Groundwater to be flogged off by DPI bureaucrats

New licences up for grabs across NSW

Hans Lovejoy

Map of the Richmond and Tweed-Brunswick Coastal Sands Groundwater Sources. Other sources are identified down the coast and across NSW. Image from

Map of the Richmond and Tweed-Brunswick Coastal Sands Groundwater Sources. Other sources are identified down the coast and across NSW. Image from

Groundwater located within Byron Shire is among 42 additional sources identified across NSW that will be opened up for new extraction licences.

Job creation and economic growth appear to be the driver, yet the cheerful press release by the Department of Primary Industries Water (DPI-Water) last Friday fails to mention any environmental safeguards, oversight or potential impacts.

And while the move has raised major concerns with local Greens MP Tamara Smith, the utility that supplies the region’s water, Rous County Council, said in last year’s Drought Management Plan (page 73) that the potential secure yield for greater extraction ‘is not currently known’.

It’s a position broadly in line with UNSW professor Andy Baker, who says on that ‘we still know very little about this precious resource, particularly about how it may be affected by increasing pressure and a warming world.’

The May 5 edition of the NSW Government Gazette, which is the permanent public record of official government notices, identifies the 42 groundwater sources across the NSW and provides a value and unit availability. It also offers a draft ‘Terms and Conditions for the Controlled Allocation of Access Licence Process’.

Locally, the Tweed-Brunswick Coastal Sands Groundwater Source (CSGS) covers an area of 160 km2 and runs from Tweed Heads to Suffolk Park, according to DPI-Water.

A DPI-Water spokesperson explained the pricing, allocation and environmental safeguards:

‘The order releases 1,900 unit shares in the Tweed-Brunswick CSGS. When full water allocation is available, one unit share is equal to one megalitre of water. In periods of drought, or other times when full water allocation is not available, the amount of water in a unit share will be reduced and could be as low as zero.’

‘The “unit shares” represents the potential number of share units able to be issued onto a new licence in the groundwater source for the successful participant(s). The minimum bid price is $500 per unit share in the Tweed-Brunswick CSGS.

Water-sharing plans

‘Water-sharing plans have set groundwater extraction limits to ensure the sustainability of the water source and prevent over extraction. 

‘Assessments have been undertaken on the available water in each water source and the controlled allocation process only releases to a maximum of 80 per cent of the limit to ensure ongoing protection of water sources.’

Yet DPI-Water claim on their website that the yields within the Tweed-Brunswick CSGS are ‘typically low to moderate’.

But they do say that higher yields can be achieved in both sources when excavations are utilised or in areas where thick sequences are present.

‘The water quality is typically fresh due to direct rainfall infiltration through inert quartz sand. However water quality issues may arise due to high iron content and over extraction resulting in the ingress of salt water from adjoining estuarine bodies. Holocene aged coastal sands may also contain potential acid sulfate soils which results in restricted pumping of groundwater to prevent the formation of poor water quality.

Extraction limits

The proposed long-term average annual extraction limit for both the Tweed-Brunswick and Richmond groundwater sources (which is Lennox Head to Evans Head) is 9,000 ML/a, incorporating the current entitlement and an allowance for future water requirements within the term of the plan.

‘Part 12 of the plan allows for the long-term average annual extraction limit to be increased to up to 21,750 ML/a.’

Locally, the Water Sharing Plan for the Brunswick Unregulated and Alluvial Water Sources 2016 establishes annual water allocations and water trading (the buying and selling of water licences).

(See ‘What laws allow groundwater extraction?’)

And while there is a potential of 31 ML/year that could be extracted from Byron Shire, (Division 3, section 22 of the plan), there are creeks and rivers in the area without allocation.

They include Belongil Creek, Brunswick River Coastal Floodplain, Lower Brunswick River, Tallow Creek.

The Kings Creek Water Source, located between Mullumbimby and Brunswick Heads, takes the lion’s share of allocation, with 18 ML/year.

Other water sources earmarked for extraction include Upper Marshalls Creek Water Source (six ML/year), Upper Brunswick River Water Source (four ML/year).

Community concerns

Locally, groundwater extraction has raised community concern. In January, Tweed Valley residents rallied against a proposal for large-scale extraction of groundwater. Uki-based Jack Hallam, a former NSW Labor MP, proposed large-scale water extraction for bottling.

In March, a major water-extraction and bottling business in Bilambil, Tweed Heads, wanted to treble its operation but was met with public opposition and a divided Tweed Shire Council.

Most recently, Middle Pocket residents in the north of Byron Shire opposed a proposal for a micro-distillery that would include the extraction of 1.4 megalitres of both surface and groundwater. The proponent claims to have approval to extract 55 megalitres. A decision was deferred at the March 23 Council meeting until more information was provided. 

Poor science

Former Greens councillor and hydrologist Duncan Dey told The Echo, ‘This process stinks of being exactly the same ol’ mistake that the state made decades ago, when they “over-allocated” surface water licences (way beyond the capacity of the waterway) and then watched as eco-systems like the Darling and Murray River basins collapsed.

‘The only restraint they express [in the press release] is in “… groundwater sources that are not fully committed”. 

‘The assessment of groundwater resources was or should have been done for the Water Sharing Plans. I was involved in a [council] committee that oversaw those being derived for surface water in this region. 

‘I do not agree that surface and groundwater resources can be considered separately. 

‘The surface-water plans used really poor science and acquiesced to lobbying on allocating water.

‘Urban water supply always had priority – ie you could take heaps for town water supplies in drought times if you needed to. 

‘This may be arising currently now as Rous Water has a Future Water Strategy that includes increasing its take from Coastal Sands aquifers south of Ballina.

‘My issue is that groundwater should not be mined beyond its capacity to supply water. There must be balance in dry times, when licensed allocations will get drawn on to the max.’ 

Dey says that there appears to be no equity with the government’s approach.

‘Groundwater management by the sale of licences to the first comer fails the equity test. If you owned a small property over a groundwater source, say five acres, the expected annual rainfall can be calculated. A (small) percentage of that rainfall would go to “recharge” your share of the source beneath you.

‘I’m concerned that extraction volumes for that property may exceed its recharge contribution.

‘I don’t know whether those numbers get calculated. Extraction may exceed sustainable rates of recharge. If you owned the whole basin, it might be okay to extract the whole of the sustainable yield.’

NSW Labor to ‘watch closely’

When asked if NSW Labor were concerned with any potential environmental impacts of this decision, shadow minister for the north coast Walt Secord replied, ‘Labor will be closely watching the issuing and roll-out of groundwater extraction licences on the north coast by the state Liberal-National government.’ 

‘Water is a precious resource. Labor will be watching this closely and we urge the Nationals to proceed with caution.’

When asked if the Nationals had any environmental concerns, local MLC Ben Franklin replied with an explanation similar to the DPI’s:

‘Water-sharing plans have set groundwater extraction limits to ensure the sustainability of the water source and prevent over extraction.

‘Assessments have been undertaken on the available water in each water source and the controlled allocation process only releases to a maximum of 80 per cent of the limit to ensure ongoing protection of water sources.’

Intergenerational resource

Yet local MP Tamara Smith (Greens) is not so convinced. She told The Echo: ‘All of us learnt in our primary school science classes that the water table is vital for drinking water, growing food and replenishing our lakes, rivers and wetlands.

‘In high school geography we learnt that groundwater is a precious intergenerational resource and a fundamental earth resource.

‘How then is the LNP government able to secure this vital, precious intergenerational resource when it is literally selling rights to it to the highest bidder?’

‘Apart from the preciousness of our water table, we know from examples around the world that excessive pumping of water out of the ground in coastal areas causes saltwater to move inland and upward, causing saltwater contamination of the water supply – this threatens our very existence on a desert continent, let alone on a warming planet.

‘Unbelievably high prices should be attached to our intergenerational resources and unbelievably high penalties should be attached to damaging or polluting our intergenerational resources – this model is so far from that kind of appreciation of the value of water to our species and other species for sheer survival that it borders on criminality to me. 

‘An intrinsic element of the Lock The Gate movement was the resonance people felt about groundwater being too precious to lose.’

4 responses to “Groundwater to be flogged off by DPI bureaucrats”

  1. Wendy says:

    Greed and selfishness raise their ugly heads again. Just how many jobs is this expected to create? Very few in reality, and very little financial advantage to local communities. But how dare we stand in the way of individual and corporate profits?!

    This is the community’s resource, does not belong to any individual or corporation. How precisely is the extraction process being monitored to ensure compliance with allocated limits? How and when will it be decided that drought or impending drought slows or stops the flow of extraction. This will be difficult if not impossible, drought occurs quickly in this area due to the rainfall and water run off specific to the region.

    The full extent of environmental impacts are not known or understood, although the effects are already being observed where waterways are not flowing at usual levels. Huge trucks speeding along narrow country roads with the danger to other road users and damage to infrastructure are already creating huge problems.

  2. Jill Keogh says:

    Bung the Bore was a recent successful community campaign in the South Island NZ, against the export of water.

    Who knows where these planned water licences in NSW will lead? Nowhere beneficial to the environment is my hunch, and directly into private pockets, And what about the over-arching climate change issue? Water as an essential element of life was why we fought successfully against CSG in the Northern Rivers.

    Queensland on the other hand blithely, hands over access to vast quantities of water to Adani’s mining magnate, and legislates against the community’s right to comment!

    Thanks to the Echo for this information, and to Duncan Dey’s comment.

  3. Sarah Buchanan says:

    The DPI and other pollies and corporate pirates are idiots if they think we (Byron Shire residents and visitors), are gunna let them have our pure water.
    Get real!!

  4. alan says:

    The effrontery of these BASTARDS! To think they can just sell-off our water 2 their business henchmen & 2 hell on a dry biscuit 4 all of us! We MUST make sure that this does NOT SUCCEED,any picketing,disadvantage,customer restraint,criticism of local member,federal member, should continue enthusiastically,school kids included,as it,s their future 2!

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