Running on empty: Tamborine Mountain and the growing anger over water mining

The Queensland community’s three commercial operations send 100m litres of water a year off the mountain

At Tamborine Mountain, one of the largest sources of Australia’s bottled drinking water, locals are waiting more than six weeks for deliveries to fill their dry water tanks.

The community in the Gold Coast hinterland is one of very few in eastern Australia with no reticulated water supply. Dozens of local bores have run dry as a result of the drought, and many others flow intermittently. The backup water source, a tanker filling station at nearby Canungra, has been closed until further notice.

“It’s all becoming pretty dire,” says Michael O’Leary, a resident for about 24 years.

A few weeks ago, his rainwater tanks ran dry and he discovered the long backlog of locals waiting for water deliveries. To survive in the meantime, O’Leary piled water cubes into his van and filled them from a friend’s bore.

“It just gets a bit upsetting where people are struggling for water to see tankers where people are driving off the mountain every day delivering water to presumably water bottling companies,” he says.

There is little evidence to suggest the shortage is directly caused by the community’s three commercial water mining operations, which combined send about 100m litres of water a year off the mountain. The Queensland government and those extractors all point to studies that show the water sold off-mountain amounts to only a tiny fraction of annual recharge to aquifers through rainfall.

But the industry, which largely operates in a void between local and state oversight, has become the focus of growing local anger.

Many say the long-term sustainability of the mountain’s water resource is a separate issue from availability for locals in times of drought; that it’s wrong for Tamborine water to be pumped from the town’s deepest bores and sold commercially when locals with relatively shallow bores or rainwater tanks cannot access it.

Tamborine Mountain residents protest against commercial water extraction
Tamborine Mountain residents protest against commercial water extraction. Photograph: Sabine Bannard

When the school bore ran dry last week, trucks carrying emergency water up the mountain passed trucks carrying local water to bottling plants.

“I’m not living in Goondiwindi,” another resident, Renata Harmer, tells Guardian Australia. “I’m living 45 minutes from the coast in a place that sends large amounts of water off the mountain.”

Harmer is moving out of a rental property and has a lease obligation to refill the tank. Trucking water in from the Gold Coast at short notice will cost her about $400.

“Something has to be done about it.”

‘We haven’t got town water laid on’

John Penglis, a former television executive, is the managing director of the Cedar Creek Estate Vineyard and Winery, one of the three off-mountain commercial water sellers on Tamborine Mountain.

Penglis says he is in the process of allowing locals to access water from a bore across the road, on a not-for-profit basis. But he rejects outright the suggestion water selling is the source of the water availability problem and labels some residents as “whingers”.

“The people who live up here on Tamborine Mountain, a lot of them have come up from the city and are used to long showers and running water. Some gutters are full of leaves and how are you going to get water in your tanks if you’ve got a gutter full of leaves?

The Cedar Creek Winery managing director, John Penglis, in his vineyard, with the bore and tanks set aside for groundwater to sell to Coca-Cola in the background to the right
The Cedar Creek Winery managing director, John Penglis, in his vineyard, with the bore and tanks set aside for groundwater to sell to Coca-Cola in the background to the right. Photograph: Joshua Robertson/The Guardian

“These are some of the problems that exist. When I lived on farms as a lad my mother made me share bathwater with my brother. We had to live cautiously.”

Penglis says he understands why community anger has been focused on commercial water sellers during the drought, but only “up to a point”.

“The main thing is they have to realise they’re living in a rural environment and we haven’t got town water laid on.”

Penglis says he has been pumping water into Cedar Creek, which runs near his property, for the benefit of the environment.

“The public of this mountain – other than a few people – wouldn’t even know I do that to keep the wildlife going.

“The whingers don’t know anything about it and I haven’t been telling anybody but … for the past three to four weeks we’ve been pumping for three or four days a week water into Cedar Creek to fill the platypus ponds.”

Other water sellers did not return calls.

Penglis’s water is sent to Coca-Cola Amatil, which has a commitment to obtain water only from sustainable sources.

“It is important to note there are multiple aquifers at Mount Tamborine,” the company said. “These aquifers do not all intersect, and some are inevitably more sustainable than others. We do not draw from unsustainable aquifers and independently certify the sustainability of any water sources we use.”

Coca-Cola Amatil said it could not comment on suggestions water supply should be prioritised for locals because it did not own or operate the bores. “It would be a matter for the bore owners and potentially the state or local government.”

‘The environment is wilting’

A 2011 study of the mountain’s aquifers concluded that the impact of commercial extraction was negligible. It assessed just 50 bores, in a town where many bores are decades old or not registered, and estimates of the total vary between 500 and 3,000. The study noted that “philosophical questions around commercial sale of groundwater [are] very valid but beyond the scope of this report”.

The decade-old study was cited by the state’s natural resources minister, Anthony Lynham, last week when asked if he would or could intervene.

Tamborine Mountain residents protest amid the town’s water crisis.
Tamborine Mountain residents protest. Photograph: Sabine Bannard

The Scenic Rim council has little power to shut down operations that rely on old development applications or grandfather clauses. The council fought and won a long court battle in 2018 to stop one operator, Gillion Pty Ltd, from extracting water from a second site.

The council gave evidence in that case that there was a “a substantial reliable source of good potable water” as a backup supply available from the Queensland Urban Utilities Canungra facility, but that ceased operating indefinitely due to water treatment issues earlier this year.

“All levels of government keep passing the buck and saying there’s no science to prove or disprove what is happening,” says Amanda Hay, a resident who was involved in the case.

“What we’re saying is that whatever the situation, the first bite of the cherry should not be to the commercial extractors to meet their contracts ... We have children going to school without having had a shower for three days. We have people pretending to have a swim so they can use the showers at the pool.

“A lot of people are gardeners. Our creeks and springs are drying up. This is all affecting the lifestyle of people on the mountain, the total lack of water.”

Tamborine Mountain is set among pockets of rainforest, not far from areas that burned during bushfires earlier in the year. Residents say the forest has become remarkably dry.

“There are people who say they can see the rainforest is wilting,” Hay says. “These ancient trees need to have their roots somewhere below the surface. They do feel the environment is wilting.”

Another resident, Julie Wilkinson, says her neighbours’ two bores have run dry. “There doesn’t seem to be much information about bores,” she said. “I just know that it must be very deep to draw water.”

Craig Peters, a water carrier who supplies water exclusively to locals, has formed the group Save Our Water Tamborine Mountain, which has called on Lynham to declare a water emergency. The minister says groundwater is not regulated and he does not have the power to limit how much is taken.

“We’re in a black hole of responsibility,” Peters says. “Everyone just says they’re not responsible.

“Everyone points to the old study. But [long-term] sustainability of the water resource doesn’t equal availability of water. And there are lots of people here beginning to struggle.”

Contributor

Ben Smee

The GuardianTramp

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