The representation that Territorians will sacrifice environment and culture for our own convenience and consumptive gratification!
    In any event, the idea that the NT is going to reap the benefits of this project is not correct – both the food and profits are going overseas. All we bear is the costs, most significantly the environmental and cultural costs.
    She doesn’t seem to have any grasp / be able to speak to the legitimate concerns around the overestimated estimated sustainable yield. Even from her grossly simplified explanation of groundwater, it’s not hard to understand if you drain 4% of the blood from your body from the wrong place (say top down) you’ll kill everything. THEY ARE DRAINING IT 50M DEEP, 50KM WIDE!
    Even if it goes to plan they have APPROVED KILLING 30% OF GROUND WATER DEPENDANT ECOSYSTEMS. No arid environment can withstand this.
    • How dare she suggest CLC has not properly engaged with the process?
    • Her audience lives in the NT. We all know the standard of monitoring and compliance. Regulation is no comfort.
    • There is no way they are going to retract the licence if 10 years from now they realise the environmental impact.
    • She’s admitting Worden just rubber stamped the decision.

  3. @ Jacqueline Arnold. Well said, you’ve got my vote! And thanks to ALEC & CLC for providing the research, probity and due diligence so often missing in the machinations of our own NT Government.

  4. Vote (1) Jacqui Arnold! Where would we be on issues so critical to our collective future, if not for the research and probity commissioned by the CLC, the advocacy of ALEC, not to mention, reporting by the Alice News? Our own Government is missing in action where it should be the ultimate defender of the natural environment and public interest. So desperate to embrace the aspirations of corporates, the NTG has further weakened its position as a trustworthy agent of compliance and oversight.


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