NT water licence grants ‘unsustainable’ as fears grow for tourism, pristine rivers

For years, an invisible line drawn roughly across the Northern Territory below the tiny town of Larrimah has divided the tropical Top End and the arid south, and governed increasingly controversial water entitlements. 

But over the past year, environment groups said the NT government had sought to migrate that line north, amounting to what they called “aquifer mining” and “dangerous decision-making”.

NT Environment Centre’s director Kirsty Howey feared one of the world’s most pristine river networks was under threat, as well as sacred sites and tourism gems.

“What we’ve seen recently is an inexplicable change, that is not precautionary on any reading, to the use of the arid zone rules,” she said.

“It’s like creating water out of thin air that just was not available for the fracking industry or for other industries that want to get a foothold in the Territory. And it’s extremely worrying.”

A woman wearing glasses sits at a desk peering at paper and holding a pen.
Ms Howey says using arid zone rules to grant licences is “unsustainable”.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Last year, a massive water licence was overturned by an unprecedented ministerial intervention after it was challenged by the NT’s Environment Centre and the Northern Land Council.

It was found the NT Water Controller used the arid zone rules to grant a 10,000-megalitre water allocation to the state government’s NT Land Corporation for fruit crops about 500 kilometres south of Darwin, near Larrimah.

The Mataranka Tindall aquifer discharges into the Mataranka thermal springs, stretches south past Larrimah into the Beetaloo Basin, and also keeps the Roper River flowing through the dry season.

It is not governed by a water allocation plan yet, despite years of delays — but had always been regulated by the more conservative Top End rules.

An aerial shot of Bitter Springs with trees surrounding it.
Bitter Springs, a natural thermal pool in Mataranka that attracts thousands of tourists, depends on groundwater.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

In its simplest terms, the Top End rules allowed 20 per cent of the recharge from an aquifer to be extracted by industries.

And in the southern two-thirds of the NT, the arid zone rules were controversially flipped, so 80 per cent could be taken out.

“What we’ve seen since that decision, are licences being handed out for irrigated agriculture, but also for fracking, using the arid zone rules,” Ms Howey said.

She was concerned the arid zone rules would be applied to the Larrimah zone of the Mataranka Water Allocation Plan Area. 

“The scientific inquiry into hydraulic fracturing in the NT … made it very, very clear that the use of the arid zone rules for any extractive industry in the NT, particularly for fracking, was completely unsustainable,” Ms Howey said.

“So if we go down the path of using unsustainable rules that are in clear breach of the recommendations of the Pepper inquiry, and the commitment of the NT government to implement those recommendations … all who rely on this groundwater are in real trouble.”

A man glares at the camera in front of a non-descript wall.
NLC chairman Samuel Bush-Blanasi wants traditional owners and local people to be part of water licensing decisions.(Supplied: NLC)

Call for community decision-making

Northern Land Council chairman Samuel Bush-Blanasi said the NLC would do everything within its power to ensure “inappropriate” water management and licensing decisions were challenged.

“I have asked the NT government to do the right thing, to sit down and involve our mob in decision-making,” he said.

“We want the views of traditional owners and local people to be a part of water licensing decisions.

Des Barritt has spent his life on the pristine Northern Territory rivers, and feared the rule switch could impact his tourism-reliant business — a campground next to the Northern Territory’s Mataranka thermal springs.

A man stands with his arms folded in a doorway wearing a hat.
Mr Barritt’s livelihood depends on the pristine rivers and waterways of the Mataranka area.(ABC Katherine: Roxanne Fitzgerald)

Water plans carefully monitored, says government

Just days after the landmark overturning, the NT Water Controller handed out another major water licence using the arid zone rules to fracking company Sweetpea, a subsidiary of Tamboran Resources, which planned to explore for gas in the Beetaloo Basin.

In the decision, the water controller said the permit was located in the “transitional zone between the Arid Zone and the Top End boundary” and the department’s hydrologist had advised the application of the Arid Zone principle was “appropriate”. 

Imperial Oil and Gad has also been approved for a licence and three applications are currently being assessed.

Lauren Moss, the Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water Security, said a water allocation plan for the Mataranka region was set to be handed down next year.

NT Education Minister Lauren Moss speaking in front of cameras at a press conference.
Ms Moss says the government is committed to implementing all of the 135 Pepper Inquiry recommendations, including the introduction of water extraction charges.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

She said plans were developed using “available science” and took into account estimated sustainable yield, climatic conditions, groundwater flow, and varying recharge rates.

Posted , updated 

Leave a Comment