Huge cotton expansion in Top End will result in wrecked rivers

27 May 2021

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.

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