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SUCKING TERRITORY RIVERS DRY

13.12.2022

As the Northern Territory prepares to allocate 264 billion litres of water per year from its aquifers to facilitate fracking in the Beetaloo Basin, a new scientific report shows that its plans endanger iconic Northern Territory rivers, sacred sites, and the pastoral and tourism industries. A coalition of organisations is calling on Federal Minister Tanya Plibersek to intervene.

Sucking Territory Rivers dry: calls for intervention by Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek as new report shows NT fracking water plan “endangers” iconic rivers, springs and sacred sites.

As the Northern Territory prepares to allocate 264 billion litres of water per year (half of Sydney Harbour per year) from the Cambrian Limestone Aquifer in the remote Northern Territory to facilitate fracking in the Beetaloo Basin, a new scientific report shows that its plans endanger iconic Northern Territory rivers, sacred sites, and the pastoral and tourism industries. A coalition of organisations is calling on Federal Minister Tanya Plibersek to intervene.

Following the release of a draft water allocation plan in the Beetaloo Basin (the draft Georgina/Wiso plan), 18 water academics from around Australia wrote to the Chief Minister to condemn the draft plan, and water planning in the NT generally.

Now, a new report by Dr Matthew Currell and Dr Christopher Ndehehdehe of RMIT (commissioned by the Environment Centre NT) demonstrates that the plan could “lock in negative impacts on environmental and cultural values”, including irreparably damaging the Roper River and associated springs, as well as sacred sites, the tourism industry, the recreational fishing industry, and water supply to the downstream Indigenous community of Ngukurr.

After repeated calls for the NT Chief Minister to listen to the science and delay water allocation plans, a coalition of environmental groups, Traditional Owners and tourism operators are calling on Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to intervene before it is too late, including due to the plan’s failure to comply with the National Water Initiative.

The report is written by hydrogeologists Dr Matthew Currell and Dr Christopher Ndehedehe, who were commissioned by the Environment Centre NT to undertake a review of the hydrogeology and management rules for the Cambrian Limestone Aquifer.

Download the Currell Report here.

QUOTES

Kirsty Howey, Director Environment Centre NT:

“This report demonstrates – in the strongest of terms - that the Northern Territory Government is sleepwalking into disaster, by pushing ahead with an unprecedented water allocation to comply with gas and cotton industry demands.”

“The science is now clear – these plans could endanger the Northern Territory’s iconic rivers, springs and billabongs, sacred sites, tourism, and drinking water for remote Indigenous communities.”

“Our rivers are too precious to risk, and repeated calls by communities and experts to delay the plan have been ignored by the Northern Territory Government. It’s time for Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to step in to stop this trainwreck before it’s too late.”

 

Des Barritt, Tourism Operator at Mataranka Hot Springs in the Roper region (“Little Roper Stock Camp”)

"The Currell report confirms the worries of many of us at Mataranka and surrounds.  The lack of long-term scientific monitoring is a major concern. Incorrect decisions regarding the Georgina and Wiso basin are a threat to my home, our business and the whole tourism industry which has a longer future than the gas industry.

“We depend on that ground water, our own use, water for the town and cattle industry and for the survival of our vibrant hot springs and rainforests.

“Overuse of these basins and damage to this ecosystem will be the end for one of the Territory's iconic tourism spots.”

 

Johnny Wilson, Nurrdalinji Aboriginal Corporation Chair:

“The mining industry and the cotton industry mob are going to be able to take as much as they want, putting the Roper and Mataranka at risk, without consulting with us. Our water is our life. If our water is damaged, our sacred waterways, our songlines, then everything we stand for is destroyed. “The government has not properly consulted with Traditional Owners here. They talk to the gas companies, but not to us. Why are they not waiting until the baseline water studies are done.

“ We once again call on the Northern Land Council to fight for our water as our representative and given the NT government are not doing nothing, we call on the Federal government to step in and make sure the job is done properly.”

 

Mitch Hart – NT Manager, Pew Charitable Trusts:

"Communities are calling for governments at all levels to reset their thinking on how environmental water is managed here. When it comes to groundwater and river catchments, we need to look at these systems as a whole, and also protect our precious floodplains that feed aquifers and keep our rivers flowing. We need the NT Government to adopt the science and listen to communities on the ground who expect the government to expand their thinking on what economic opportunities exist and do much more to protect rivers and water for the long-term.

“This starts with strengthened community led protections, no extra water to be taken from these river and groundwater systems and a guarantee to Territorians that they will be protected for the future."

 

BACKGROUND

 

  • The Northern Territory’s nature is defined by its free-flowing rivers, including the iconic Roper River. This river is fed by a huge underground aquifer that keeps it flowing all year round, including discharging into the tourism mecca of Mataranka/Bitter Springs in Elsey National Park (of “We of the Never Never” fame) before flowing eventually into the Gulf of Carpentaria.
  • Following the release of a draft water allocation plan in the Beetaloo Basin (the draft Georgina/Wiso plan), a new report by Dr Matthew Currell and Dr Christopher Ndehehdehe the fracking and cotton industries’ proposed water use could irreparably damage the Roper River and associated springs, as well as sacred sites, the tourism industry, the recreational fishing industry, and water supply to the downstream Indigenous community of Ngukurr;
  • The Northern Territory is non-complaint with the National Water Initiative, and has among the worst water laws in the country. Meanwhile, Indigenous communities do not have basic protections for their drinking water. For some months, community groups have been calling on the Chief Minister to delay the release of the Georgina/Wiso plan including due to concerns that the Northern Territory is not complying with the National Water Initiative. Following the release of the draft Georgina/Wiso plan, 18 water academics from around Australia wrote to the Chief Minister to condemn the draft plan, and water planning in the NT generally.
  • This report demonstrates that proposed allocations to the fracking and cotton industries could endanger important waterways, including the Roper River. It shows:
    • the draft Georgina/Wiso plan uses an estimated sustainable yield calculated at 40% of averaged recharge over 50 years. However:
      • it is unclear how the value of 40% of recharge was determined;
      • scientific knowledge is currently not sufficient to fully understand the effects of such extraction;
      • the recharge estimate has “considerable uncertainty”;
      • the vast majority of estimated recharge is associated with a single event in 1974;
      • recharge is highly episodic, and considerably lower than the long-term average in most years (and may be negligible under the typical climate), meaning that “significant aquifer overdraft” (extraction far exceeding recharge) would occur in most years;
      • climate change impacts combined with overdraft could deplete storage faster than expected, lowering the water table and ultimately damaging [groundwater dependent ecosystems] and their unique biodiversity;

As a consequence of the above, the draft Georgina/Wiso plan could “lock in negative impacts on environmental and cultural values”, endanger stygofauna communities, risk water quality, and threaten the survival of groundwater dependent ecosystems.

FROM THE REPORT (full version)

  • “The current draft WAP for the Georgina Wiso region proposes an estimated sustainable yield (yearly extraction cap) of 262.6 GL/year, estimated to be 40% of long-term averaged recharge. It is unclear how or why the value of 40% of recharge was determined to represent a sustainable level of extraction. In the Georgina and Wiso Basins, knowledge of the water balance, hydrogeology and groundwater dependent ecosystems are currently not sufficient to fully understand the effects of such extraction. The recharge estimate used to derive the ESY is model-derived and has considerable uncertainty. It is nearly double the value derived from earlier runs of the same model, and higher than some field-based estimates, meaning the ESY may constitute a larger fraction of recharge than assumed. The current data also indicate that recharge is considerably lower than the long-term average in most years (and may be negligible under the typical climate), except for rare events where rainfall (and recharge) far exceeds the rolling long-term average. Such periods have likely occurred only three or four times over the past century. The vast majority of estimated recharge to the Georgina and Wiso basins is associated with a single event in 1974. The recurrence interval for such recharge events, and details of their mechanism remain unknown. Therefore, under the proposed ESY, in most years, significant aquifer overdraft (extraction far exceeding recharge) would be permitted. Such overdraft may occur for many consecutive years (or decades), before the next episodic recharge event occurs.
  • “Drawdown associated with consecutive years (or decades) of aquifer overdraft in the Georgina and Wiso basins would endanger stygofauna communities and reduce cross-basin discharge fluxes within the CLA, e.g., to the Tindall Limestone aquifer (upon which key GDEs noted above depend). Currently, groundwater discharge mechanism(s) from these two basins is poorly understood. There may be additional groundwater dependent ecosystems within or close to the edge of the plan area sustained by CLA groundwater (such as springs in the western Wiso Basin, or un-mapped deep-rooted vegetation communities). These GDEs may suffer reduced access to groundwater for extended periods between recharge events due to extraction at the proposed ESY, threatening their survival. Water quality risks, such as migration of saline water into fresher parts of the aquifer, and potential aquifer integrity issues associated with concentrated extraction in particular regions have also received limited or no attention in the draft WAP. Better characterization of GDEs, recharge and discharge mechanisms and rates, and more comprehensive assessment of these risks are urgently required before appropriate management rules can be adopted to ensure the Georgina-Wiso WAP does not lock in negative impacts on environmental and cultural values.”
  • “The recently released draft Georgina Wiso WAP estimates recharge rates to the Georgina and Wiso Basins to be approximately 660 GL/year; i.e., significantly higher than the previous model-based estimates …. The 660 GL/year value is based on updated coupled surface water-groundwater modelling - the same model reported in Knapton, (2020). The estimate is however nearly double the recharge reported for the Georgina Basin in the previously documented modelling. This is likely due to the use of the most recent 50 year-period of data (1970 to 2020, a relatively wet period), as opposed to the full length of available climate records – Knapton, (2020) used the longer period of 1900 to 2019 climate data. Notably, the majority (two thirds) of the recharge contributing to the overall total over the revised modelled conducted for the draft WAP occurred during 1974, an extremely wet year which saw an estimated 21,280 GL of recharge. There is very little data to indicate the mechanism or geographic extent of this large, episodic recharge event, nor any indication as to how frequently such events may recur. As such, the estimation of average recharge in the draft WAP, is very heavily dependent on a single recharge event nearly fifty years ago, for which data are mostly lacking. This is critically important when assessing whether extracting a fraction of the averaged recharge rate derived using the model – e.g., 40%, as proposed in the plan – can be considered appropriate as a sustainable yield (see further discussion in section 2 and 3 below).”
  • “Much of the recharge in CLA emanates from annual rainfall. As with other regions, groundwater across the CLA will continue to respond to the impacts of climate change through changes in the characteristics of rainfall (e.g., intensity, seasonality). The negative trends in annual recharge between 2003 and 2016 in some critical areas of the CLA (Fig 4b) highlights this further, suggesting that slight changes in the intensity of annual rainfall and/or increased evapotranspiration rates could create a water budget deficit, affecting rainfall-based storage contributions to the aquifer. Recharge may be significantly less in some years compared to long term averages – the limited analysis of hydrographs conducted for the Georgina basin indicates that this is particularly true in this basin, where substantial recharge appears to have only occurred once in a few decades. Groundwater extraction at rates that exceed recharge even temporarily (due to its episodic nature) could coalesce with prolonged droughts, to deplete storage faster than expected, lowering the water table and ultimately damaging GDEs and their unique biodiversity. Damaging impacts of severe dry conditions on hydraulic properties (e.g., transmissivity of karst aquifers in France), which may not be readily reversible, have been documented elsewhere (Green et al. 2011).”
  • The Arid Zone contingent allocation rules appear to be one of the only cases in Australia where a storage-based approach is applied to the determination of a ‘sustainable’ yield. If this approach were to be adopted in WAPs covering the CLA and Beetaloo sub-basin and/or remains in use more generally, it would allow for unsustainable development of groundwater, with serious potential consequences for groundwater dependent ecosystems, cultural values and water users. In the Daly Basin/Tindall Limestone section of the CLA, where the Mataranka springs and Roper River occur, extraction at rates that cause long-term storage depletion would endanger these and other important GDEs, by reducing spring discharge, river baseflow and water table levels.”