Central land

Arid Lands Environment Center and Central Land Board launch legal action over Singleton Station water permit

The Northern Territory’s largest groundwater license will be reviewed by the Supreme Court of the Northern Territories, as Aboriginal title holders and an environmental group file claims against the Government of the Northern Territories and the license developer of water.

The Central Land Council (CLC) and the Arid Lands Environment Center (ALEC) have filed paperwork for a judicial review of Fortune Agribusiness’ 40,000 megalitre water permit at a remote ranching station, 400 kilometers north from Alice Springs.

The license allows Fortune Agribusiness to extract 40,000 megaliters of groundwater annually from Singleton Station, a barren cattle property near Tennant Creek.

CLC and ALEC allege the government was not following its own water law when it approved the permit in April last year.

CLC chief executive Les Turner said traditional Mpwerempwer owners of the cattle station hoped to see the license revoked, in whole or in part.

Les Turner says the CLC hopes to show that the water license was approved in error.(ABC Alice Springs: Samantha Jonscher)

Possible legal errors behind the license

ALEC chief executive Jade Kudrenko said she hoped the legal action would shed light on the Northern Territory’s water management.

“This is an opportunity to shine a light on what is an unprecedented gift of water in a legislative framework that fails to protect the ecological and cultural values ​​of the Northern Territory.”

a woman with a blonde bob looks serious
ALEC’s Jade Kudrenko hopes the legal action will shed light on the NT’s water management. (ABC News: Xavier Martin)

The lawyer responsible for the freshwater program at the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), Emma Carmody, took the case on behalf of the Center for the Environment of Arid Lands.

Dr. Carmody said the license was the most important she had ever handled in her 15 years of practice.

“The largest groundwater license that has been approved in New South Wales – which is a very developed state with a lot of irrigation – was 15,000 megalitres, so considerably smaller.

Three grounds for review

Dr Carmody said his client, ALEC, would argue that Environment Minister Eva Lawler made a number of legal errors in approving the licence.

A woman with brown hair in a bun wearing glasses
Dr. Emma Carmody of the Environmental Defenders Bureau.(Provided: Emma Carmody)

The EDO would argue that there were three grounds for judicial review of the license.

Dr Carmody said the case alleged Ms Lawler failed to adhere to the region’s water allocation plan when she approved the permit and ‘enforced another policy document’ in its place.

“The water allocation plan includes criteria designed to protect groundwater-dependent ecosystems,” Dr Carmody said.

One of those criteria, she said, was that the modeled extraction did not lower the water table by more than 15 meters.

In its modeling, the Fortune Agribusiness plan said the project could reduce the water table by up to 50 meters in parts.

Dr Carmody said that since the NT Water Act stipulated that the region’s water allocation plan must be adhered to, his team would argue that the decision was not legally justified.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Northern Territories government said it was developing a new long-term strategic water plan.

“This matter is the subject of legal litigation and therefore we cannot comment further at this time.”

A Fortune Agribusiness spokesperson said the company “appreciates the need to follow due process and will cooperate with any requirements.”