Recently the CSIRO released a report detailing the potential of underground water supplies in the Fitzroy river valley, in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, supplies that could be utilised for broad-scale agriculture. A team of 250 scientists worked for 2½ years to release hundreds of pages of detailed studies on the hydrology, soils, and climate of the valley. On top of this, surveys on the economic, social and indigenous implications of utilising the Fitzroy’s reserves were also undertaken.
Water cover in the Fitzroy catchment area.
Following the release of this information, activist group GetUp! dismissed the report, stating concerns for indigenous inhabitants of the land. However, Aborigines in the region have strong expectations for involvement in water, catchment and development planning. Furthermore, many indigenous owners do support agricultural ventures: a project such as drawing from even a small part of the Fitzroy’s catchment area has the potential to create thousands of jobs, to the direct benefit of Aboriginal locals.
Another concern is the effect on fish, notably the endangered sawfish, if the Fitzroy is dammed. It must be noted, however, that most proposals to utilise the Fitzroy’s water resources do not involve damming the river. The recent report suggests drawing from less than 5 per cent of the river valley’s annual wet season aquifer recharge and utilising underground reserves.
Minister for Agriculture Allanah MacTiernan, in The West (September 12, 2018), said of the report: “The CSIRO report is an important data source that the State Government can use in future planning. Of course, economic development in the north must be grounded in a realistic assessment of cost, benefit and opportunity, as well as taking into account environmental and cultural values, and community aspirations.”
Cost, benefit and opportunity have been taken into consideration in the report. The scientists stated that the maximum proposed draw from the Fitzroy would be 1,800 gigalitres a year. And this amount of water, not drawn directly from the river, would irrigate 160,000 hectares of land, create $1.12 billion worth of regional economic activity per year and create about 4,690 jobs.
The report states: “The population is one of very high socio-economic disadvantage and unemployment is also very high.”
New jobs created by development in the Fitzroy catchment area, notably at Derby, with a population of 3,500, and Fitzroy Crossing, with a population of 1,300, would go a long way to lowering unemployment rates in the area. Both towns have large Aboriginal populations. Combined with 57 smaller Aboriginal communities, the total population in the catchment area is 7,500.
Indigenous people expect to be involved in water, catchment and development planning and hope to be owners and investors in resultant developments.
The report states: “Indigenous people have continuously occupied and managed the Fitzroy catchment for tens of thousands of years and retain significant and growing rights and interests in land and water resources, including crucial roles in water and development planning and as co-investors in future development.”
The “community aspirations” that the minister mentions in her comments must take into account the desire of the indigenous community to be involved in decision-making and investment.
Other beneficiaries of the development would be Western Australia’s cattle producers. As mentioned in a previous News Weekly article on this issue (April 21, 2018), Australia’s cattle count is 27 million, of which WA has two million. The largest herds in WA are in the Kimberley region. Providing cattle with clean drinking water can increase their size by up to 28 per cent and help them to be healthy enough to reproduce in greater quantities.
The CSIRO report highlights potential underground water supplies. Underground water already has been utilised to great effect in the Pilbara, according to an article by Jenne Brammer in The West (October 11, 2018). Brammer wrote that Pardoo Beef Corporation’s Wagyu beef operation in the Pilbara is on track to create a $1.8 billion industry by 2031.
Pardoo chairman Bruce Cheung said the company’s target was to run 100,000 Wagyu breeders, employing 750 full-time staff by 2031.
Being fortunate enough to be located by big underground water resources, Pardoo built 20 irrigation pivots north of their station, with 20 to 30 to the south, with each pivot irrigating 40–50 hectares. Access to underground water has allowed for these extensive expansion plans. In fact, the CSIRO report stated: “Independent of surface water, groundwater (in the Fitzroy catchment) could support up to 30,000 hectares of hay production.”
The minister said: “While the CSIRO report identifies the potential land and water available for irrigated agriculture, development is likely to be on a smaller, incremental scale. We have recently approved new pivot irrigation sites on Pardoo Station, as an example.”
If underground water resources can be tapped in the Fitzroy, will cattle producers in the Kimberley benefit as much as they have in the Pilbara, and pastoralists and the Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley as well? The State Government needs to explore these possibilities.