Is the Northern Territory water ready?

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Is the Northern Territory water ready?

Recently Kingfisher Law was fortunate enough to be asked by NT Farmers to write a piece as part of its bimonthly newsletter to members. Below is a slightly modified version, the original can be viewed at http://ntfarmers.org.au/blog.

The substantial potential for expansion of irrigated agriculture in the Northern Territory (NT) requires effective water planning and management that responds to development needs but current management suggests that regulators may not be ready to respond.

Of the 6.5 million hectares of land identified as suitable for perennial agricultural production in Northern Australia the NT has the bulk of the most suitable land. Potential agricultural land in the NT has been assessed as being suitable in that only simple or mildly complex management practices are required to maintain sustainable production. The NT climate is not considered to be a limiting factor and can support crops grown elsewhere in Australia except those that require a long chilling period to reproduce. The main problem for expanding irrigated agriculture in the NT is the availability of water, not least due to the variability of rainfall, which is among the most variable in the world.

The vast majority of NT rainfall is lost through evapo-transpiration, a mere 10% finds its way into surface streams and only 2% replenishes groundwater. As a result of the high potential of land suitable for expanding irrigated agriculture in the NT, both the NT and Commonwealth Governments are currently expending funds to investigate what water management practices can by employed to support expanding irrigated agriculture which is sustainable.

It is expected that once water efficiencies have been identified current barriers to agricultural investment will be eliminated in the NT but is the Controller of Water Resources (Controller) well positioned to manage new demands on water resources?

Currently eight Water Control Districts (WCDs) have been declared in the NT as needing enhanced management for the sustainability of groundwater reserves and river flows. Bore construction permits and water extraction licences are required in WCDs. Additionally, Water Allocation Plans (WAPs) can be developed in WCDs. WAPs aim to ensure the equitable sharing of available water users, to protect the environment and ensure long term sustainability of a water source. While WAPs are usually made to balance competing consumptive and environmental demands for water, to minimise risk to water resources and where there is a need to manage interconnected water resources. The Commonwealth funding component of NT water resource investigations requires conformity with the National Water Initiative (NWI) so that once these resources are identified for exploitation the Controller will need to declare WCDs and develop WAPs. These WAPs will allocate an amount of water to the environment which will further reduce the volume of water available for irrigation.

However, only four WAPs have been declared and five draft WAPs are progressing through the legislative process. The Mataranka Daly Waters WAP has remained in draft form for more than eight years, during which time farmers’ rights and the needs of the environment have been suspended in limbo, suggesting that water allocation in the NT is a complicated and slow process. This tardiness is likely to impact potential investment in irrigated agriculture in the NT adversely and ought to be addressed by the NT government now rather than when investors want to start farming.

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