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The Gunner Government’s TERC Bill is a Trojan horse for slashing our water laws


The Environment Centre NT (EECNT) has called out the NT Government's proposed Statute Law Amendment (Territory Economic Reconstruction) Bill 2021 as a Trojan horse that weakens the Territory's scandal - plagued water regulatory system.

ECNT's Co-Director Kirsty Howey said, “The Gunner Government is using this Bill to hide its plan to strip back our already shoddy water laws, so that large-scale irrigation for cotton and other crops can be pushed through with less scrutiny, with local growers, communities and the environment losing out.

Hidden among the seemingly harmless amendments to different pieces of legislation, are some major changes to the Territory's Water Act that transfer significant arbitrary power to the Water Controller, allow water speculation by developers, and pave the way for new dams with reduced public scrutiny. It's disingenuous to play down this Bill as mere streamlining of approvals: its a Trojan horse.

This comes off the back of the Water Controller's recent decision to give away 40 billion litres of water per year for free to Fortune Agribusiness south of Tennant Creek , which will drain the aquifer by up to 50 metre s and cause irreversible damage to surface ecosystems. Anywhere else in Australia, this licence would cost upwards of $220 million, but this government is giving it away for free without any clear plan for monitoring its environmental impacts.

It was also revealed this week that groundwater in the agriculturally productive Darwin rural area is massively overallocated by upwards of 30 billion litres per year, resulting in local farmers missing out, and the environment is seriously at risk.

Territorians are living with the consequences of decades of bad water management and a lack of resources to monitor, enforce and ensure compliance with increasingly weakened laws. Instead of strengthening our water laws, the Gunner Government is stripping them back by stealth. Territorians won't stand on the sidelines while these attacks on our water pick up steam.

This Bill needs to be subjected to proper public consultation and scrutiny, not rushed through by the Gunner Government for their big business mates."

ECNT has identified the following problems with the Territory Economic Reconstruction Bill 2021:

1. The TERC Bill gives the Water Controller arbitrary powers to extend the term of water licences, locking water away from other users and increasing sovereign risk

Water licences are generally only granted for 10 years in the Northern Territory, which is a useful tool for managing the sustainability of water extraction, as well as to reduce sovereign risk (ie to reduce the risk of the Territory needing to buy back water licences including due to overextraction of the resource). However, the TERC Bill gives the Water Controller, a bureaucrat, a very broad power to extend the term of water licences if she is satisfied that special circumstances justify the longer period . No explanation is given for what special circumstances might be, and no time limit is given on how long the Water Controller can extend water licences for. This is a dangerous level of discretion to give to a senior bureaucrat, which could have the effect of locking a way water from other prospective users, will remove a key sustainable management tool, and will increase the risk of “buy backs” of Territory water licences (a cost which would be borne by the Territory taxpayer).

2. The TERC Bill paves the way for speculative water development, that will lock away water from other prospective users and enable unscrupulous profit-making

Speculative water licences are a particular risk in the Territory, where unlike other jurisdictions water is handed out for free to irrigators, who can then trade it at a profit . To stop rampant speculation, water licences in the Territory must be granted for actual irrigation developments, and require precision about the bore points where extraction is to occur. They are also subject to a use it or lose it policy. This is to prevent water hoarding whereby the available water in a particular resource is taken by a particular irrigator, locking others out.

The TERC Bill makes it possible for a developer to obtain water licences on a speculative basis that is, without the need to specify extraction points or submit detailed development plans . The developer will then be able to sub divide or sub-lease the land and transfer the water licence to others. This means that a developer can hoard water with very little justification, locking the resource away from other prospective users. Again, the water would be given to the developer for free, but can then be used by that developer for profit-making purposes.. This is a massive transfer of a public good to private interests, without appropriate compensation.

3.  The TERC Bill removes public scrutiny for dam approvals

The agribusiness industry has been pushing for years for a surface water harvesting policy, which is code for on-farm dams using an environmentally destructive practice known as floodplain harvesting. Industry reports suggest that over 500 billion litres of water a year may be available from the Daly River catchment alone for on-farm dams. Floodplain harvesting has been enormously damaging in the Murray Darling Basin, and a major cause of fish kills and dry river-beds in the Darling-Baaka River in particular. It has no social licence in the Territory, and requires the closest scrutiny.

The TERC Bill reduces public scrutiny for the construction of dams for floodplain harvesting. It removes the requirement for notices for permits to obstruct waterway s (needed to build dams) to be advertised in the newspaper, instead placing public notification requirements within the discretion of the Water Controller. It is vital that Territorians know about industry plans for dams, and this level of uncertainty and discretion about public notification requirements is unacceptable.

Media contact Kirsty Howey:: 0488 928 811

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