Floodplain harvesting killed the Murray Darling, now the Gunner Government wants to bring it here

20 Apr 2022

The Top End is home to some of the world’s last free-flowing tropical rivers and largely intact savanna landscapes. Nature is truly abundant here, and it’s why so many of us love it.

That’s why I’m so worried about the Gunner Government and cotton industry’s plan to bring the same policies that have slowly strangled the life out of the Murray-Darling Basin to the Territory.

In the coming weeks, the government is expected to release their plan to let big business take more of these natural wet season flows. This is the biggest water policy change in the NT in decades and would give the green light for the extraction of much more water from our already stretched systems for cotton. This could be catastrophic for the health of our rivers and the communities that rely on them.

The Territory’s natural cycle fluctuates between the two extremes – the Dry, and the flood events of the Wet. Territorians know it’s these big water flows along our rivers and floodplains that feed and sustain our vibrant ecosystems. Research on Top End rivers consistently shows that no water is wasted in the system, and that even small reductions in run-off can have big impacts on fish stocks like barramundi. Is this something we are willing to risk?

A war of words is about to be played out in the field of water management, and none of us should be fooled. This plan involves some truly sneaky wordplay – the rebranding of big dams as something good for rivers, for example, or trying to downplay the proportion of water that will be taken from our systems for cotton using largely meaningless percentages.

There is no way this will pass the Territory pub test.

To understand the potential disaster that awaits, we only have to look south at the Murray Darling Basin and the impact of mis-management, large-agribusiness lobbyists and over-allocation of water from the once-mighty river system. The unfettered push by the cotton industry has seen the rivers sucked dry, despite the best of intentions from overwhelmed regulators, leading to the mass fish deaths and dry riverbeds. Murray-Darling locals are urging us not to make the mistakes they did in letting this controversial industry in. Once they start, they don’t stop – until the rivers are a shadow of their once mighty selves.

And that’s in a place where they have invested billions of dollars in water management. We all know how it will end here if they allow this industry to build dams for cotton. Water regulation is pitiable in the Northern Territory, with terrible decisions like the massive water licence granted at Singleton Station making it clear to Territorians just whose interests are being protected when it comes to our precious water. It is no surprise that the Environmental Defenders Office recently declared our water laws as among the worst in the country. Stronger laws, transparent enforcement, a precautionary approach and effective compliance and monitoring are all the basics of modern water management that are not currently up to standard in the Territory.

We need to recognise that our rivers and floodplains are a connected system, and we need to keep dams, bulldozers and pollution away from sensitive areas of river catchments.

We can look after the Northern Territory’s unique ecosystems and the communities that rely on them by adopting a better approach to safeguard our river systems and their catchments. Protecting our rivers needs to be a priority, not an afterthought. A lacklustre attempt to spin this rush to take more water from our rivers isn’t fooling anyone.

Co-Director of the Environment Centre NT Kirsty Howey

First published in the Katherine Times

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