The Northern Territory is at a critical juncture. Its rivers and other aquatic ecosystems – with outstanding natural and cultural values that are central to the wellbeing and economy of many Territorians – are largely still in good condition. But a major new cotton industry could put much of this at risk.
Australia’s cotton industry has major ambitions in the NT, projecting a future of hundreds of thousands of hectares of cropping (mainly on pastoral properties) watered by billions of litres of water extracted from aquifers, rivers and floodplains.
In 2020, Australia’s cotton crop was the smallest in 40 years, down by almost 90% on the 2018 crop due to the impacts of drought. The climatic uncertainties and water constraints and costs in southern cotton growing areas are driving a strong push by growers to transform northern Australia into a major cotton growing province. But the industry is ignoring the numerous government and CSIRO studies on the environmental constraints to cropping in the north and downplaying the potential for major environmental, cultural and economic impacts.
Previous proposals for large-scale cropping (focused mainly in the Daly River region) have also been
constrained by public concerns about the impacts of land clearing and irrigation. These concerns remain. In a February 2021 poll of Territorians, 69% of respondents said the cotton industry shouldn’t
be allowed into the NT until they ‘fix up their mess’ in the Murray-Darling Basin. Rivers are important to Territorians – 63% of respondents said they use Top End rivers for fishing, boating or other recreation – and this poll indicates that the cotton industry lacks a social license in the NT.
The NT has an opportunity to learn from and avoid repeating the mistakes so evident in the Murray-
Darling Basin. But to achieve this, there needs to be a much greater community focus on the potential
consequences of a major cotton industry and a strengthening of the science, laws and policies needed to protect the environmental, cultural and economic values of NT rivers.
“It’s important that we all look after and protect water … We want to keep this river still alive and flowing for all of us to enjoy.”
Meet Malak Malak Traditional Owners Theresa Lemon and Sheila White, and Mark Casey from Nauiyu, who share why the Daly River is sacred to them and why it needs to be protected for future generations.
This report reviews the outcomes, objectives and technical rationale of the Northern Development Program. In it, we find that many proposed irrigated agriculture projects not only fail to meet environmental and social objectives, but also fail on standard economic and financial performance expectations for public investment programs.
Meet local fishing tourism operators and long-term fishos on the Northern Territory’s iconic barramundi fishing river – the Daly.
Tourists flock from all over to try and catch one of the Daly’s legendary trophy sized Barramundi and explore one of the most beautiful and abundant rivers in Northern Australia. Our incredible natural asset has secured major international fishing tournaments year on year and attracts the best sports fishers from around the world. These events inject millions of dollars into the NT economy and significantly boost the Territory’s tourism brand.
In particular, the Daly River tourism industry has experienced huge growth and today supports jobs across a number of tourism resorts, seasonal fishing guides and a stream of recreational fishers. This thriving Daly River tourism industry relies on a healthy, intact ecosystem, the spoils of which our visitors and ourselves get to enjoy.
This success is built on healthy river flows. We know that looking after this flow is critically important – especially to ensure our future livelihood in tougher years. Scientific research has firmly established that a healthy Barramundi fishery relies on regular wet season floods, creating highly productive ecosystems. Barramundi spawn early in the wet season and a successful recruitment of baby Barramundi relies on access to floodplains and billabongs. The ‘run-off’ is when Barramundi must return to the main river channel, putting them within easy reach of a fishing lure. This is the crucial element that draws in tourists, families, fishers and a whole manner of people.
Stripping away the lifegiving floodplain flows will be disastrous for our healthy Barramundi stocks and the vibrant tourism industry that relies on them.
The Northern Territory government is facing two separate lawsuits over a land clearing permit its critics say could damage important habitats and jeopardise sacred Indigenous sites.
In November 2022, the Pastoral Land Board provided a permit for clearing of about 900 hectares on Auvergne Station, south-west of Darwin near the Western Australian border.
The land will predominantly be used for cattle grazing and fodder, but land clearing documents show about 250 hectares of that land is intended for a cotton growing trial.
The Environment Centre NT is seeking to have the permit revoked, saying that clearing land to grow cotton is not allowed under the type of permit that was granted.
“Right now, land clearing is skyrocketing in the Northern Territory, spurred in part by the cotton industry’s huge expansion plans. Land clearing is the biggest threat to biodiversity in Australia, and clearing for cotton will decimate local wildlife, impact rivers and add to greenhouse gas emissions.”ECNT director Kirsty Howey
The Northern Land Council is also launching legal action against the clearing. It says the rights of native title-holders were overlooked in the decision-making process, and is concerned that sacred sites are being put at risk by land clearing, claiming the land board doesn’t require applicants to obtain sacred site clearances.
“The land that is being cleared across the Northern Territory is not forgotten land that no one cares about. It belongs to Aboriginal people. There are legal rights over that land that must be respected.”Northern Land Council Chief executive Joe Martin-Jard
Excerpt: “A prominent lobby group says land clearing is risking the NT’s river networks — which are some of the most pristine in the world — and the failure to properly regulate land clearing for a cotton industry is disappointing.
Warren de With, the president of the Amateur Fishermen’s Association of the NT (AFANT), said extensive clearing near the Daly River — a tourism and barramundi fishing mecca — was of most concern.”
Read the full story HERE or watch it below.
You can also listen to the NT Country Hour segment below:
Read the story HERE or watch it below.
‘The Northern Territory is home to one of the world’s last untouched tropical savannas. That fragile landscape and its rivers are now the new frontier for the nation’s cotton industry.
But satellite images suggest land clearing is taking place without a permit, raising questions about the Territory government’s oversight.’
This report is from Roxanne Fitzgerald and producer Hannah Meagher. (ABC 7.30 January 11, 2023).
The Northern Territory Government is hoping monsoon deluges can soon be harvested to support major new industries like cotton, but its new draft rules for allowing farmers to trap water from rivers and floodplains with dams have prompted accusations its preparing to allow Murray Darling Basin-style problems.
Peter Hollowood, Mount Nancar Wilderness Retreat owner
Kirsty Howey, NT Environment Centre Director
Amy Dysart, NT Executive Director of Water Resources
Maryanne Slattery, Slattery & Johnson water consultants
The NT Government has recently released new plan that would allow big business to take huge amounts of water for cotton, and mining through ‘floodplain harvesting’ – taking wet season flows from our rivers and floodplains.
The Northern Territory is known around the world for its iconic natural treasures, including our free-flowing rivers. The government’s draft policy would lead to a rush of new dams on floodplains, meaning that massive amounts of water would be taken from river systems such as the Daly, Roper, and Katherine – threatening environmental and cultural values, as well as fishing, tourism, and our Top End lifestyle.
The NT Government are now asking the public to have their say on this plan. This is our chance to tell the Fyles Government why we want to guarantee the health of our rivers and floodplains and rule out plans to take more water from our rivers and allow dams. Submissions for this close Monday 9 January 2023.
Recently, we had independent policy experts on floodplain harvesting, Maryanne Slattery and Bill Johnson, who research water matters and provide expert advice on water policy and management, on an exclusive webinar to give information and advice on the new draft policy.
Use our online tool to tell the Fyles Government why you want them to guarantee the health of our rivers and floodplains and rule out plans to take more water from our rivers and dams.
Like more details? If you want to write a more detailed, personalised submission, you can listen to a recent webinar from our friends at Slattery and Johnson (below), download their submission guide and send your submission to WaterSecurity.NTG@nt.gov.au.
We need a different approach – one that works to keep our Territory rivers special. Let’s keep the Territory’s rivers flowing.
Territorians like you have been telling the Northern Territory Government for years that our water laws are fundamentally broken. From a huge water licence being overturned at Larrimah, to a secret government memo revealing the Roper River could run dry, to bending the rules to allow a massive water licence at Singleton Station to go ahead, water management in the Territory is nothing short of a national shame. But the concerns of everyday Territorians like you have been ignored.
But last week, the Northern Territory Government went too far. They released the long-awaited draft water allocation plan for the Beetaloo Basin, which will hand out more water to Big Business than ever before in the Territory’s history – equivalent to half of Sydney Harbour per year. This could put at risk our aquifers and iconic rivers such as the Roper and Daly systems.
Now, some of the most eminent water experts from across the country have intervened to call on the Chief Minister to stop the destruction of our waterways in favour of Big Business. They single out the draft water allocation plan for the Beetaloo Basin as “particularly poor and regressive”, but also raise a raft of issues with where our water management is heading in the Northern Territory. They say what you already know – it’s a broken system.
Professor Sue Jackson, Professor Barry Hart, Professor Quentin Grafton, Professor Marcia Langton, Professor Richard Kingsford, Professor Anne Poelina – these are the some of the biggest names in water in Australia. It’s a watershed moment.
The Hon. Natasha Fyles
Northern Territory Chief Minister
23 November 2022
Dear Chief Minister
Re: Poor practice water planning in the Northern Territory
As a group of Australian water experts, we express our concerns about the Northern Territory’s approach to water planning and regulation. The Northern Territory’s record of water planning does not meet national standards, reflected in recent departures from the principles of national water policy (see attachment).
Progress in rolling out water allocation plans (WAPs) has been extraordinarily and unacceptably slow. As a result, most of the water licenced to industry has been done so outside of a statutory planning process. Further, current licencing primarily addresses needs of individual projects, with insufficient transparent or rigorous assessment of cumulative impacts.
We have considerable concerns about the Contingent Allocation Framework. First, NT’s continued reliance on ‘contingent allocation rules’ over the 95% of the NT not covered by water plans entrenches poor practice and undermines water planning outcomes and processes. We also hold concerns about the use of climatic zones within the framework and the criteria applied to assessing the ‘sustainable yield’ in the Arid zone. The reliance on water storage volumes to calculate sustainable yield is out of step with sustainable groundwater management principles. Other Australian jurisdictions do not use this method to assess sustainable yield. The largely default Contingent Allocation Framework needs to be replaced by a scientifically defensible and transparent practice of comprehensive water planning.
The recently released Georgina Wiso Water Allocation Plan (2022-2030) is particularly poor and regressive. It breaches water planning guidelines of the National Water Initiative (NWI), committed by all jurisdictions and the Australian Government. It risks many significant environmental and Indigenous values. No water advisory committee was put in place, compounding the problem of absent environmental or cultural requirements for water or trigger rules for assessing unacceptable impacts. Potential impacts to groundwater dependent ecosystems are completely overlooked. The scientific and procedural deficiencies identified in the attachment to this letter need to be addressed, supported by a robust program of technical studies, review, and input from the scientific community – in the public domain.
We understand that the NT Government has committed to replacing the Water Act 1992 (NT) with modern legislation by 2026. This is an unacceptable timeframe, not least of all because environmental and cultural values will be compromised by deficient WAPs that are adopted in the interim. We therefore urge you to urgently implement the following:
Professor Sue Jackson, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University
Professor Matthew Currell, School of Engineering, RMIT University
Emeritus Professor Barry Hart, Monash University
Dr Erin O’Donnell, Law School, University of Melbourne
Dr Chris Ndehedehe, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University
Professor Jenny Davis, Research Institute Environment & Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University
Professor Richard Kingsford, Centre for Ecosystem Science, University of NSW and Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists
Professor James Pittock, Australian National University and Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists
Adjunct Professor Brad Pusey, School of Biological Sciences, University of Western Australia
Professor Jeff Connor, Business School, University of South Australia
Professor Marcia Langton, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, University of Melbourne
Professor Anne Poelina, Nulungu Research Institute, University of Notre Dame
Associate Professor Rebecca Nelson, Law School, University of Melbourne
Professor Mark Kennard, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University
Dr Emma Carmody, Lawyer, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists
Professor Lee Godden, Law School, University of Wellington New Zealand
Associate Professor Gavin Mudd, School of Engineering, RMIT University Professor Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University