Hopes for water in thirsty north stuck in red tape

Mango farmer Dave Gray with daughter Jackie Gray at their property near the Adelaide River, in the Northern Territory. Picture. Helen Orr
Mango farmer Dave Gray with daughter Jackie Gray at their property near the Adelaide River, in the Northern Territory. Picture. Helen Orr

Things were a lot easier a century ago when it came to building dams, weirs and reservoirs.

In the early 1920s, Dutch ­engineer and agriculturalist Edwin Verburg got £3000 and some ­Aboriginal workers together, and in short order built what was ­described as “a grand little weir” on the Adelaide River at the Northern Territory settlement of that name, an hour’s drive south of Darwin.

Within months he had fields of waving rice and maize, a range of vegetables, and tropical fruit growing under irrigation from the river.

Verburg’s weir eventually fell victim to the massive power of the river in flood, and he died in 1965, but a bridge in the town bears his name with a plaque hailing the “pioneer horticulturalist in the Adelaide River Region”.

Today, there are pioneers who want to build a new ambitious water infrastructure and irrigation scheme near where Verburg built his. In fact, there are two competing schemes, one government and one private sector, but after years trying, neither seems to be getting anywhere, with the Territory government repeatedly putting off a decision on whether to proceed.

The Edwin Verburg Bridge crossing at Adelaide River in 1980.
The Edwin Verburg Bridge crossing at Adelaide River in 1980.

The plan is to build a weir and channel to take water off the Adelaide River during peak floods in the wet season, and store it in what with engineering works could create a big, largely natural reservoir nearby in the Daly Range.

There the water could be used for agriculture, industry, and ­potentially Darwin’s water supply.

It’s a great, traditional vision of nation-building in the north where the water is.

The private-sector version ­envisages a storage capacity of ­about 310,000 megalitres to support 10,000ha of intensive broad­acre farming. It could see big plantings of cotton, rice, and mangoes.

Farmer David Gray and his daughter Jackie are harvesting mangoes on their 400ha property near the Adelaide River not too far from where the proposed irrigation scheme would be built.

Mr Gray grows hay and runs some cattle using seasonal rainfall but, he says, “for my mangoes I rely on bore”.

That bore irrigation from underground aquifers is the sort of transformational water infrastructure that, where it exists, is opening new agriculture in the territory.

Mr Gray thinks there should be more of it. “I remember as a young boy my father saying to me, if you don’t have water, you don’t have life,” he said.

“I believe the Australian government should help anyone out who wants to store water. I think it is atrocious how long it takes to get something up … the red tape ­involved is obviously manifestly way too hard.”

Verburg’s damaged weir when it collapsed in 1930.
Verburg’s damaged weir when it collapsed in 1930.

For entrepreneur Stephen Dykes, the Adelaide River saga ­reflects a tragic preference by governments to spend endless amounts of money on feasibility studies on water infrastructure, but when it comes to making a ­decision on whether to build it, ­ordering another feasibility study.

Mr Dykes, an oil and gas consultant, is one of the directors of NT Water Pty Ltd, a consortium also including former Queensland treasurer Keith De Lacy, former Australian Test cricketer John Maclean, and the former managing director of the group that ran the massive Cubbie Station in southwest Queensland, water ­expert John Grabbe.

In 2015 the group put an unsolicited proposal to the Territory government and completed a preliminary feasibility study. Including land purchases for the irrigation zone, the cost of the project would be $400m but, Mr Dykes said, the proponents are stuck in a catch-22 trap.

“Every single person we talk to says, ‘have you got government approval, government support?’ ’’ Mr Dykes said.

“When we go to the government, they say ‘have you got ­private-sector backing?’ ”

Mr Dykes says the Territory government has considered NT Water’s proposal three times, and each time failed to make a decision, and can’t decide on its own plan either.

While the entrepreneurs’ ­vision would use gravity to take the water from the Adelaide River to the reservoir — the height of the river in flood is huge — the government scheme would rely on a pumping station. Mr Dykes pointed to the huge amount of feasibility work on the two projects already conducted by groups, ­including CSIRO and the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation.

During the election campaign, the federal government promised $2m towards the projects — not to build anything, but for another feasibility study that has yet to be launched.

“Officials from the Australian and Northern Territory governments are currently in negotiation to settle the funding schedule for the … feasibility study,” a spokeswoman for Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said.

A Territory government spokeswoman said these talks aimed to “secure funding to assess broader water supply options for the Darwin region to support economic development”. “Once this assessment is completed, the NT government will be in a position to make an informed decision on the most viable ­solution.”

Mr Dykes believes the $2m would be better spent going straight to pre-construction.

“Any more feasibility is a waste of taxpayer’s money — it is feasible, full stop,” he said.