Plans to green the Aussie outback hit a roadblock

While the debate over the water licence continues, the cattle station owner is testing prospective new crops like citrus.
While the debate over the water licence continues, the cattle station owner is testing prospective new crops like citrus.

Opposition is mounting over plans to create one of the nation's biggest horticulture farms on a dusty cattle station in the Northern Territory outback.

The NT government has this week set aside its offer of the biggest water licence in its history to allow the 3500-hectare project to bloom in the desert which has attracted heated debate.

A ruling from a Ministerial review on whether to allow that controversial water decision to stand has now imposed extra conditions on the licence.

This means the original water licence has been set aside.

A substituted licence has been granted, detailing improved and additional conditions on the proponent further to existing regulatory compliance measures.

These additional conditions include:

  • a detailed assessment of the water resources on Singleton Station, with a program of drilling and aquifer testing to obtain specific data on aquifer properties and yields;
  • a cultural values impact assessment;
  • a requirement to demonstrate that the developed area does not result in unacceptable impact on water dependent cultural values; and
  • Stage 1 of the project is increased from 2 to 3 years to enable adequate assessment of the aquifer behaviour and Groundwater Dependent Ecosystem conditions.

The project must also obtain land clearing and non-pastoral use permit approvals, and will be required to be referred to the NT EPA for assessment under the Environment Protection Act before any water can be extracted.

The advice of the independent review panel suggested inclusion of an assessment line of five years, a provision the Minister has decided upon for three years, as the remaining two years will be met as part of the more rigorous NT EPA assessment.

Failure by the proponent to meet licence conditions could result in water being withheld or returned to the consumptive pool.

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Already a local Aboriginal land council has promised to mount a legal challenge against granting of a licence.

Melbourne-headquartered Fortune Agribusiness wants to build a 3500-hectare irrigated horticulture project at Singleton Station, about 400km north of Alice Springs near Tennant Creek.

Earlier in the year, the company announced it had been granted access to local groundwater supplies so it could proceed with the $150 million project.

Fortune Agribusiness took over the 294,900ha cattle station in 2016 and on its "shortlist of crops" it now wants to grow in this arid country includes permanent crops such as citrus, grapes, avocados and jujube while annual crops include onions, muskmelons and carrots among others.

Some of the land will need to be cleared.

Groundwater release

The government had originally agreed to release groundwater to Fortune in four stages over the next decade, peaking at 40 gigalitres through 146 bores.

The licence allowed the use of the water for up to 30 years.

The government has confirmed the irrigation water would be made available for free, despite experts saying the water would be priced as much as $100 million in other jurisdictions.

Critics of the plans say it would draw down local water supplies by up to 50 metres.

Traditional owners said they were not asked their views about the impact on sacred sites such as local waterholes.

The region receives an annual rainfall of 386mm.

At the time of the granting of the original water licence, Fortune Agribusiness chairman Peter Wood said the the project could be underway by late-2022 depending on appeals.

Despite its remoteness near Tennant Creek, other farmers in the area are already growing hay, watermelon and peanuts.

Organisations like the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association welcomed the initial announcement saying it allowed pastoralists to harness the full potential of their land.

Much of the NT's grazing country is controlled by pastoral leases.

The Central Land Council says the government should scrap the Singleton Station water licence decision after documents obtained under FOI by ABC News revealed the government changed its procedures to grant the licence.

CLC chief executive Les Turner said the documents demonstrated Traditional Owners were not consulted before changes were made on the protection of groundwater-dependent ecosystems.

The government has also said the public will have further opportunities to question the development when the land clearing application is made and during an Environment Protection Authority check.

Fortune Agribusiness said it has been continuing to develop its detailed plans.

It has been granted access to five megalitres of groundwater annually to trial various crops on less than a hectare of the station.

This story Plans to green the Aussie outback hit a roadblock first appeared on Farm Online.