Chinese company approved to run water mining operation in drought-stricken Queensland

Joyful View to operate facility as nearby residents placed on water restrictions and communities face risk of running dry

A Chinese-owned company has been granted approval to run a 96m litre a year commercial water mining operation in severely drought-hit southern Queensland, where locals are on water rations and communities at imminent risk of running dry.

Last week the Southern Downs regional council approved a development application for the company, Joyful View Garden Real Estate Development Resort Pty Ltd, to operate a water extraction and distribution facility at Cherrabah, a large property at Elbow Valley near the Queensland-New South Wales border.

The following day the council implemented extreme water restrictions for residents at the nearby towns of Warwick and Stanthorpe, limiting residents to 80L a day.

Stanthorpe is expected to run out of drinking water within weeks.

Neighbours of Cherrabah have told Guardian Australia they have not had a reliable water supply at their properties for more than a year, and have been trucking water in on a regular basis. Some cattle properties have removed all their cattle.

“I don’t understand how it is allowed to happen,” one resident says. “If that water drains away from the shallow aquifers, it affects our long-term viability.”

Joyful View is ultimately owned by Chinese investors Wenxing and Wenwei Ma. The company had attempted to build a large-scale luxury resort at the remote property but pulled the proposal in 2016 after planning and environmental difficulties, including concern for a local population of spotted-tailed quolls.

The water extraction licence for the property was first issued by the Queensland government in 2008 and extended in 2016 to allow Joyful View to pump 96m litres from the aquifer until 2111 – another 92 years. Council documents show the company plans to send the water to a bottling plant on the Gold Coast.

A local newspaper, the Southern Free Times, reported that councillors who voted in favour of the development application at a 18 December meeting said they had no power to regulate groundwater extraction, which was a state responsibility.

A billboard in Stanthorpe, Queensland. Since the photo was taken, residents have been further restricted to 80L a day.
A billboard in Stanthorpe, Queensland. Since the photo was taken, residents have been further restricted to 80L a day. Photograph: Dan Peled/EPA

The deputy mayor, Jo McNally, reportedly told the meeting the council was aware of many property owners extracting water and selling it outside the region, but that the council could do nothing to stop it.

Neighbours who objected told Guardian Australia they had been taken by surprise by the revival of the water-mining proposal. An earlier version of the plan was withdrawn in 2018 after council management recommended it should be rejected.

The council conducted no consultation on the new application, instead relying on submissions made by concerned residents in 2018.

“Obviously the drought has become 1o times worse in the past year,” one resident said.

Even a year ago, locals said in submissions they had observed the impacts of drought and drawdown in groundwater.

“I am a close neighbour and I depend on creeks, springs and shallow wells … I have never been surveyed on any long-term effects,” Eagle View property owner Ben Usher said.

“I know from information passed down through generations of my family, and from years of my own experience that … springs on the property could be relied on to provide water for the grazing of cattle throughout its history.

“This situation has changed. Over time supply has become sporadic with increasing water shortage. I can no longer rely on [the property’s] well and need to cart water to my property.”

Another resident, Paul Keogh, said: “The water supply has become unreliable. I cannot say whether this has been caused by the Cherrabah bore or climate change. Whichever way, we no longer had the water supply we had over generations, and so any water allocations … now need to be limited to reflect current water availability.”

A 2009 study, which was relied upon by the Queensland government when extending the water extraction licences, raised significant uncertainty about whether the continued pumping of water from the aquifer at Cherrabah was sustainable in the long term.

The study concluded there was “insufficient recharge data” to model the sustainability of the aquifer beyond a year, and that there was a “risk” the aquifer would deplete in times of low rainfall.

Joyful View has this year commissioned a second study, which was summarised in a council report but has not been released publicly. According to the council summary of the study, it claimed there would be minimal impact on the water resource of surrounding properties. However, the report also acknowledged that test pumping was “extremely challenging to analyse” and that the authors did not attempt to model the long-term drawdown of the water resource because doing so would not be reliable.

At the 18 December council meeting, the preceding item was a “water contingency plan” that discussed the dire situation for Stanthorpe and Warwick, and attempts to find alternate “emergency” supply of water. Anyone outside of town water supply has already likely run out of water. Many are reliant on local charity operations.

The plan noted that Stanthorpe could run dry within weeks, and additional water was already being trucked to Storm King dam. Water supply in Warwick, which is also being used to support Stanthorpe, will be exhausted without significant rain by mid to late 2020.

Attempts were made to contact the council and Joyful View for comment.

Contributor

Ben Smee

The GuardianTramp

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