Adani’s threat to Australia's most valuable water source

February 2, 2018
The Doongmabulla Springs are under threat from the Adani coalmine.

Last year almost 90% of Queensland was drought declared. For farmers and graziers struggling for survival this meant increasing reliance on groundwater.

The Climate Council reported on January 19: “The global temperature averaged over the last five years has been confirmed as the highest ever on record for any five-year period. This record is part of a sharp, long-term upswing in global temperatures, with 17 out of the 18 hottest years on record all occurring in this century.”

Climate Councillor and international climate scientist Professor Will Steffen said: “Here in Australia, we are seeing the effects of intensifying climate change first hand. We’ve seen records reach disappointing new heights in just 12 months, with more than 260 heat and low rainfall records smashed throughout one season [winter] alone.

“The increasing global heat, driven primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, exacerbated extreme weather events around the globe and in Australia in 2017.”

The impact of Adani’s Carmichael coalmine, in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, on groundwater and the Great Artesian Basin were key aspects of the objections to the mining approvals. In this context it is worth revisiting the evidence presented by objectors in the Queensland Land Court from March to May 2015.

The impact of water use in the development and operation of the mine is significant by virtue of its sheer scale.

As the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (IESC) put it: “Although a number of management strategies are proposed to minimise the impacts of the proposal, due to the scale of this project, there will be both unavoidable and permanent impacts that are unlikely to be adequately mitigated.”

A key area is the Doongmabulla Springs, particularly the Moses group. In relation to the impact of the mine on the Doongmabulla Springs Complex, Adani conceded in the Land Court that these will be significant. The springs will not merely have a drawdown, they will be lost entirely.

The conditions of the mine approval impose fairly standard monitoring and reporting requirements. A number of these undermine any confidence in Adani’s capacity to address substantive issues in relation to the impact on groundwater. The requirement to "ensure all potential groundwater impacts ... are identified, mitigated and monitored" is, to put it most generously, aspirational and nonspecific.

Adani’s evidence in the court established that at least some of the Doongmabulla Springs will dry up, and there is a real likelihood that they could dry up completely, with the loss of exceptional ecological values. The loss of groundwater through interception by the final void will be permanent.

When the Queensland government amended the Water Act in late 2016, a special exemption was created for the Carmichael mine to avoid it undergoing a further public objection process for its water licence.

In April last year, Adani was granted an unlimited water licence for 60 years.

The mine — one of nine proposed for the Galilee Basin west of Rockhampton — can conduct its own review of its groundwater model without independent or government oversight. No impact levels were specified in the licence that would trigger a halt to mining, and the company is able to offset any significant water loss elsewhere.

Local farmers were outraged. "It's bloody-minded and barbaric," said Bruce Currie, a grazier who lives in the region and has joined legal action against Galilee mines. "This is going to definitely impact on the integrity of [the Great Artesian Basin]."

Activists campaigning during the Queensland state election late last year made Adani the key issue in both metropolitan and regional areas. Farmers for Climate Action campaigned for the government to rescind the unlimited water licence to Adani.

Chief executive of Queensland's Environmental Defenders Office Jo Bragg said: “Unlike other controversial mines, Adani's water usage is not subject to public submissions and appeals.

“Groundwater evidence is often the most controversial feature and public scrutiny is often the most significant aspect of any review. It's a matter of grave concern that there's not that opportunity.”

Carmel Flint, a campaigner for anti-mining group Lock the Gate, said the open-ended water licence for Adani amounted to a "free kick" to take water from important aquifers such as the Dunda Beds and Clematis Sandstone formations.

Water from the Great Artesian Basin "is just essential for farming communities" she said. "Without the water, their businesses are basically finished."

Jericho grazier Bruce Currie, who runs about 1700 head of cattle "in a good season" over his 25,000-hectare property, said Adani was "the linchpin" to the basin's mines. If it proceeded, "a lot of the others will go ahead," worsening the groundwater disruption.

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