Last year the Northern Territory Government ramped up its efforts to attract agricultural investment to the Red Centre and launched a prospectus called Investing in the Horticultural Growth of Central Australia.
In the glossy brochure which highlighted “unique opportunities in the region”, the Territory Government identified the Ti Tree area, 190 kilometres north of Alice Springs, as one of the NT’s “highest priority precincts for development” where “suitable soil and water have been identified”.
“Fresh to saline ground water is available and suitable for a range of crops … bore yields of up to 15 litres per second are available,” the prospectus read.
It said possible crops for the region included mangoes, melons, grapes, almonds, citrus, poppies, quinoa and plenty more.
But 12 months later, the dreams of an expanded agricultural precinct at Ti Tree seem to have turned to dust.
Companies that were willing to invest heavily in the region have been told by government there is not enough water to accommodate their irrigation plans.
Expansion plans evaporate
Marciano Table Grapes is one of Australia’s biggest grape producers, with farms around the nation, including at Ti Tree.
Over the last couple of years, the company has invested a lot of money expanding its vineyard and claims it had assurances from the NT Government that more water would be made available for its expansion.
But when the Government unveiled its new draft water allocation plan for the region in April, there was no extra water available — leaving Marciano’s million-dollar expansion plans high and dry.
The company is now threatening to rip up vines and move its expansion plans to Queensland.
Roy Chisolm is another farmer in the Ti Tree region and the biggest water licence holder in the area.
He is currently using his water to grow valuable fodder crops for the Red Centre’s cattle industry, and like Marciano, is keen to expand but has been stumped by the new water allocation plan.
Speaking to ABC Rural, Mr Chisolm questioned why the NT Government had bothered to promote Ti Tree as a potential agricultural precinct if it was not willing to allocate more water.
“I think there was a very definite environmental agenda attached to the final draft of the [Ti Tree water allocation] plan.
“This document is a bunch of weasel words that’s really all about the environment and protecting the SWRs [Strategic Aboriginal Water Reserves].
“It’s not a plan that encourages development or regional infrastructure support.”
Where’s the water?
The NT Government estimates the groundwater storage capacity in the southern management zone of the Ti Tree aquifer is 6,500 gigalitres, with a recharge of 7.24 gigalitres a year.
Under the current plan, the estimated sustainable consumptive yield from the aquifer is 10.14 gigalitres per year, of which 6.8 gigalitres is allocated to irrigated agriculture.
In its initial statement to ABC Rural relating to concerns raised by Marciano, the NT Department of Environment and Natural Resources said the current allocation of 6.8 gigalitres was not getting fully used in the region and ‘clearly’ there were options for Ti Tree farmers to obtain extra water through trading unused water entitlements or to purchase neighbouring properties with existing water licences.
But on closer inspection, it is not that simple.
Three companies in the Ti Tree region hold roughly 95 per cent of the 6.8 gigalitres of water allocated to agriculture.
None of those companies have an interest in trading water, all of them have plans for their existing water licences, and at least two of them wish to expand.
Marciano Table Grapes said it required about 500 to 1,000 megalitres (1 gigalitre) for its expansion to be successful, while Mr Chisolm has applied for an additional 1.5 gigalitres for his fodder project.
Even if one of these companies traded water, or bought out every single small water licence holder left in the district — that would only give them access to an extra 300 megalitres (0.3 gigalitres).
Marciano admits it has already exceeded its current water licence to keep its vineyard alive this year, hence why it feels there are no other options but to rip some vines out if no extra water is allocated.
Opportunities ‘drowning in bureaucracy’
The NT Farmers Association has criticised the Territory Government’s approach to water management, saying the water allocation uncertainty being faced by farmers in the Ti Tree region is in danger of being replicated across the Territory if changes are not made.
CEO Paul Burke, a former employee of the NT Department of Primary Industry, said departments were working in silos and the opportunities to expand horticulture in the NT were ‘drowning in bureaucracy’.
“There needs to be more input of science into this process, there needs to be more monitoring, and there certainly is the opportunity for more water [to be allocated for irrigation] more broadly within that region, we’re not talking large amounts of water.”
The NT’s Minister for Primary Industry and Resources, Paul Kirby, denied claims that government departments were working in silos.
He said the Government ‘would love to see expansion in that region’, but would not commit to allocating more water.
“If that aquifer is fully allocated then we are not going to put ourselves in the position where New South Wales and the Murray-Darling Basin has found themselves, we have to do things at a sustainable level.”
Iconic trees under threat if irrigation expands, says department
The NT Government’s director of water planning and engagement, Tim Bond, said historically the Ti Tree aquifer had been under-utilised and the government’s advice to potential investors had always been to seek further information about water availability with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
He felt the Government’s positive prospectus for the Ti Tree region last year was fair at the time of publication.
When asked if those opportunities were now gone, Mr Bond said it was obvious water use in the area had ‘increased significantly’, but the final figures were not available.
“If everybody [in the Ti Tree region] uses their [water] allocation, then the opportunities for development are limited.”
Mr Bond said the Government had invested a lot into researching the Ti Tree basin and there were obvious reasons why extra water could not be allocated to irrigation.
“There’s clear evidence that trees like bloodwoods and coolabahs and ghost gums in that region are accessing ground water and rely on that water to sustain themselves,” he said.
“So the [water allocation] plan has been framed in a process that we need to look after the environment and cultural water requirements first and then once those requirements are met, then any other available water can be allocated to consumptive beneficial uses.
“In the report, it says we should be maintaining groundwater levels so that these significant trees in the landscape can continue to survive … the advice we’ve got is that if the water table goes below 15 metres, then those trees can’t access the groundwater and [will] probably die.”
Mr Bond said the department’s recommendation for the region’s new water allocation plan was that the 6.8 gigalitres allocated for irrigated agriculture should remain.
Matt Brann (Country Hour presenter): Is it fair for me to say that Ti Tree probably shouldn’t be called a high-priority precinct for plant industry development in the Northern Territory? Because if I owned an agribusiness and wanted to do a large-scale investment, I really shouldn’t go to Ti Tree because the water is not there.
Tim Bond (Department of Environment and Natural Resources): Well at the moment, if everybody [in the Ti Tree basin] uses their [water] allocation, then the opportunities for development are limited.
Source: NT Country Hour interview.