2021 NT Minister’s Breakfast – Wrap Up Report

Water Growing our Economy
Friday 11 June 2021 – Darwin | Webinar


In a first for the Australian Water Association’s NT Branch we hosted the Territory’s Annual Minister’s Breakfast both face to face with over 70 people and broadcast live via webinar from the Grand Ballroom at the Double Tree by Hilton in Darwin.

Aunty Billawarra Lee, opened with a Welcome to Country Ceremony, and shared stories of the deep and enduring connection of the Larrakia “Saltwater” people, to the land and water. The welcome was moving, inspirational and provided an opportunity to pay respect to the traditional owners, past, present and emerging.

Minister Lawler provided an overview of the Territory’s focus on economic development, with water as a key enabler, to achieve a $40 billion economy by 2030. Minister Lawler stressed that the Government is focused on developing the Territory’s economy, but that “it will not be at the expense of safe drinking water our important environmental and cultural values, or the liveability of our communities”. The Minister outlined water resource reforms including the creation of Strategic Aboriginal Water Reserves, “use it or lose it” and staged and longer-term licences.

However, Minister Lawler was clear that “policies, infrastructure and strategies as they relate to water security and water reliability must also change and mature in order to predict and respond to changes in water availability, the effects of a changing climate, and competing needs for our water.  We must therefore consider new technologies and regulatory settings to improve water security and availability, and efficient water use across all water users”.

The Minister announced the development of the first Territory Strategic Water Plan and that one of the first tasks of the Office of Water Security is a water audit of future water requirements against economic objectives and industry priorities to define water assessment priorities, infrastructure spending, policy and regulatory requirements. An update was provided on the augmentation of the Darwin water supply and initiatives on water supply security for remote Aboriginal communities. 

The Breakfast then heard from the panel of four leading CEOs

  • Joanne Townsend, CEO, Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security
  • Paul Burke, CEO, NT Farmers
  • Kate Peake, CEO, ‎Regional Development Australia Northern Territory
  • Kirsty Howey, Co-Director, Environment Centre for NT

The panel discussions and Q&A from the audience focused on the tension between economic development and protecting the environment. The panel explored the importance of community trust in managing water resources and the need for evidence-based decision making.

Paul Burke provide context for the NT Plant Industry’s objective to expand to $600 million by 2028, noting that some agri-businesses such as Mangos are very mature but other business are modest, but with strong growth potential. The expansion of the cotton industry in the Territory and the large horticulture development on Singleton station generated the most discussion. NT Farmers believes that all development should be truly sustainable and that the debate should not be focused on what is grown (such as cotton) but rather that there are evidence-based water plans in place with transparent licencing and compliance. Kirsty Howey disagreed with the push for cotton farming, referring to the impact of cotton farming in the Murray Darlin Basin, and the impact in catchments of land clearing

Jo Townsend highlight work underway on new policy development including extraction of water during the top end wet season with a stakeholder steering committee assisting. In the Territory here are around 580 water extraction licences providing 600,000 ML/yr with more than half 345,000 ML/yr supports agriculture and another 130,000 ML/yr supports aquaculture and nearly 100,000 ML/yr for public water supply.

There was much debate on the need for more science and increased engagement to maintain community trust in water management. The panel members discussed options to fund additional science, including the impact of climate change, such as a charge on water extracted for consumption – or water use. If a user pays approach is taken who pays for the water for the environment and cultural use. Kate Peake and Paul Burke supported charges to fund science and management of water licencing but stressed that comparisons could not be made with water trading in the Murray Darling Basin – an over allocated system with a mature and complex water trading scheme. 

Kirsty Howey, highlighted the approach elsewhere in charging users for the science and assessment – this is an objective of the National Water Initiative which has not yet been introduced in the Territory. Kirsty expressed concern that the Territory does not have the regulatory machinery in place for the regulation of water sought for developments.

Jo Townsend highlighted that Water Resources produced over 2,000 technical reports since the 1950s, on average 28 technical reports a year, with 40 reports have been produced since January 2020. These covered water availability, groundwater and surface water resource assessment, flood modelling, aquatic ecology and water allocation

One item that came from the morning was the need to build trust through further engagement with Territorians from all levels in achieving a realistic water management charges which can both grow our economy, sustain our environment and realise the worth of this precious resource

Thanks to AWA NT working group, Darryl Day, Jocelyn Ellero and Jason Tong and AWA team Elyse Gradwell and Kyllie Whitehead for organising and coordinating the event

This wrap up report was written by the AWA NT organising committee.

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