Conservation advocates are calling for federal intervention to protect native savanna and rivers in the Top End following national revelations that the Northern Territory’s existing environmental protection regime may be failing to provide proper oversight.
“The public is rightly shocked by the media coverage of satellite pictures showing what appears to be unpermitted clearing and regulatory inaction on land clearing, right next to iconic rivers such as the Daly River,” said Pew Charitable Trusts’ Northern Territory manager Mitch Hart.
“The activity – revealed on ABC TV’s 730 current affairs program this week – raises questions about the Northern Territory Government’s capacity to protect our environment, culture, fishing and the lifestyle which Territorians value highly.
“We welcome the strong concern raised by the Federal Labor Government Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, who calls for a stop to unauthorised land clearing, as well as the intervention by independent Senator David Pocock and the call for an Inquiry by Senator Sarah Hanson-Young of the Australian Greens.
“This is a key test of whether the Northern Territory Government can meet its responsibility to properly look after the Territory’s environment. We need properly enforced environmental standards that actually protect our rivers, floodplains and savannahs. First and foremost, the government must act to stop the rush to bulldoze Australian bush for cotton crops,” Mr Hart said
“We need to approach river management in a completely different way to ensure that we don’t repeat the dire mistakes made in rivers elsewhere in Australia. That means involving communities in developing management plans and mapping out new pathways for protection right across the Territory – using local Indigenous knowledge incorporating best science around water flows, native species’ requirements and climatic change impacts.
“Industrial cotton farming is not compatible with the sustainable management and protection of the Territory’s intact tropical river systems – some of the last in the world,” he said.
Note: The report – A Fork in the River – the consequences of a major new cotton industry in the Northern Territory, warns that the establishment of a major cotton industry in the Northern Territory could jeopardise Top End river systems, threatening their unique biodiversity and putting at risk the NT’s lucrative fishing and tourism industries.
The Fyles Government’s plan to allow big business to take more water through the controversial practice of extracting life giving flood waters could be devastating for Top End river systems
NT residents and conservationists have issued a warning to the Fyles Government that a new draft government policy to allow surface and flood water to be taken from rivers puts at risk the health of the Territory’s rivers and the people and nature that depend upon them.
The NT Government on Tuesday released the Draft Surface Water Take – Wet Season Flow Policy for public consultation.
This policy opens up the floodgates to dams and sanctions industry taking more water from our rivers and floodplains, according to Territory Rivers: Keep ‘Em Flowing – an alliance of non-government organisations, local communities and scientists working to safeguard the health of Top End rivers.
“Building dams on floodplains to take water in a practice called ‘surface water harvesting’ has been plagued by regulatory failures and has had devastating effects on rivers in the Murray Darling Basin. Why would we want to repeat these mistakes on our Territory rivers?” said Sasha Pavey from Territory Rivers: Keep ‘em Flowing.
“Taking any additional amount of water from the NT’s rivers and floodplains, whether it’s 5%, 20% or any other amount, risks the health of these systems. The science is very clear on this.”
Adelaide River floodplains (above).
Mark Casey, Nauiyu elder who lives on the banks of the Daly River, said:
“Those of us who live alongside these rivers know that healthy floods equal healthy rivers. Wet season river flows and floodplains power the natural cycle of our river systems.
I’m very concerned about the future of our rivers and their floodplains – especially if we see the government allow big business, like cotton, to take billions of litres of extra water that flows in the Wet season.
We can’t allow this ‘surface water take – wet season flows’ to go ahead – whatever they want to call it, it allows for more water to be taken from our river systems. We need to look after our rivers to make sure they’re here for everyone to enjoy in the future. Territorians want our government to get this right from the start.”
Sasha Pavey, from Territory Rivers: Keep ‘em Flowing, said:
“Our rivers are already under pressure. Taking any additional amount of water from the NT’s rivers and floodplains will have disastrous impacts on the future health of these systems – the science is very clear on this. This policy does nothing more than sanction the extraction of more water from our rivers and floodplains. The cotton industry wants more water.
If dams or other diversions are built that stop billions of litres of water from flowing in our rivers and aquifers we put endangered species, tourism businesses, and a multi-million dollar fishing industry at risk.
We’ve seen the disastrous impacts when the promises of ‘floodplain harvesting’ go wrong on the Murray-Darling River. It would be a huge mistake to repeat them in the Territory.
Communities are calling for governments to reset their thinking on rivers – to look at these systems as a whole, to listen to communities on the ground and do more to protect rivers for the long-term.
This starts by ensuring that no extra water is allowed to be taken from our river systems, a commitment to work with communities to build resilient protections and a guarantee to Territorians that our rivers and floodplains will remain healthy into the future.”
Rob McBride, a grazier from NSW, also expressed his concerns:
“There is no doubt that the same cotton industry that has wreaked havoc on the Murray-Darling is spreading north and will push for plans that destroy Territory rivers, floodplains and financial future.
Our family has been sustainably farming for 160 plus years – we respect the river and try to work in partnership with nature. But we’ve also seen the cotton industry explode further upstream, in the process snuffing out livelihoods and communities who act with integrity.
I’d urge anyone in the Northern Territory to look at the total destruction of the Darling River here in NSW, and act early to stop the cotton industry from killing your rivers. If not for yourself, for future generations who may want to walk in your footsteps.”
Environmental groups have called for greater protection of Northern Territory rivers, following a decision by the Northern Territory Government to grant a retrospective land clearing approval for a large cotton gin facility near Katherine.
Construction at Tarwoo started months before the proponents obtained planning and environmental approvals. Despite requests from local residents and environmental groups, the NT Environment Protection Authority (EPA) decided not to undertake a full environmental assessment into the direct and indirect impacts of the facility.
After discovering the land clearing through satellite imagery, the Territory Rivers alliance submitted a formal complaint to the Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security (DEPWS), asking for a full investigation of the unpermitted clearing.
“Despite the alarm bell being sounded and an ongoing investigation by DEPWS, the NT Government still approved the clearing. You have to ask the question – why are the cotton industry being allowed to charge on without observing the rules others have to follow?” Co-director of the Environment Centre NT (ECNT) Kirsty Howey said.
“Territorians are rightly concerned about the future of this industry’s impact on our rivers and floodplains. The proponents of this cotton gin failed to wait for key approval processes and began clearing and building the facility, thereby putting pressure on decision-makers to keep things moving according to the industry’s schedule. The NT Government is rewarding non-compliance by granting a retrospective clearing approval. This is sending a clear message that some individuals will be allowed to break the rules without any consequences,” said Ms Howey.
“More than ever we need strong safeguards to protect the health of our rivers and landscapes, but instead we’re seeing industry charge ahead, facilitated by slipshod regulation and retrospective approvals.”
“As the rush for cotton to feed this gin intensifies, further pressure will be placed on communities, fishing economies and iconic rivers like the Daly and Roper.”
“Hundreds of Territorians have called for the NT Environment Protection Authority to take a closer look at the industrial cotton gin and its downstream impacts on our iconic Top End rivers,” said NT Manager for the Pew Charitable Trusts Mitch Hart.
“This facility will enable industry to clear much larger swathes of land for crops such as cotton. Despite industry claims of ‘dryland’ variants, history has shown that this is the first step towards massive amounts of water being taken from our river systems and floodplains.”
“Right now, we need to see the NT Government doing more to get this right, to listen to communities, protect our fishing and avoid repeating the mistakes of the Murray Darling,” said Mr Hart.
Environmental groups and residents have renewed calls for the Gunner Government to undertake a full environmental assessment of the proposed Tarwoo cotton gin, following revelations the proponents have continued clearing before obtaining planning and environmental approvals.
Satellite imaging* has revealed that vegetation clearing started on the site in July 2021, the same month that proponents applied for planning approval to clear 197 hectares of native vegetation.
Despite residents raising concerns, it appears proponents have continued to clear more land beyond 1ha – the threshold for formal approval – while the application is still under review.
The Territory Rivers alliance has submitted a formal complaint to the Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security this week, asking for a full investigation of the clearing.
Co-director of the Environment Centre NT (ECNT) Kirsty Howey said the proponent’s actions demonstrate a clear need to examine the cumulative impacts of large-scale cotton expansion plans.
“We are calling on the Department to investigate and to issue an enforcement notice to prevent further clearing while the application is still under assessment.
“Addressing this issue immediately is critical to preventing a precedent in clearing native vegetation while public approval processes are ongoing. As the rush for cotton to feed this gin intensifies, this is not a precedent that we want in place.”
“A comprehensive environmental assessment of this facility by the NT EPA is more important than ever,” said Ms Howey.
Long-term Edith Farms resident Lori Martin lives next door to the cotton gin site and said the government needed to send a strong signal that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable.
“It appears there’s already been a significant amount of clearing. How can we trust the cotton industry in the future if they are steamrolling forward before they’ve been given any approvals for this gin? It shows a blatant disregard for communities who may be affected and the environment.”
“These rushed actions are a sign of things to come. I’m asking the NT Government to take responsibility and look into the full impacts of the gin, the clearing, and the associated cotton industry. Those of us who live with the direct consequences deserve to know what we’re being asked to live with, now and into the future,” said Ms Martin.
*Sentinel 2-L2A satellite data provided by Sinergise Laboratory for geographical information systems Ltd, EO Browser (showing clearing as of October 28).
Following recent media comments from cotton industry proponents about works starting on the Tarwoo Cotton Gin and approval of large-scale land clearing applications, environmental groups, local residents and fishing tourism operators have urged the Northern Territory Government not to let the cotton industry take hold in the Top End without proper scrutiny.
Territorians value our healthy rivers and savanna landscapes and the role they play in supporting our iconic fishing, tourism businesses and for our lifestyle. With a cotton gin on the horizon, these applications are a sign of things to come and highlight the importance of the NT Government taking active steps to get this right from the start.
Co-director of the Environment Centre NT (ECNT) Kirsty Howey
Co-director of the Environment Centre NT (ECNT) Kirsty Howey said the rush to feed the proposed gin is already well underway with several land clearing applications submitted.
“This is just the beginning. We’ve just seen the Gunner Government wave through its first “streamlined” pastoral land clearing approval to bulldoze nearly one thousand hectares of savanna bushland at Claravale Station, despite Territorians sounding the alarm about the impacts on important populations of threatened species such as the Gouldian Finch, ghost bat and partridge pigeon,” she said.
“Last week we welcomed the news that plans to clear thousands of hectares at Ucharonidge Station had been referred to the NT Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) for environmental assessment, but there is a clear need to examine the cumulative impacts of large scale cotton expansion plans.”
NT Manager, Pew Charitable Trusts, Mitch Hart
NT Manager, Pew Charitable Trusts, Mitch Hart said big questions remained over plans for a cotton gin, which could lead to billions of litres of water being taken from our floodplains and rivers.
“Territorians have heard the warnings from communities in the Murray Darling who have witnessed first-hand the impact that large-scale cotton crops have on river catchments, corroding public trust and destroying local communities.”
“We remain concerned at the prospect of a rapidly expanding cotton industry, with proponents telling the media that construction of the cotton gin will start this month. It’s imperative that the NT EPA immediately investigate the gin proposal including a full environmental assessment of indirect and cumulative impacts.”
Edith Farms Road resident, Lori Martin
Long term Edith Farms resident Lori Martin lives adjacent to the Tarwoo site and says she has been left in the dark over the proponent’s efforts – if any – to minimise potential impacts on her health if the cotton gin goes ahead.
“The potential impacts on my health, air quality, pollution, water resources, local environment and my quality of life is causing me serious anxiety,” Ms Martin said.
“This application provides no clarity as to what concrete steps would be put in place to avoid, mitigate and manage any likely impacts on water consumption from aquifers that are shared by Edith Farm resident’s bores. That’s before we even get to the potential downstream water impacts.”
Daly River Tourism Operator, Adrian Koenen
Long term tourism operator and fisherman at Woolianna on Daly, Adrian Koenen, says there has been little consultation with tourism operators or fishing groups and scarce information from the NT Government.
“The Daly River is widely regarded as the premier Barramundi sports fishing location in Australia. Tourists from far and wide travel to the NT to try and catch one of the Daly’s legendary Barramundi and explore one of the most beautiful and healthy rivers in Northern Australia.”
“Any new plans for expanding an industry with risks like cotton needs to stack up economically, socially and environmentally. Without that we risk putting Territory jobs, businesses and lifestyle at risk.”
“There needs to be a proper assessment of the Tarwoo cotton gin proposal to firmly establish what building this gin will mean for the health of our rivers. We need to know how increased land clearing, water extraction and applications of agricultural chemicals will affect our rivers and the long standing tourism businesses that rely on them”.
Tourism operators from the Daly River region have written to the Northern Territory Government, outlining their concerns about proposed large-scale cotton operations further upstream.
“The Daly River is widely regarded as the premier Barramundi sports fishing location in Australia. Tourists from far and wide travel to the NT to try and catch one of the Daly’s legendary Barramundi and explore one of the most beautiful and healthy rivers in Northern Australia,” said Harold Sinclair, who operates a recreational fishing business on the Daly River.
“Fishing tournaments held here inject many dollars into the NT economy and significantly boost the Territory’s tourism brand. Business owners like myself have financially invested in developing and growing the infrastructure with a long term operational business plan based on Barramundi fishing.”
NT Minister for Small Business and Recreational Fishing Paul Kirby is today attending a community meeting in Daly River, to address concerns raised by local businesses.
“Many of us have concerns about the increasing demands for water access from large Agribusiness companies seeking to expand operations in the Daly catchment. We are proud hard working business people, we’re creating jobs, and we know what is sustainable here at the Daly,” said Mr Sinclair.
The NT Government is currently developing a surface water policy to allow capture of overland flows. Tourism operators have expressed concerns that this could have impacts for the health of the river, and therefore the many tourism operations and jobs that depend upon it.
“Many years of scientific research has firmly established that a healthy Barramundi Fishery relies on regular wet season floods. These floods create highly productive ecosystems on the floodplains and billabongs and explode with life – particularly the local Barramundi,” said marine ecologist Jason Fowler from Territory Rivers: Keep ‘em Flowing.
“Floodplain ‘harvesting’ of water may have serious effects on the size and duration of floods which would be disastrous for healthy Barramundi stocks and the vibrant tourism industry that relies on them. We shouldn’t be risking Territory jobs, businesses and lifestyle in favour of big business coming up from down South,” said Mr Fowler.
Local recreational fishers, tour operators and communities have come together with environmental organisations today to launch a campaign to protect iconic free-flowing rivers in the Northern Territory.
“Territorians should be proud of our rivers. Where we live is special, these rivers haven’t been dammed, don’t have large volumes of water taken from them, and have catchments that are all or primarily still native bushland,” said Kirsty Howey, Co-Director of the Environment Centre NT.
“While our rivers are mostly in good shape, they are under threat from big business who want to take huge amounts of water out – predominantly for cotton crops. Industry are pushing for a cotton processing facility near Katherine, huge increases in bulldozed land in the Douglas Daly and access to billions of litres more water from floodplains.”
Harold Sinclair, from Sinclair’s Daly River Fishing Retreat, is concerned about the impact of reduced water flows on the nearby Daly River.
“The NT Government needs to listen to people who live and work downstream on the river system. We only get one shot at getting this right and I’m worried that we’re steering towards a Murray-Darling disaster driven by the very same industry players,” he said.
“These big cotton growers seem to assume that they can just take more water out of our river systems – more than our rivers can sustain, particularly in drier years. Taking huge volumes of extra water from the Douglas-Daly floodplains will be disastrous for the barramundi that bring locals and tourists alike flocking in.
“We need to listen to the experience and knowledge of those who know these rivers well, not more of the same from big cotton who are intent on rushing more irrigation to feed the proposed gin. Those of us whose lives and livelihoods depend on the river will be left to pick up the pieces,” said Mr Sinclair.
Roxanne Woolley is a recreational fisher and educator from Humpty Doo, who is deeply worried about the future health of our Territory rivers.
“The flows of these rivers are their lifeblood. Without the sustenance it provides to all living things – including the big Barramundi we all go out to catch – we’ve got nothing. We all bear a responsibility to nurture it for those of us here today and tomorrow.”
“In planning for the future, we need to ensure that the river is not a victim of a narrow view of economic development that ignores the people, jobs and lifestyle that can continue to make this place special. There is no future for an economy that has no water to sustain it. Without healthy rivers we’re all left high and dry,” said Ms Woolley.
We’ve seen strong community voices from across the Top End speaking up – from Katherine, Nauiyu, Woolianna and Darwin – all of whom share concerns for the future health of the rivers that their communities rely on,” said Mitch Hart, NT Manager for the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“These are recreational fishers, tourism operators, local food growers and community members who know how important our rivers are to what makes the Territory special.”
“The Top End has a unique lifestyle worth protecting. Free flowing tropical rivers are extraordinarily rare and our rivers are internationally significant. They are home to a diverse range of freshwater species; healthy, well-functioning ecosystems and they support local businesses and lifestyle,” said Mr Hart.
“Healthy rivers are central to our Territory way of life, our economic success and our culture. We need to all be working together to keep them as special as the rest of the Territory.”
Conservationists, tourism operators and graziers have today issued a warning to Territorians not to let the cotton industry take hold in the Top End, after large-scale cotton growers revealed last week that they intend to expand a proposed cotton gin near Katherine to a much higher capacity than previously stated.
“We know that the cotton industry wants to establish large-scale operations in the Northern Territory, which could result in more bushland bulldozed and more water extracted from already stretched systems,” said Jason Fowler, an ecologist working with the Environment Centre NT.
“It should be sending off alarm bells in everyone’s head that the industry is ramping up pressure to build a massively oversized cotton gin at Tarwoo station near Katherine. On the one hand, they’re claiming that cotton operations will only be ‘dryland’ trials, yet admit it will still require ‘supplementary irrigation’.”
“Last week at the Food Futures conference we heard the proposed gin will have the capacity to take up to 450,000 bales per year when fully operational. How much bulldozed land will be required to grow 450,000 bales of cotton a year? How much ‘supplementary irrigation’ will be needed and how many dams does that actually mean?” said Mr Fowler.
Harold Sinclair, from Sinclair’s Daly River Fishing Retreat, is concerned about the impact of reduced water flows on the nearby Daly river.
“The NT Government needs to listen to people who live and work downstream on the river system, like fishing guides, tourism operators, Aboriginal Rangers and local communities. We only get one shot at getting this right and I’m worried that we’re steering towards a Murray-Darling disaster driven by the very same industry players,” he said.
“These big cotton growers seem to assume that they can just take more water out of our river systems – more than they can ever sustain, particularly in drier years. Taking huge volumes of extra water from the Douglas-Daly floodplains will be disastrous for the barramundi that bring locals and tourists alike flocking in.
“We need to listen to the experience and knowledge of those who know these rivers well, not more of the same from big cotton who are intent on steamrolling massive irrigation projects forward. Those of us whose lives and livelihoods depend on the river will be left to pick up the pieces,” said Mr Sinclair.
Echoing these concerns is Rob McBride, a grazier from NSW who last month wrote to Chief Minister Gunner outlining his experiences along the Murray Darling and warning the NT Government to not make the same mistakes.
“Do not risk the devastating impacts to fish stocks, the natural environment, local communities and existing agricultural industries on the false promises of Big Cotton,” said Mr McBride
“It may be too late to save the mighty Murray-Darling system, but I urge your government to heed this warning and not allow the same thing to happen to the rivers of the Northern Territory,” he said.
“Territorians know that cotton kills rivers and want to keep it out of the Top End. We’ve heard the warnings from Traditional Owners, graziers and people down south on the reality of how cotton devastates river systems, corrodes public trust and destroys communities,” said Mr Fowler.
“We’re now seeing these same players come north, intent on taking more of our water and exerting political pressure on decision-makers to pave the way for their operations. What the Territory needs right now is sensible, sustainable strategies to build our future – not big in dustry players who have a history of wrecking river systems down south,” he concluded.
The Environment Centre NT has responded with alarm to today’s announcement of industry plans to build a massive cotton gin at Tarwoo, just north of Katherine on the Stuart Highway.
“People in the Top End have made it abundantly clear: we don’t want the cotton industry anywhere near our rivers until they’ve fixed up their Murray-Darling mess. Do these companies think they can ignore Territorians like this?” said Kirsty Howey, Co-Director of ECNT.
In a uComms poll of Top End residents in February:
“We need the Northern Territory Government to listen to Territorians – many of whom have grave concerns about what such a large expansion of the cotton industry would mean for our rivers, our fishing and our lifestyle.”
“The big cotton companies need to stop their doublespeak. They’ve been asking for public money to build this gin for years. When they didn’t get it, they switched to asking for taxpayer money to build new power lines and roads on private property.”
“That’s still public money going straight to a private company, to fund the most expensive part of building a damaging cotton gin and prop up their operations. Why should Territory taxpayers fork out our money to prop up big cotton companies when remote communities still lack basic drinking water protections and energy security?”
“A cotton gin of this size would require large amounts of water, land and power. In full operation, a cotton gin like this would need at least 832,000 litres per day of water just to keep it running. Where is all that water coming from? How will that impact on local farmers and growers in Edith Farms and the Katherine region?”
“We also remain deeply concerned about the electricity requirements of such a massive operation. Where will that power come from? Who in the Territory will miss out on power generation if the cotton companies get their millions in taxpayer handouts?”
“Today’s announcement by industry flies in the face of community concerns and puts the future of Top End rivers at risk. Territorians know that cotton kills rivers. We don’t want to see the same mistakes from down South, happen up here.”
 Polling commissioned by the Environment Centre NT and undertaken by uComms, who conducted a survey of 837 residents in the Northern Territory seats of Blain, Brennan, Casuarina, Daly, Drysdale, Fannie Bay, Fong Lim, Johnston, Karama, Katherine, Nightcliff, Port Darwin, Sanderson, Spillett, and Wanguri during the nights of the 10th & 11th February 2021.
Environment Centre NT is calling on the Northern Territory Government to rule out a floodplain ‘dam rush’ to feed the proposed massive expansion of large scale agriculture driven by the proposed cotton gin at Tarwoo.
The NT Government is due to release a ‘Surface Water Harvesting Policy‘ regulating dams and water extraction that could pave the way for a rapid expansion of cotton in the Top End.
“Floodplain extraction means dams. Every dam that is built on the floodplain robs the rivers and aquifers of water,” said Kirsty Howey, Co-Director of ECNT.
“Industry has been pushing to get its hands on 520 billion litres of water from the floodplains in the Douglas-Daly region, including the floodplains for the iconic Daly River. Our floodplains are vital parts of our unique Top End ecosystems.”
“It’s those big water flows on the floodplains that make our rivers work and flow healthily. Barra restocking relies on these big flushes every Wet season. Right now Territorians, visitors and local small businesses are gearing up for a huge run-off fishing season on the Daly.”
“The large-scale cotton industry hopes that they can get their rush for Territory water approved as the innocuous-sounding ‘floodplain harvesting’, but it’s obvious – Big Cotton wants dams. That’s too big a risk to the Territory’s other growers, fishing guides and fishers.”
“The cotton industry wanted free money to set up their cotton gin. When they didn’t get that, they stuck their hand out for free power lines and free roads, paid for by public money.”
“The Gunner Government must rule out giving the cotton industry free water from dams on our precious floodplains, as well as rule out paying for their power lines and roads. The Territory’s rivers are too precious to lose,” concluded Dr Howey.
Here are key questions that the Gunner Government’s floodplain extraction policy must answer: