Top End allocation talks see concerns collide
Representatives from all interested parties have raised their voices about the state of water licences allocation laws in the Northern Territory.
In a region with some of Australia’s most parched country, everyone from Indigenous groups to environmentalists and amateur fisherman have highlighted the importance of allocating water appropriately.
The inaugural Northern Territory Water Forum was not without controversy.
It was interrupted by Indigenous protestors angry over the NT Government’s decision to cancel water allocations known as ‘Strategic Indigenous Reserves’, which were promised to ensure that some publically-owned water would be set aside for commercial use by Indigenous groups.
Minister for Primary Industry Willem Westra van Holthe responded to the protestors through the media.
“You have the same rights to water now as any other Territorian,” he told the Indigenous groups, via reporters.
But many other Territorians still feel their rights could be improved.
The NT Government last week signed-off on seven new licences as well as increases to four existing licences for the Oolloo aquifer, giving out more than 46,000 megalitres per year.
NT Farmers Association CEO and forum co-host, Grant Fenton, has told the ABC that there were concerns with these approvals and the way they were allocated.
“It's a measure of how complicated this issue is, some are happy about it, others believe there has been too much water allocated to some people,” he said.
“Others are not happy with the process that some got what appears to be favourable opportunities over others.
“It’s not perfect, it's never been perfect, but the reality now is that we're in a place where licences are being allocated and conversations are being had about how water resources should be managed,” he said.
The newly-formed Northern Territory Catchment Advisory Committee was introduced at the forum too.
The seven-member committee will carry out consultation with a number of communities before reporting back to the NT Government on water issues.
NT Environmental Defenders Office principal lawyer David Morris said the committee and consultation was too little, too late.
“They've already issued an enormous number of licences throughout this region particularly, and quite frankly the process that began in 2007/2008 wasn't followed through with,” he said.
“The licences have been issued without proper stakeholder engagement, and quite rightly there's some ill-feeling within the community about that.
“Why are they issuing licences prior to this supposed review of the water planning process? Surely that's putting the cart before the horse,” he asked.
The NT Environmental Defenders Office is investigation the legality of the current water allocation process, looking for better protections of threatened species, appeals processes and business certainty.
Other groups with interests in NT water agreed that it appeared the big decisions had already been made, and the consultation was a mere formality.
The Department of Land Resource Management has dismissed the critics of the allocations, though executive director Steve Poppel did admit that useful talks on water-related issues have been lacking in recent times, and that community confidence has been hit.