Article – Queensland Government reportedly strikes deal to facilitate $2 billion IFED irrigated agriculture project

4 June 2015
Dominique Schwartz
ABC News

The Queensland Government has reportedly struck a deal to facilitate the development of what would be Australia’s largest irrigated agriculture project — despite previously dismissing it as unsustainable.

The investors behind the $2 billion Integrated Food and Energy Development (IFED) project said they had agreed on a memorandum of understanding with the State Government on water entitlements.

IFED chairman Keith DeLacy said the Government has agreed to provide access to 555,000 megalitres of water a year from the Gilbert River system — enough to fill Sydney harbour — but only if the project first gains all environmental approvals.
Mr DeLacy, a former Labor state treasurer, said the deal did not grant IFED any special favours, but provided more certainty for investors.

“It effectively creates a pathway between an environmental approval process and a water allocation, but it in no way circumvents the approval process,” he told the ABC.

“The approval process is going to be rigorous, environmental, scientific and what have you.

“But if we get through that process and we tick the boxes then we get a water allocation.”

Specifications for proposed irrigated agriculture project

  • IFED’s Etheridge Integrated Agriculture Project plans to capture and store water from the Einasleigh and Etheridge Rivers to irrigate 650 square kilometres of sugar cane and guar bean crops.
  • The planned average annual water take is 555 gigalitres — enough to fill Sydney Harbour. The water would be stored in two deep off-river dams with a holding capacity of 2,000 megalitres.
  • The project is to be energy self-sufficient, using sugar cane by-product to generate power for the sugar mill, as well as stock-feed. Another 2,400 square kilometres of land is earmarked for cattle grazing, with a small onsite meatworks.
  • At the height of construction, the project is to employ 3,000 people, with an ongoing operational workforce of more than 1,000 people.
  • IFED estimates annual revenue at $900 million a year.

But the Wilderness Society said it is “super disappointed” in the Government, accusing it of breaking an election promise.

In Opposition, then Labor environment spokeswoman Jackie Trad had accused the Liberal National Party government of reaching a “secret” development protocol with IFED.

In a pre-election letter to the Wilderness Society, she said: “To be clear on the issue of IFED, Queensland Labor as a general principle does not support secret development deals that require an allocation of water inconsistent and outside of Water Resource plans.”

“The scientific assessment is clear — the proposed water take for IFED is unsustainable and will affect current water users.”

The letter went on to say: “Queensland Labor will release publicly the secret development protocol between the LNP and the proponents of IFED and, in addition, rescind the development protocol.”

The Wilderness Society’s Queensland campaigns manager, Dr Tim Seelig, said he is “super disappointed that an election commitment to reveal a really dodgy deal has been ignored and seemingly replaced with very similar negotiations between Minister Lynham for Natural Resources and IFED”.

“Our concern now is that Labor is entering into a similar arrangement and locking up water rights that really should be out there and going through a much more transparent process,” he said.

“The 555,000 megalitres of water promised is way too much from the Gilbert River system.

“It would drain the tributaries, starve ecological flows downstream where there are important prawn fisheries at the end of the river system.”

But Mr DeLacy said the project would take only 0.5 per cent of the water which flows into the Gulf of Carpentaria, and he is confident that scientific assessments will find the project is sustainable.

“This is transformational for northern Australia,” he said.

A major CSIRO study of the Gilbert River catchment for the Federal Government last year found that more than 2 million hectares of soil is moderately suited to irrigated agriculture, and that there is sufficient water to irrigate 20,000 to 30,000 hectares of that.

The Federal Government is keen to see large-scale agricultural developments such as the IFED project succeed.

It is due to release its White Paper on developing Northern Australia this month.
The Queensland Government declined to return calls for comment.


PHOTO: The proposed irrigated agriculture project harnesses the power of the Gilbert River System in Queensland's Gulf Country.

Courtesy of ABC News

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