Article – $2b private proposal to build one of Australia's biggest irrigation schemes in northern Queensland

27 March 2014
Rachel Carbonell and Chris Uhlmann
ABC News

PHOTO: The Gilbert River is mooted as the site of a new $2b irrigation project.

There are plans in Queensland to build one of the country’s biggest irrigation schemes, as debate over whether northern Australia can become the nation’s next great food bowl ramps up.
Integrated Food and Energy Developments (IFED) wants to build two dams and siphon 555,000 megalitres of water per year from Queensland’s Gilbert River catchment to irrigate a huge sugar cane plantation.
The $2 billion proposal also includes plans for a sugarcane mill in Georgetown, along with ethanol production facilities and an abattoir.
AM has obtained a confidential document which reveals the company plans to explore the possibility of taking even more water from the river.
In that scenario the annual irrigation take would go up to 1.02 million megalitres, double what is currently being proposed.
IFED chairman Keith De Lacy says the company believes the scheme “is going to change the way agriculture is carried out in Australia”.
“For the last 50 years we’ve been talking about developing the north, the food bowl of Asia – we’ve found a way of actually doing it,” he said.
Mr de Lacy says he disputes concerns the irrigation project will take too much water from the river, saying the 555,000 megalitre target adds up to only 10 per cent of the river’s flow.
“This is absolutely sustainable in every way,” he said.
Mr de Lacy says the confidential document is now outdated, but has confirmed the company is investigating whether greater water extraction is sustainable.
“We need to have science, and we want science, but there’s a general rule of thumb that says you can harvest a third from a river system and still maintain the ecological sustainability,” he said.
“We think 20 per cent is no big deal.
“Nevertheless, we accept that we’ve got to have the science to back it up and it’s got to go through this environmental approval process. We’re very happy with that.”

Photo: View part of the confidential document

Local graziers have mixed views on project

John Bethel’s 90,000 hectare cattle station is on Gulf Savannah country, about 400 kilometres inland of Cairns in the Gilbert’s catchment area.
A third generation cattle farmer, Mr Bethel agreed to sell his land to IFED for the irrigation project.

John Bethel works on his 90,000 hectare cattle station, Huonfels Station.PHOTO: John Bethel has sold land to the irrigation company(ABC News: Rachel Carbonell)

He says graziers in the region have been hit hard in recent years by floods, fire, low rains, and the live export ban.
“I don’t really know anybody that’s doing too well at the moment,” he said.
“From my perspective I’m more concerned about the next generation that want to stay on the land. I think that without these sort of projects the future looks pretty grim really.”
Greg Ryan, also a long-time local cattle farmer in the region, says the proposal has divided the community.
“Everyone would like to see a successful project in the district,” he said.
“We only get one shot at this and we have to get it right, so I think the split clearly indicates there is not enough information and enough research being done to tell us whether it’s a viable sort of project or not.”
Mr Ryan says one of the concerns is just how much water the project would use.
“There’s only a certain amount of water that’s available,” he said.
“If one sector takes all the water, there could be really good quality land that can’t be developed and can’t be used simply because someone’s taken all the water and there’s no water left for other people who may have a better project.”
Three major rivers run through the area.

Concern project is bigger than CSIRO suggested as feasible

Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) spokesman Paul Sinclair is worried by the prospect of 1 million megalitres being taken from the Gilbert.
“We’re concerned the future of northern Australia is going to be sold out, to mine water out of pristine rivers in northern Australia,” he said.
The CSIRO recently released a report on the potential for agricultural development in this region.
Dr Sinclair says the IFED proposal appears much larger than what the CSIRO has suggested is feasible.
“What CSIRO and other assessments have said is there is room for some small-scale development of high-value agriculture in northern Australia,” he said.
“ACF is very keen to look at those opportunities but it’s got to be based on good science, on economic credibility, and justice.”
The Queensland Government says the proposal will be rigorously assessed in relation to potential environmental, economic and social impacts.
The project has been given “coordinated status”, which means it is going to ease its passage through bureaucratic checks.
IFED, CSIRO scientists and locals will be gathering at a public meeting in Georgetown, north-east of Mount Isa, to debate the issues today.

Barnaby Joyce backs project

Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has backed the project.
“We either believe in developing the north, we either believe in developing water resources, we either believe in stimulating the economic growth of regional towns such as Georgetown, or we don’t,” he said.
“How many generations do you just want to keep hanging around hoping for something to happen?
“When a proponent turns up that has substantial development proposal that is well within the confines of a reasonable take from the river, then I want to stand behind it.”
He says he strongly believes it is sustainable environmentally.
“It is a 10 per cent take from the river,” he said. “Generally that is vastly less than the Murray-Darling.”
“This is about 10 per cent, and 10 per cent take is well and truly within the confines of a good environmental outcome – 10 per cent of end of valley flow.”
Mr Joyce says the Georgetown sugar mill would be “the biggest capital investment in the history of that town”.
Courtesy of ABC News