Industry moves to block council's water bottling decision
IT'S A damn good fight over a scarce resource.
The community finally has an answer on the future of water harvesting in the Tweed, but the industry is fighting against the latest decision.
Tweed Shire Council made the controversial decision to ban the expansion of commercially extracting water in the shire by using bores that go deep to where water is found flowing through the bedrock and putting it into plastic bottles for drinking.
The crux of divide on this issue is the question about whether the industry is actually hurting the region and our environment, or did the community just lose the opportunity of jobs, cash for the economy and the viability of local businesses?
The official name for the activity is 'water harvesting', however opposition to the industry prefers the term 'water mining', believing the activity is more like the mining industry than traditional farming.
The story so far
WIDESPREAD concern and escalating debate about the extended drought and long-term water future of the region has triggered the release of a report by the NSW Office of Chief Scientist and Engineer last year called the 'independent Review of the Impacts of the Bottled Water Industry on Groundwater Resources in the Northern Rivers Region of NSW'.
The report found less than 1 per cent of groundwater in the Tweed was extracted for water bottling purposes.
It noted due to limited data "it is not possible to conclude whether the extraction limits are currently sustainable".
However, the document found no evidence current water extraction limits in the Tweed were not sustainable.
Tweed Shire Council described the decision to halt the expansion of water bottling activities as "erring" on the side of caution in March 5's council meeting agenda report.
Mayor Katie Milne said water bottling facilities on the Tweed had been the biggest issue for this term of council.
She confirmed the council's vote would not be "the end of it" as NSW Minister Planning still had to rubber stamp the council's application.
"If we can get this done, it would resolve that angst the community feels out there. We can let them know we have done everything in our power we could possibly do to protect our very precious water reserves," Cr Milne said.
"We understand that there is advice there is significant amounts of water in the Northern Rivers region.
"What we have always identified is we do not know how the local underground catchments, sub-catchments, the local creeks and streams have been affected by water bottling potentially and how that actually all plays out.
"There is limited data out there unfortunately, particularly in the Tweed region, and it is our most precious resource - we can't function without it."
All seven Tweed councillors, even those previously against the motion, voted to "remove the enabling Clause 7.15 Water Bottling Facilities from the Tweed Local Environmental Plan 2014 and be made under Section 3.36 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979".
The decision had been delayed to consider a letter from the Office of the Chief Scientist and Engineer that arrived in the council's inbox just 25 minutes before the originally scheduled vote last month.
OCSE's letter says council 'misunderstood key concepts' of report
COUNCIL's agenda report for the original March 5 vote on water mining attracted late criticism from the Office of the Chief Scientist and Engineer.
A letter from Dr Christopher Armstrong PSM that arrived in the council's inbox just 25 minutes before the vote said the Deputy NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer was "concerned about the (council's) documents contain inaccuracies and reflects a misunderstanding of key concepts".
"Further, the document does not provide an adequate representation of the Review including findings and recommendations made, and attributes statements not contained in the Review report," the letter stated.
The letter also made reference to wording in the council's report which said as no evidence had been found to "support any definitive environmental impacts, it is seen to be consistent with the NSW Policy to err on the side of caution until such time the exactness of the impact is made".
Dr Armstrong questioned what policy the council was referring to as well as stated all decisions were made in the context of some degree of uncertainty
Dr Armstrong said this and other statements in the council's agenda paper indicated "confusion about the discussion of uncertainty in the Review report".
The letter went on to say the discussion about the council's "uncertainty relating to the Water Sharing Plan has been extrapolated to conclusions about the bottled water industry not made by the Review."
Dr Armstrong said the review recognised lack of data on actual extraction was issue and that by 2023 a statewide metering policy would be rolled out.
"More immediately, in 2018 the Natural Resources Access Regulator required four of the operators in the Northern Rivers region to install metres," he wrote.
It also raised questions whether, after a State Government departmental reshuffle, the council had consulted with the Department of Water rather than the regulator as the initial consultation was with the (then) Department of Primary Industries - Office of Water.
The agenda paper states it is now known as the Natural Resources Access Regulator. The OCSE letter recommended the council discuss it with planning agency the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, as DPIE Water was now the relevant authority.
Community's voice heard
TWEED Water Alliance is the leading opposition to water bottling in the Tweed and spokesman Pat Miller said community opposition to the bottled water industry was palpable, demonstrated by the 342 written submissions supporting the amendment and five against.
"The fact remains - there is no evidence that the industry is sustainable. In our view, the scientific mumbo jumbo was politically tainted.
"The precautionary principle, eloquently articulated in the planning committee's background documents, should apply. If you don't know, don't do it.
"No longer is it acceptable to deplete natural resources for private profit at the expense of a community asset."
TWA'S Pat Miller slammed the "unethical" practice and accused operators of drawing more water than they were licensed to in the past, of funnelling money out of the region and negatively impacting the environment.
These accusations have been adamantly denied by those running water harvesting operations in the region.
Quest Natural Spring Water director Gary Appleby said every bore of his Nobbys Creek business had a meter that was checked by different authoritative bodies, including NSW Water, TSC and Natural Resources Access Regulator.
"We are very responsible, none of us have harvested more than our allocated volumes and we are happy to have the metering on our bores so everyone can see the volumes we are harvesting," he said.
Matthew Karlos, a member of a Tweed family involved in the water harvesting industry, labelled the claim he was pulling more water from the family's bores than his licence permitted as "ridiculous".
"We have a commercial licence for 60ML from our property. Now with council restrictions, if we were to operate at 100 per cent 24 hours a day we only have the capacity to offload 28ML in a year," he said.
Mr APPLEBY said he knew of 25 industry members from Queensland and NSW who had recently formed the Spring Water Association and planned to plead their case to ministers and the community.
"We are all on rural land holdings, our conduct and management should be under the rural rules and bylaws, not some other process or manufactured proceeding and policies that is changed from time to time by the council," he said.
"That is one of the arguments we will be putting to the government - council less power and the state government less power. "
Mr Karlos is frustrated by what he calls "discriminatory legislation".
"We have spent tens of thousands of dollars per bore in good faith to go through all the correct processes for state government licences.
"Its like having to spend money to prove to council that a higher level of government was competent to do their job to give the licence."
Mr Karlos said the various complications had left him thousands of dollars in debt and if the issues were not sorted in the future, he would be forced to sell up.
"Ironically, we've had offers from Chinese businesses a few years ago to buy property and water licences … if we are forced to sell up and the most likely buyers will be Chinese, so all the money and water would go offshore," he said.
'We are locals too'
MR APPLEBY said he'd lived in the area for 20 years and at times employed up to five locals.
He explained the biggest challenge he faced was educating the public.
"We have spent many millions in the community in 20 years, all our money stays in the community. We are a local rural water harvesting activity," he said.
"It's the same as a cane farmer, there is no big money in this. People seem to think you get $2 a bottle. It's not like that.
"As part of the development application process, we must pay an amount to contribute to the region's roads."
Mr Appleby said one of the common misunderstandings was all bottles he used in his facility were made from recycled plastics.
Mr Karlos said the council was abolishing and terminating an essential rural business in agriculture.
"The facts have come out of the chief scientist report and people like the mayor who demanded the study and were given the results and it doesn't line up with their agenda and so they have chosen to ignore it," he said.
"We are just trying to supply Australia with our own drinking water and they are trying to stop us like we are some evil people.
"Of course we aren't out to hurt the environment. Any farmer in this country who runs a business and helps supply the country with food - whether it's crops or meats or like us harvesting water - it is up to us to look after the land and maintain the asset in the best condition possible."
Mayor Katie Milne did not respond to request for comment by deadline.
Industry will fight
AUSTRALIAN Beverages Council chief executive officer Geoff Parker said the council's decision was perplexing and the industry body was dismayed.
"(The OCSE report) found no negative impact on groundwater in the Northern Rivers … It seems confusing the Tweed Shire Council would make a decision which ignored various parts of the report or misconstrued findings of the report," he said.
He added there were already tight restrictions and guidelines the industry had to abide by as well and the council's decision would put more limits on businesses which supported Australia during times of crisis.
"The water bottling industry is being called upon recently in the pandemic, floods and bushfires - it is part of any local government and state government disaster relief. It seems unfathomable the industry is called upon to step up time and time again we have this council to restrict the industry needs," Mr Parker said.
He said the decision would mean the region missed out on future investment by companies and the current industry employed an estimated 100 jobs including delivery drivers.
Mr Parker confirmed the ABC would be writing to any relevant government departments and ministers to plead its case to stop the decision becoming finalised.