NT landowners battle for a healthy river

The NT government plans could lead to fish kill-offs and upstream salinity migration in the Roper River.

Representatives from the Environment Centre NT (ECNT) and the Amateur Fishermen’s Association of the NT (AFANT) travelled to Mataranka on June 13 to host a public meeting about water allocations in the region.

The Country Liberal Party government has made changes to the allocation process, which threatens the Roper River region’s environment, as well as pastoral and Indigenous interests.

From 2008, the previous NT government worked with a water planning committee — made up of local pastoralists, traditional owners, Department of Land Resource Management representatives and others — to develop a water plan for Mataranka and the Roper River district.

The Roper River is entirely dependent on groundwater discharges during the dry season to keep it flowing. The river is fed by the Tindal Limestone Aquifer at Mataranka.

The draft plan, based on modelling from the previous 100 years, proposed that the amount of water licensed to be extracted from the aquifer each year be capped at 19 billion gigalitres — this is called the “consumptive pool”, while the rest be left for the health of the environment.

Before the draft could be finalised, however, the Country Liberal Party came to power in August last year. The CLP has revised the consumptive pool upwards to 36 billion gigalitres each year — with no consultation, and without reconvening the local water planning committee. The new cap was based on revised modelling of just the previous 40 years — which have been particularly wet.

Craig Ingram from AFANT told the June 13 crowd of up to 30 local landowners and concerned residents that the raised water allocations would mean more “cease-to-flow” events along the Roper. This would lead to fish kill-offs and cause upstream salinity migration.

Depleting the aquifer also threatens water supply to the downstream community of Ngukurr: the Roper supplies the community but significant salinity migration will render the water unusable by the time it breaks off to supply Ngukurr.

Stuart Blanch from ECNT said finalising the water plan before allocating water licences was important. He said problems along the Murray-Darling illustrated the difficulty of clawing back water once it was over-allocated.

“Everything’s fine when it’s wet,” Blanch said. “When it’s not wet, that’s when politics takes precedence over good planning ... Once you over-allocate water, it’s very hard to resolve that amicably, as we’ve seen down south.”

Responding to criticism about the draft plan having been scrapped, one departmental representative in the audience said: “There is no Mataranka plan. There’s a draft plan that was released in 2011 for public comment. But now, we have no plan. We are working to get the plan back up, and in the process, we are dealing with applications that are coming in.”

In March, the government granted CLP federal Senate candidate Tina MacFarlane a licence to extract almost six gigalitres of water a year from the Tindal aquifer. The previous government had rejected her application and her appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court in December.

Blanch said: “This is ‘exhibit A’ in poor water planning: issuing licences without having finalised a plan.”

Blanch, Ingram and many in the audience also raised concerns that water taken from the aquifer by mining companies is not counted in the total water allocation allowed, as mining permits are handled by a separate government department. So in fact the total amount of water taken in any given year could far exceed the 36 thousand gigalitre cap.

In a further insult to those who depend on a healthy river, the government has deferred establishing a Strategic Indigenous Reserve of water for three years. Until such a guaranteed reserve is established, Aboriginal communities in the Roper region will need to compete with everybody else for water licences.

Blanch said this was a question of equity: “Traditional Owners have got a right to develop when they want, not rush in and apply for licences now in case they have none in the future. They have to be consulted — it’s in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People …

“This plan is reckless. It’s profligate — they’re giving out too much water too quickly. And it’s disrespectful to locals, who understood they wouldn’t always get what they want, but thought at least there would be a plan for how water would be allocated.

“The government says it has a mandate to create a food bowl, but that doesn’t mean it has a mandate to destroy the river.”