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Central Land Council to appeal NT Supreme Court water decision

Dechlan Brennan -

The Central Land Council will appeal a decision by the NT Supreme Court to dismiss a legal challenge to a controversial water licence at Singleton Station.

The licence would see up to 40 gigalitres per year given away to irrigate a large fruit farm in the desert terrain of Central Australia. It is the largest amount of groundwater the NT has ever given away and will be done without cost to the licence holders.

On Wednesday the Central Land Council said they would submit their appeal request with the Court of Appeal of NT.

Council executive member Sandra Morrison said she was pleased with the decision to appeal the Supreme Court's decision and hoped it would inspire her children and grandchildren.

"As Aboriginal people we know about our environment and how much water we need in our land," she said.

"We know it by our heart because our ancestors used to live there and know where to get water.

"So, we've got to keep going. We're not going to give up, because the next generation – we don't want them to give up."

CLC chief executive Les Turner said the Supreme Court decision effectively meant the "NT government does not have to follow its own water allocation plans when making water licensing decisions."

"Today, in the NT, water allocation plans mean little and can be ignored," Mr Turner said.

The Council is representing the native title holders of Singleton Station, Mpwerempwer Aboriginal Corporation (MAC).

In February 2022, MAC, along with the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC), took court action against NT Minister Kate Worden's decision to grant co-defendant Fortune Agribusiness the 30-year groundwater extraction licence.

They previously asked the Supreme Court to set aside the decision by the NT government, arguing the decision was invalid as it did not comply with the NT Water Act and did not properly consider Aboriginal cultural values.

At the time of the appeal, Mr Turner said: "We are talking about emptying Sydney Harbour twice, about giving away water worth hundreds of millions of dollars."

On Wednesday, ALEC said they would not take part in the appeal, arguing the risks were too great for a "small but mighty community organisation and not-for-profit."

"We will be squarely focusing on the devastating impacts of this development, which will lower the groundwater table by up to 50 metres, threaten up to 40 sacred sites and give away up to a trillion litres of water for free," ALEC said in a statement.

ALEC chief executive Adrian Tomlinson they would keep fighting for water justice, even if not directly involved in the case.

"ALEC's efforts will be focused outside of the courts, focusing on supporting the community and ensuring the devastating impacts are properly assessed by the NTEPA [NT Environment Protection Authority]and scrutinised through the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] process," Mr Tomlinson said.

Native holders in the region, as well their supporters, fear the licence given to Singleton Station will have an adverse impact on the region, including the lowering of the water table, threatening sacred sites, and damaging ground-water dependent trees, swamps and springs.

Mr Tomlinson said the impacts from the water licence and project were unprecedented.

"Groundwater dependent ecosystems, the oases of arid lands, will be damaged or destroyed across a vast area, about fifty kilometres in length," he said.

"This is gravely embarrassing for the Northern Territory, a tragedy for our environment and questions the role of water allocation plans in water licensing in the Territory.

Native title holder Valerie Curtis, from the Wakurlpu outstation, said the decision by the government only benefitted developers, saying "they don't fit with us culturally".

"Why do they need so much water? We are trying to conserve our water," she said.

"They are trying to drag it all out from under us and leave us with nothing while they get rich."

Ms Curtis pointed to the issues surrounding the Murray Darling basin, arguing: "We don't want that happening to us."

Ms Morrison said she "wanted to keep the country healthy for the next generation."

"That is important for us: not to destroy our country but to look after our country."

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