Mining vs rivers: a single line on a map could determine the future of water in the Northern Territory

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Tuesday, November 8, 2022

ShutterstockA water war is brewing in the Northern Territory – and the battle centres around a line on a map. Where the line is drawn determines how much groundwater is available for irrigation, mining and gas extraction. The line currently runs through the middle of the resource-rich Beetaloo Basin. There are recent indications that the NT government will effectively move the line, potentially allowing for substantially more water to be extracted by gas and other industries. This could cause long-term and irreversible damage to springs, wetlands and rivers upon which people and ecosystems depend. The battle centres around a line on a map separating two climatic zones: arid and top end. A region rich in nature – and gas The Beetaloo Basin lies around 500 kilometres southeast of Darwin. It’s in a region home to the abundant plant and animal life of the Roper River, Elsey National Park, Mataranka Springs and Red Lily Lagoon, among other culturally and ecologically significant sites. These ecosystems are fed by water stored beneath the surface in large aquifers, which are recharged by rainfall and seepage from rivers and lakes. Below these aquifers lie vast reserves of gas. Under NT law, “water allocation plans” must calculate how much water can be extracted sustainably. However, such plans are only in place for 5% of the NT. Elsewhere – where there is often great uncertainty about the impacts of groundwater extraction – water is licensed according to “contingent rules”. These rules divide the NT into two zones: the top end and the arid zone. The top end zone allows groundwater extraction of up to 20% of the water that replenishes the aquifer each year. The northern part of the Beetaloo Basin is in this zone. The arid zone permits much higher rates of extraction: 80% of the aquifer’s total groundwater storage capacity can be extracted over a century, as long as dependent ecosystems are not harmed. The southern part of the Beetaloo Basin sits in this zone. In arid zones, not much water flows into aquifers due to limited rainfall and high evaporation rates. Extracting a large proportion of water from these aquifers will inevitably reduce outflows to rivers and springs. Arid zones therefore need a much more cautious approach to water licensing. There are now strong indications that the NT government intends to use arid zone rules in the top end zone – effectively moving the line between the two zones. Alarmingly, this would increase the amount of water that industry could extract from aquifers, including those sitting on top of Beetaloo gas reserves. Above-ground ecosystems are fed by water stored beneath the surface in large aquifers. Shutterstock Enlarging the arid zone A company called Territory Sands plans to mine 110 million tonnes of sand near the small NT town of Larrimah. The sand would be sold to gas companies operating in the Beetaloo Basin, for use in the fracking process. The sand would have to be washed. To do this, Territory Sands wants to take up to 1.2 billion litres of water each year from the Mataranka Tindall Limestone Aquifer. The aquifer is currently classified as being in the top end zone. But the NT Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security says the aquifer could be considered as being in the arid zone. Asked by The Conversation’s editorial team why this was the case, the department said extraction rules were “based on the behaviour and characteristics of the aquifer [a project] is drawing from” in accordance with a technical classification report. Territory Sands has used the arid zone rule to calculate how much water it should be allowed to take. The Conversation attempted to contact the company for comment, but had not received a response at the time of publication. Official documents show the NT government is considering using the arid zone rule for future water extraction in the same area. Environment groups have expressed concern about the harm excessive extraction from the aquifer could cause. So too have some First Nations communities. Read more: Water injustice runs deep in Australia. Fixing it means handing control to First Nations Fracking in the NT is controversial among First Nations communities. Dean Lewins/AAP One of the NT’s most popular tourist attractions, the Mataranka thermal pools, depends on the Mataranka Tindall Limestone Aquifer. It also provides water for the Roper River, along which are many sites significant to Traditional Owners. The NT government has in the past tried to apply arid zone rules in the top end zone. In 2020, it used the same rule to grant a licence to extract 10 billion litres of groundwater from the same aquifer. This is despite a senior NT water bureaucrat warning it would threaten permanent flows to the Roper River. The NT government withdrew the licence after an independent panel found using aquifer storage as a basis for assessing licences was not precautionary or sustainable. In a statement provided to The Conversation’s editorial team, the department said there were a number of aquifers and management zones in the Mataranka and Larrimah area – some arid and most top end. “The specific characteristics of these resources as well as the required environmental and cultural protections, determine how they are managed under a plan,” the statement said. The department said springs, rivers and wetlands were features of a top end system, so arid zone rules would not apply to them. The arid zone rule would threaten the Roper River during dry times. Shutterstock Shifting the burden of harm The arid zone rules are deeply problematic. In recognition of this, the 2017-18 Pepper Scientific Inquiry into Fracking cautioned against using the rules in the Beetaloo, finding it would be “ecologically unsustainable”. Using water storage volumes to calculate sustainable yield is out of step with sustainable management practices in other Australian jurisdictions and many parts of the world. In arid zones, it’s not possible to avoid harm to groundwater-dependent ecosystems if most water stored in an aquifer is extracted. Doing so inevitably reduces, or stops entirely, groundwater flows to the surface environment. And aquifers take time to adjust to changes. So the 100-year time frame that applies under the arid zone rule shifts the burden of harm into the future. If new permits are issues to projects that deplete the aquifer, long-term damage is locked in. Water extraction in the Northern Territory must be scientifically defensible. Otherwise, future generations and the ecosystems that depend on the water will suffer – and the damage may be irreversible. Read more: Hidden depths: why groundwater is our most important water source Sue Jackson receives research funding from the Australian Research Council and from consultancies conducted for the Murray Darling Basin Authority, the Northern Land Council, and the Environment Centre NT.Matthew Currell is currently being engaged by the Environment Centre NT for a consultancy to examine the hydrogeology of NT aquifers and make recommendations regarding sustainable groundwater management.

There are fears the Northern Territory government will allow gas and other industries to extract substantially more water from the environment than is currently allowed.

Shutterstock

A water war is brewing in the Northern Territory – and the battle centres around a line on a map.

Where the line is drawn determines how much groundwater is available for irrigation, mining and gas extraction. The line currently runs through the middle of the resource-rich Beetaloo Basin.

There are recent indications that the NT government will effectively move the line, potentially allowing for substantially more water to be extracted by gas and other industries.

This could cause long-term and irreversible damage to springs, wetlands and rivers upon which people and ecosystems depend.

The battle centres around a line on a map separating two climatic zones: arid and top end.

A region rich in nature – and gas

The Beetaloo Basin lies around 500 kilometres southeast of Darwin. It’s in a region home to the abundant plant and animal life of the Roper River, Elsey National Park, Mataranka Springs and Red Lily Lagoon, among other culturally and ecologically significant sites.

These ecosystems are fed by water stored beneath the surface in large aquifers, which are recharged by rainfall and seepage from rivers and lakes. Below these aquifers lie vast reserves of gas.

Under NT law, “water allocation plans” must calculate how much water can be extracted sustainably. However, such plans are only in place for 5% of the NT.

Elsewhere – where there is often great uncertainty about the impacts of groundwater extraction – water is licensed according to “contingent rules”. These rules divide the NT into two zones: the top end and the arid zone.

The top end zone allows groundwater extraction of up to 20% of the water that replenishes the aquifer each year. The northern part of the Beetaloo Basin is in this zone.

The arid zone permits much higher rates of extraction: 80% of the aquifer’s total groundwater storage capacity can be extracted over a century, as long as dependent ecosystems are not harmed. The southern part of the Beetaloo Basin sits in this zone.

In arid zones, not much water flows into aquifers due to limited rainfall and high evaporation rates. Extracting a large proportion of water from these aquifers will inevitably reduce outflows to rivers and springs. Arid zones therefore need a much more cautious approach to water licensing.

There are now strong indications that the NT government intends to use arid zone rules in the top end zone – effectively moving the line between the two zones. Alarmingly, this would increase the amount of water that industry could extract from aquifers, including those sitting on top of Beetaloo gas reserves.

Two trees frame a shallow river
Above-ground ecosystems are fed by water stored beneath the surface in large aquifers. Shutterstock

Enlarging the arid zone

A company called Territory Sands plans to mine 110 million tonnes of sand near the small NT town of Larrimah. The sand would be sold to gas companies operating in the Beetaloo Basin, for use in the fracking process.

The sand would have to be washed. To do this, Territory Sands wants to take up to 1.2 billion litres of water each year from the Mataranka Tindall Limestone Aquifer.

The aquifer is currently classified as being in the top end zone. But the NT Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security says the aquifer could be considered as being in the arid zone.

Asked by The Conversation’s editorial team why this was the case, the department said extraction rules were “based on the behaviour and characteristics of the aquifer [a project] is drawing from” in accordance with a technical classification report.

Territory Sands has used the arid zone rule to calculate how much water it should be allowed to take. The Conversation attempted to contact the company for comment, but had not received a response at the time of publication.

Official documents show the NT government is considering using the arid zone rule for future water extraction in the same area.

Environment groups have expressed concern about the harm excessive extraction from the aquifer could cause. So too have some First Nations communities.


Read more: Water injustice runs deep in Australia. Fixing it means handing control to First Nations


people stand with sign reading 'don't frack the NT'
Fracking in the NT is controversial among First Nations communities. Dean Lewins/AAP

One of the NT’s most popular tourist attractions, the Mataranka thermal pools, depends on the Mataranka Tindall Limestone Aquifer. It also provides water for the Roper River, along which are many sites significant to Traditional Owners.

The NT government has in the past tried to apply arid zone rules in the top end zone. In 2020, it used the same rule to grant a licence to extract 10 billion litres of groundwater from the same aquifer.

This is despite a senior NT water bureaucrat warning it would threaten permanent flows to the Roper River.

The NT government withdrew the licence after an independent panel found using aquifer storage as a basis for assessing licences was not precautionary or sustainable.

In a statement provided to The Conversation’s editorial team, the department said there were a number of aquifers and management zones in the Mataranka and Larrimah area – some arid and most top end.

“The specific characteristics of these resources as well as the required environmental and cultural protections, determine how they are managed under a plan,” the statement said.

The department said springs, rivers and wetlands were features of a top end system, so arid zone rules would not apply to them.

water flows over rocks in tropical river
The arid zone rule would threaten the Roper River during dry times. Shutterstock

Shifting the burden of harm

The arid zone rules are deeply problematic. In recognition of this, the 2017-18 Pepper Scientific Inquiry into Fracking cautioned against using the rules in the Beetaloo, finding it would be “ecologically unsustainable”.

Using water storage volumes to calculate sustainable yield is out of step with sustainable management practices in other Australian jurisdictions and many parts of the world.

In arid zones, it’s not possible to avoid harm to groundwater-dependent ecosystems if most water stored in an aquifer is extracted. Doing so inevitably reduces, or stops entirely, groundwater flows to the surface environment.

And aquifers take time to adjust to changes. So the 100-year time frame that applies under the arid zone rule shifts the burden of harm into the future. If new permits are issues to projects that deplete the aquifer, long-term damage is locked in.

Water extraction in the Northern Territory must be scientifically defensible. Otherwise, future generations and the ecosystems that depend on the water will suffer – and the damage may be irreversible.


Read more: Hidden depths: why groundwater is our most important water source


The Conversation

Sue Jackson receives research funding from the Australian Research Council and from consultancies conducted for the Murray Darling Basin Authority, the Northern Land Council, and the Environment Centre NT.

Matthew Currell is currently being engaged by the Environment Centre NT for a consultancy to examine the hydrogeology of NT aquifers and make recommendations regarding sustainable groundwater management.

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

It’s hot, and your local river looks enticing. But is too germy for swimming?

Ensuring a swimming site is safe is key to getting people using it. That means giving people timely information about water quality.

Dan Himbrechts/AAPSwimming in rivers, creeks and lakes can be a fun way to cool off in summer. But contamination in natural waterways can pose a risk to human health. Waterborne pathogens can cause acute gastrointestinal illnesses such as diarrhea and vomiting. Other common illnesses include skin rashes, respiratory problems, and eye and ear infections. Unfortunately, it can be hard to find out if a waterway in Australia is safe for recreation. By contrast, a comprehensive system in Aotearoa-New Zealand, called Can I Swim Here?, provides timely water quality information for 800 beach, river and lake sites. We have investigated the benefits and barriers associated with opening up waterways for recreation. Unsurprisingly, ensuring a local swimming site is safe is key to getting people using it. That includes giving people access to accurate information about water quality. It can be hard to find out if a waterway in Australia is safe for swimming. Dan Himbrechts/AAP Can swimming really make you sick? Contaminated water can exist in swimming pools and spas, as well as oceans, lakes, and rivers, exposing humans to a range of pathogens. According to official advice in New South Wales, common waterborne pathogens include: enteric bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E.coli) or Enterococci, that live in the intestinal tracts of all warm-blooded animals and can enter water as faecal matter (or poo). They can cause gastroenteritis, skin and ear infections and dysentery viruses such as noroviruses and hepatitis. They can cause diarrhoea, vomiting, hepatitis and respiratory disease protozoa such as giardia which, once ingested, can live as parasites in humans and animals and cause diarrhoea. Australian research has documented a link between gastroeneritis and people swimming in public pools and freshwater sites such as rivers, lakes and dams. Other water quality hazards for swimming include toxic blue-green algae and exposure to chemical pollutants. Recent floods in Australia have led to an elevated risk of water contamination. As others have noted, flood waters can be highly polluted with disease-causing organisms, including from sewerage overflows. So how do swimming locations get contaminated? Pollution can come from untreated sewage, or runoff containing animal poo or fertilisers. The source could be chemicals from nearby industrial activities, or the water users themselves. Thankfully, most disease outbreaks from swimming are not fatal. An exception is the amoeba Naegleria fowleri. It lives in warmer waters and can cause amoebic meningitis, a potentially fatal brain disease. Read more: The stunning recovery of a heavily polluted river in the heart of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area Rain and flooding can cause pollutants to run into waterways. James Ross/AAP How safe is your local swimming hole? In Australia, guidance on recreational water quality tends to focus on ocean beaches. For example, NSW’s Beachwatch program cover more than 200 NSW coastal (and some estuary) beaches. The advice is based on likelihood of rain combined with testing swimming sites for faecal bacteria. The Victorian government also provides coastal swimming guidance for 36 beaches in Port Phillip Bay. But away from the coast, information on the water quality of our local rivers, creeks and lakes, is sparse. In NSW, advice exists for swimming and boating at four sites on the Nepean River in Western Sydney. Information is provided for a recently reopened swimming site at Lake Parramatta and for swimming at some Blue Mountains sites. In Victoria, the Yarra Watch program monitors four swimming sites in freshwater stretches of the Yarra River, upstream of Melbourne. And authorities in Canberra provide regular water quality monitoring and swimming advice for lakes and rivers. But in contrast to Australia, New Zealand provides far more detailed and broad guidance. Authorities in Canberra provide regular water quality monitoring and swimming advice. Lukas Coch/AAP How New Zealand does it New Zealand’s world-leading national program Can I swim here? enables people to find the best places to swim across 800 beach, river and lake sites across the country. The advice is provided by LAWA (Land, Air, Water Aotearoa), a collaboration between regional councils, the New Zealand government, scientific experts and academics, and a philanthropist organisation. The data available includes both the latest weekly water quality test results, and results dating back five years. The guidance also includes an interactive map (see below) where users can zoom to swimming sites in their region. The ‘Can I swim here?’ site features an interactive map. https://www.lawa.org.nz More work is needed Everyone loves to be around, on and in the water, especially during summer. As well as providing a way to cool down, local swimming holes are great places for people to socialise, exercise and engage with nature – especially for those not near a beach. Governments are recognising the real opportunity to open up underused waterways for recreation across Australia. But for the sake of our communities, more work is needed on improving water quality and sharing information. Australia has a lot to learn from New Zealand and other countries on how to manage our waterways for recreational use. And ongoing research, partnering with government and industry, is clearly needed. Read more: Travelling around Australia this summer? Here's how to know if the water is safe to drink Ian A Wright has received funding from industry, as well as Commonwealth, NSW and local governments. He formerly worked for Sydney Water Corporation.Nicky Morrison has received funding from industry, as well as NSW and local governments.

Death in the marshes: environmental calamity hits Iraq’s unique wetlands

Rivers and lakes that have nurtured communities since civilisation’s dawn are drying up, as drought leads to hunger, displacement and simmering conflictSmall gangs of buffaloes sat submerged in green and muddy waters. Their back ridges rose over the surface like a chain of black islets, spanning the Toos River, a tributary of the Tigris that flows into the Huwaiza marshes in southern Iraq.With their melancholic eyes, they gazed with defiance at an approaching boat, refusing to budge. Only when the boatman shrieked “heyy, heyy, heyy” did one or two reluctantly raise their haunches. Towering over the boat, they moved a few steps away, giving the boatmen barely enough space to steer between a cluster of large, curved horns. Continue reading...

Rivers and lakes that have nurtured communities since civilisation’s dawn are drying up, as drought leads to hunger, displacement and simmering conflictSmall gangs of buffaloes sat submerged in green and muddy waters. Their back ridges rose over the surface like a chain of black islets, spanning the Toos River, a tributary of the Tigris that flows into the Huwaiza marshes in southern Iraq.With their melancholic eyes, they gazed with defiance at an approaching boat, refusing to budge. Only when the boatman shrieked “heyy, heyy, heyy” did one or two reluctantly raise their haunches. Towering over the boat, they moved a few steps away, giving the boatmen barely enough space to steer between a cluster of large, curved horns. Continue reading...

Oil refineries are polluting US waterways. Too often, it’s legal.

Facilities release a "witches' brew" of toxins in their wastewater.

Oil refineries are a well-documented source of air pollution, but less attention is paid to the ways they also pollute the water. Transforming crude oil into petroleum produces millions of gallons of wastewater each day filled with toxic chemicals and heavy metals that pours out of the plants and flows into rivers and streams affecting nearby communities. While the Environmental Protection Agency, or the EPA, is legally required to regulate these pollutants and impose penalties, a new study released Thursday by the Environmental Integrity Project maintains that hasn’t been happening.  The project’s analysis looks at monitoring data, permit applications, and toxic release reports from the nation’s 81 oil refineries that discharge their waste into waterways directly or through off-site treatment plants. In 2021 alone, the plants released a total of 60,000 pounds of selenium, known to cause mutations in fish, and 15.7 million pounds of nitrogen, which feed harmful algal blooms. Some 10,000 pounds of nickel, also toxic to fish in trace amounts, streamed into waterways as well, plus 1.6 billion pounds of chlorides, sulfates, and other dissolved solids that can corrode pipes and contaminate drinking water.   Oil refineries released vast amounts of pollutants in 2021. The table above shows a selection of contaminants that are completely unregulated by the EPA in refinery wastewater. Environmental Integrity Project The totals in the report do not include contaminants released in stormwater runoff or spills that bypass water treatment systems, noted Eric Shaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project who previously served as director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement. “We think we’re understating the problem,” he said. Most of this pollution, the report found, happens in places where people have fewer economic resources and political influence to push back. More than 40 percent of the refineries in the study are located in communities where the majority of residents are people of color or considered low-income.  John Beard, executive director of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, which advocates for environmental justice in the refinery-dense communities east of Houston, Texas, joined a press call for the report. “They don’t build these facilities in Beverly Hills or River Oaks, Texas, and places that have a way and a means to seek justice and correction,” he said. “They take the ‘path of least resistance,’ [building near] people who can ill afford to fight back.” The “witches’ brew,” as the report calls it, flowing out of these refineries poses a real threat to aquatic life and communities. Wastewater from two-thirds of the refineries studied contributed to the “impairment” of downstream waterways, meaning they became too polluted to drink, fish, or swim in, or support healthy aquatic plants and animals. Yet much of this pollution is actually legal, the Environmental Integrity Project points out.  The federal Clean Water Act requires the EPA to limit industrial discharges of 65 toxins, but in fact they regulate only 10 pollutants for refineries. The agency is also supposed to update its limits every five years as technologies to treat wastewater improve, but the rules for refineries have not been changed since the 1980s. In addition, refineries are now twice the size on average than they were when those regulations were last made.  While the EPA does have rules about ammonia, for example, they are not reflective of the current technology that makes refineries capable of much lower discharge rates of the compound. And there are no limits to the amount of selenium, benzene, nickel, lead, cyanide, arsenic, mercury, and PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as forever chemicals, that can come out of these facilities. When it comes to the outdated rules the EPA does have for refinery wastewater, the agency has repeatedly failed to enforce them. The Environmental Integrity Project found that 83 percent of U.S. refineries violated regulations on water pollutants at least once between 2019 and 2021. The EPA is supposed to fine violators, but less than a quarter of the refineries received any penalty. One of the worst offenders, Hunt Southland Refinery in Lumberton, Mississippi, violated water pollution limits 144 times during the study period, but was subject to just two penalties, amounting to fines of $85,500. The Phillips 66 Sweeny refinery near Houston, Texas, exceeded its limits 44 times, mostly for excess cyanide, but was only penalized once. When refineries violate their water pollution limits, they are rarely penalized by the EPA. When they are fined, the amounts are negligible compared to industry profits. Environmental Integrity Project States also have authority to regulate refinery wastewater through permitting, but they often look to the EPA guidelines in setting their rules. While a few have included additional limits, the report notes that these are also rarely enforced. The EPA has made recent headlines for being short staffed and falling far behind on its own deadlines to create dozens of regulations that are central to the President’s climate goals, despite a new injection of funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act.  “What are we asking for? No more than what the Clean Water Act has required since the 1970s,” said Shaeffer. “We ask the EPA to comply with the law, rise to the occasion, and write new standards based on the advanced treatment systems we have in this century, instead of the ones we should have left behind in the last one.” This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Oil refineries are polluting US waterways. Too often, it’s legal. on Jan 26, 2023.

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