Singleton water allocations: Environmentalists fail in court

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By ERWIN CHLANDA

Proceedings in the Supreme Court about the controversial Singleton Station water allocation by the NT Government were all dismissed by Justice Barr this morning.

The unsuccessful plaintiffs were the Alice Springs based environmental organisation, Arid Land Environment Centre (ALEC), and the Mpwerempwer Aboriginal Corporation, representing Aboriginal people in the Singleton region 380 km north of Alice Springs.

The question of costs is reserved in the case whose hearing dates were September 7 to 9, 2022.

The defendants were the NT Minister for the Environment and Fortune Agribusiness Funds Management Pty Ltd.

The company is developing 3,500 hectares for intensive irrigated horticulture with 144 bores, growing produce including mandarins, table grapes, dried grapes, onions and avocados.

A licence permitting extraction of 40,000 ML a year had been granted by the Minister, an unprecedented amount, it is claimed.

ALEC CEO Adrian Tomlinson, asked whether the organisation consisting largely of volunteers would appeal, said this morning they would consult their lawyers and the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), which provided advice.

(Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has announced the EDO, operating nation-wide, would be defunded if the Coalition comes to power.)

Mr Tomlinson described the decision as “devastating”.

He said: “Working with people up there, water is life. This is an area with shallow groundwater. This proposal draws the water table down over a 50 kilometre stretch by more than five meters. 

Images from Fortune Agribusiness.

“This is a civil court matter, decided on the law rather than the environmental merits, so it’s still a long way to go with that proposal.”

The licence had been allocated with the environmental impact assessment still to happen.

“We had this very perverse situation where the government has issued a licence that is inconsistent in our view with the Water Allocation Plan which has strong protection for the cultural values and groundwater dependent ecosystems.”

Running Water Community Press chairperson Maureen O’Keefe said this morning: “I’m worried what the impact will be. Where will our community go when all the water is gone.

“We’re talking about survival. It’s life-giving water, the most precious thing in the desert.

“It’s about human rights, to live and to survive. We’re just like the third world countries now.

“Communities are buying bottled water to drink. Nobody is talking about that.”

Judge Barr – his judgment runs to 143 pages – had to consider the functions and input from people and sources including the Minister for Environment Water Resources, the Controller of Water Resources, the Review Panel Executive Officer in the Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security Water, the Allocation Plan and submissions by Fortune and the plaintiffs.

In one paragraph Judge Barr said: “At the time the Controller made the decision to grant the water extraction licence to Fortune on 8 April 2021, she was not required to consider special circumstances; she was entitled to rely on the opinion of the Minister that there were special circumstances.

“The Minister for Environment had provided her opinion, by endorsement on a ministerial briefing document on 15 February 2021, that there were special circumstances justifying the grant of a water extraction licence for 30 years.

“Those special circumstances were the scale of Fortune’s proposed horticulture project, the level of investment in the project, the time required to develop the project and potential economic benefits for the Northern Territory.”

PHOTO at top: Davenport Range – Singleton Station is in that region.

 

UPDATE 5.40pm

An ALEC media release said this afternoon that over the 30-year life of the licence more than a trillion litres of water could be extracted, twice the volume of Sydney Harbour.

The “mammoth horticultural project” is currently subject to environmental impact assessment, which means the project is not permitted to commence.

These are environmental and cultural epicentres. They are the oases of Central Australia. They are key to surviving global heating.  

“This proposal still has a long way to go. It has been assessed as needing the highest level of environmental impact assessment, which requires a much higher level of scrutiny. Its devastating impacts have not been approved.

“This appears to be a case of ‘when you win you lose’ for the Northern Territory Government. We urgently need new water laws in the NT.

UPDATE February 1, 2024, 8am

Les Turner, the CEO of the Central Land Council, which acted for Mpwerempwer, said in a media release yesterday: “We’re considering the judgement carefully and will explain it to the native title holders and remote communities affected by the water licence and seek their instructions.”

He had said earlier: “The water licence decision is unconscionable considering the impacts of climate change on highly vulnerable desert communities.”

Yesterday’s statement says the CLC believes the decision highlights the need for robust and transparent water planning in the NT.

 

Earlier Alice Springs News coverage

Singleton water licence for Chinese company to be reviewed

Singleton water licence: a death sentence for arid ecosystems

Singleton water gift: Back to the drawing board

Government gets caning over Singleton water gift

Govt may have bent rules in Fortune Agribusiness deal

Water allocation make-believe review held in secrecy

Firestorm of protest over water allocation

Massive water allocation scandal takes new turn

Gas: They gave them the whole blast

Environment group: what we all have in common

Big stories in the News over our first quarter century

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