Queensland government was warned about risks of Chinese company's water extraction
Queensland government experts raised repeated warnings about the long-term sustainability of groundwater extraction at a southern Queensland property which has since been approved to operate as a commercial water mine.
The approval for the 96m litre a year bottled water extraction operation at Cherrabah – in a severely drought-hit area where locals are on water rations and communities at imminent risk of running dry – has raised significant questions about the oversight and regulation of critical water resources in Queensland.
Documents obtained by Guardian Australia show how longstanding concerns about groundwater security at Cherrabah were overridden by changes to Queensland law enacted by Campbell Newman’s government in 2013.
Under the changes, the Chinese-owned company Joyful View Garden Real Estate Development Resort Pty Ltd was automatically granted a 94-year extraction permit at Cherrabah when a short-term allocation expired in 2017.
Written concerns outlined in the documents obtained by Guardian Australia include the expert review of a study commissioned by Joyful View in 2009 that was the basis for its subsequent water extraction applications. The study contained repeated qualifications that its modelling could not be relied upon for a period longer than 12 months.
One bureaucrat detailed “not small or irrelevant errors” in that study, including that it overstated the amount of rainfall recharge to groundwater “by a factor of almost 20”. The public servant, whose name is redacted from the document, calculated an annual recharge of 40m litres – less than half the Cherrabah allocation.
Another public servant, the principal natural resource officer for groundwater, wrote that he had concerns about Joyful View, which at the time had wanted the allocation to support plans for a massive resort development. He raised concerns the company might seek to exert political pressure to gain the permit.
“In October 2008 I wrote to the company and set out, amongst other things, the range of information that would be required to support consideration for an application for an increased water entitlement,” the public servant said.
“I have continually referenced the need for caution in the development and use of groundwater from the type of aquifer systems existing on Cherrabah. Risks associated with limited storage, limited recharge potential, boundary conditions under pumping, bore interference etc have been raised time and time again.
“Cherrabah management and owners … have little understanding of groundwater. Unfortunately they maintain a simple approach that wet bores are just that and they need not concern themselves about issues of sustainability.”
In another email, the manager writes: “Every opportunity has been taken to urge them to be more cautious and pessimistic rather than the apparent exuberant optimism they hold regarding water supply availability.
“I will certainly be looking for counsel in this case as [name redacted] might call in political support for his multi-million development proposal at Cherrabah if it hangs off an entitlement decision.
“I can imagine a debacle if we approve … [and] their underpinning source of water supply fails.”
The department decided in 2010 to grant Joyful View a short-term permit of 50m litres a year – a quarter of the amount it wanted – and intended to undertake “detailed monitoring and assessment” of the borefield in order to reassess the situation when the licence expired in 2017.
Joyful View appealed that decision and in 2012 was granted 96m litres a year on the basis of advice by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.
The Newman government’s changes to the Water Act meant the allocation was effectively made permanent with no review of monitoring data, and no additional study to assess drawdown effects.
The way Joyful View gained approval to mine water – amid sustainability concerns and with relatively little scrutiny of the impact on groundwater – has further raised concern about the extent to which other extraction operations, particularly irrigators and pastoralists, might be operating in a manner that is compounding the effects of the drought.
The Southern Downs deputy mayor, Jo McNally, told a recent meeting the council was aware of many property owners extracting water and selling it outside the region, but could do nothing to stop it.
A 2018 Queensland background paper on groundwater in the Upper Condamine area shows about 9bn litres a year allocated in the Warwick area, but the actual groundwater take is unknown, because bores for stock and domestic use do not require authorisation.
There are more than 900 irrigators in the Condamine Balonne underground water management area and many pump unrestricted, without meters. Earlier this year state proposals to place meters on bores and restrict groundwater pumping were met with significant resistance by farmers.
Licences also come with no restrictions on how the water is used. Joyful View had wanted to use its water to support a resort development the size of a small town. Its current plan – to truck water to a Gold Coast bottling plant – requires no additional state approval.
Members of the Southern Downs regional council, which approved the facility this month, a day before placing residents on extreme water restrictions, have said they have no control over the water or its use, and do not have grounds to refuse a development on that basis.
Attempts were made to contact Joyful View for comment.