NT project to get $300m in free water

Tim DorninAAP
The Singleton project plans to grow crops including melons, grapes, mandarins, onions and avocados.
Camera IconThe Singleton project plans to grow crops including melons, grapes, mandarins, onions and avocados. Credit: AAP

A 3500-hectare fruit and vegetable project in the Northern Territory could get more than $300 million in water for free while its promised economic benefits have been overstated, a report has found.

Fortune Agribusiness says its Singleton Horticulture Project, about 1000 kilometres south of Darwin, will support more than 100 permanent jobs and more than 1300 seasonal positions through an annual operating expenditure of about $110 million.

But the Central Land Council says a report it commissioned from a water economics professor at the University of South Australia found the project is dependent on large public subsidies while significant ecological, cultural and social costs have not been properly considered.

The report says the project is likely to generate between 26 and 36 full-time jobs for Territorians and puts the annual economic benefits at between $13 million and $28 million.

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It also estimates the value of the groundwater being provided under the NT government’s 30-year extraction licence at between $70 million and more than $300 million.

Central Land Council chief executive Les Turner says the report raises serious questions about the project’s social, cultural and environmental costs.

“Not only has the project failed the economic benefits test, it has also neglected to account for the damage it would do to Aboriginal communities and country,” Mr Turner said.

“We are talking about emptying Sydney Harbour twice, about giving away water worth hundreds of millions of dollars.”

In February, the native title holders for the Singleton site said they would ask the Supreme Court to set aside the water licence for the project.

They planned to show that the government had failed to consider Aboriginal cultural values and other important matters, describing the approval to take 40 gigalitres of water every year for three decades as “unconscionable”.

The licence had been granted in November after an earlier version was set aside and included additional conditions, including a requirement for a detailed assessment of the water resources on Singleton Station and a cultural values impact assessment.

In a statement, Fortune Agribusiness said it had only received the academic analysis on Tuesday, through the media.

The company said it would respond to all claims as soon as it had the opportunity to review the report.

When its new licence was approved, Fortune described the revised conditions as comprehensive and stringent and said it was committed to meeting all the requirements.

“We recognise the importance of water security and sound environmental management to all Territorians and indeed for the project itself,” chairman Peter Wood said in November.

“From the outset, Fortune Agribusiness has been committed to engaging and working closely with the traditional owners and the Central Land Council and will be continuing to do so throughout the life of the project.”

“We believe in working together collaboratively and meaningfully to build a world-class food production precinct.”

The Singleton project plans to grow a range of annual and perennial crops including melons, grapes, mandarins, onions and avocados.

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