Licences, Evidence, Land Use, Wetlands, Burden of Proof, Civil, Property, Climate Change, Damages, Air pollution
This case concerns the strategic management of water resources and the long term sustainability of groundwater as a valuable but finite resource. The case arose as a result of an application by Alanvale Pty Ltd and AJ & KM Graham Pty Ltd under section 64 of the Water Act 1989 (Vic) to review a decision by the water authority not to grant licences for the extraction of groundwater to irrigate to agricultural properties. The authority gave several reasons for its refusal, including increased ground water salinity due to the bores, future decreased rainfall levels due to climate change, and the impact of decreasing the aquifer on the rest of the region’s water levels causing shallow bores, and thus requiring bore deepening. The Authority also noted that this decision would be consistent with previous applications requesting increased water allocation. The applicants, on the other hand, argued that the Water Authority was being too conservative and ‘unfair’ in their decision and that there is sufficient capacity within the area for increased water extraction, without detrimental impact. Other landholders in the area also voiced their objections to the application. They noted the impact of increased extraction on their shallow bores along with the impact of flows into the Eumeralla River and other local waterways. Rainfall is the key to the longer term security of this resource. However, rainfall is subject to short and long term variability, as well as long term climate change influences. There is evidence that the pattern of rainfall is in a state of change. What has happened in the past will not be the same as what we can expect to happen in the future. Applying the precautionary principle, the Tribunal has decided that the licences, which are the subject of review in this proceeding, should not be granted due to lack of certainty about the existing and future projected availability of groundwater within the relevant groundwater management area. The serious, and potentially irreversible, environmental damage that depletion of this resource may cause means that the long term sustainability of the resource needs to be established with more certainty before additional licenses are granted. The transfer of unused, existing allocations is to be encouraged to make more efficient and strategic use of the available resource in light of the uncertainty surrounding the possible impacts from new allocations. If the outcome of additional work justifies further allocations being made, some consideration needs to be given as to how a limited and scarce resource should be allocated amongst competing interests. This should be based on a more strategic, holistic approach to the requirement under the Water Act 1989 to take account of the purpose for which the water will be used.