The Northern Territory’s largest-ever groundwater license will be scrutinised by the NT Supreme Court, as native title holders and an environment group serve claims against the NT government and the water license’s proponent.
- The ALEC and the CLC have filed papers for a judicial review of the Singleton Station water license
- The parties allege the NT’s own Water Act was not followed when the license was approved
- Traditional Owners want the license overturned to “preserve their cultural habitats”
The Central Land Council (CLC) and the Arid Lands Environment Center (ALEC) have filed papers for a judicial review of Fortune Agribusiness’s 40,000-megalitre water license at a remote cattle station, 400 kilometers north of Alice Springs.
The license permits Fortune Agribusiness to extract 40,000 megalitres of groundwater each year from Singleton Station, an arid cattle property near Tennant Creek.
The CLC and the ALEC allege the government was not following its own Water Act when it approved the license in April last year.
The CLC chief executive officer, Les Turner, said the cattle station’s Mpwerempwer Traditional Owners hoped to see the license overturned, either in full or in part.
Possible legal errors behind license
ALEC general manager Jade Kudrenko said she hoped the legal action would shine a light on the Northern Territory’s water management.
“This is an opportunity to shine a light on what is an gifting of water in an ecological framework that does not protect cultural and cultural values in the Territory.”
Managing lawyer of the freshwater program at the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), Emma Carmody, has taken the case on for the Arid Lands Environment Centre.
Dr Carmody said the license was the largest she had ever dealt with in her 15 years of practice.
“The largest groundwater license that’s been approved in New South Wales — which is a very developed state with a lot of irrigation — has been for 15,000 megalitres, so much smaller.”
Three grounds for review
Dr Carmody said her client, ALEC, would argue that Environment Minister Eva Lawler made a number of legal errors in approving the licence.
The EDO would argue there were three grounds for judicial review of the licence.
Dr Carmody said the case would allege Ms Lawler failed to comply with the region’s water allocation plan when it approved the license and “applied another policy document” in its place.
“The water allocation plan includes criteria which are designed to protect groundwater-dependent ecosystems,” Dr Carmody said.
One of these criteria, she said, was that the modeled extraction did not cause the water table to drop by more than 15 metres.
In its modeling, Fortune Agribusiness’s plan said the project could reduce the water table by up to 50 meters in parts.
Dr Carmody said given the NT Water Act said the region’s water allocation plan must be complied with, her team would argue the decision was not legally justified.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the NT Government said it was developing a new, long-term Strategic Water Plan.
“This matter is subject to legal dispute and therefore we cannot comment any further at this time.”
A spokesperson for Fortune Agribusiness said the company “appreciates the need to follow due process and will be cooperating with all requirements”.