Water scientists raise concerns over NT water laws

23 Nov 2022

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.

Their letter:

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:

  • Halt issuing water licences inside and outside WAP areas until data on groundwater-surface water interactions and the water requirements of ecological and cultural values have been comprehensively obtained to ensure integrity and transparency in water planning and allocation processes;
  • Dedicate resources to developing extensive baseline science for large, data-poor regions, such as the Cambrian Limestone Aquifer, and more robust monitoring programs for all WAPs;
  • Establish consultative committees for the Georgina Wiso and all future WAPs to ensure that all voices are heard in the water planning process and processes of scientific and public review are guaranteed;
  • Obtain resources in accordance with NWI principles of cost recovery to develop a more rigorous scientific basis for determining sustainable yields for groundwater, including gaining a far better understanding of groundwater recharge, discharge/outflows and inter-aquifer connectivity;
  • Undertake detailed supporting modelling (informed by comprehensive field data) to show how extraction at different proposed ESYs and in different regions of the Beetaloo Basin would be likely to alter groundwater conditions and connected values;
  • Set aside provisional Aboriginal Water Reserves for all aquifers and catchments prior to the completion of WAPs to avoid water over-allocation; and
  • Reform NT water legislation to ensure that WAPs are legally binding on decisions of the Water Controller to issue water licences.

Yours faithfully
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

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