The Minerals Council of Australia Northern Territory Division (MCA NT) welcomes the opportunity to provide comment on the Northern Territory Government’s strategic planning document Our Water Future Discussion Paper (2015).

The MCA is the peak industry organisation representing Australia’s exploration, mining and minerals processing industry, nationally and internationally, in its contribution to sustainable development and society.  The MCA’s strategic objective is to advocate public policy and operational practice for a world-class industry that is safe, profitable, innovative, and environmentally and socially responsible, attuned to its communities’ needs and expectations.

MCA member companies are signatories to Enduring Value – the Australian Minerals Industry Framework for Sustainable Development and have a long standing commitment to the effective and responsible management of Australia’s water resources.

Although the minerals industry is a comparatively small user of water nationally (2.9 per cent), the industry can be a significant water user at the local or regional level, and the availability and security of supply is a critical business risk for the minerals sector.[1]  Minerals operations face a wide variety of other water management challenges, including use and treatment of unacceptably-poor quality water, mine dewatering and the management of excess water. For these reasons, the MCA NT acknowledges the critical importance of strategic planning in providing all water users with more certain and equitable sharing arrangements that also ensure the sustainability of the Territory’s water resources.

The MCA is a supporter of national water reform, and has a long history of engagement with government in the implementation of the 2004 Intergovernmental Agreement on a National Water Initiative (NWI).  The MCA worked closely with the former National Water Commission to improve understanding of, and integration of, the mining sector under the NWI.

The MCA also recognises that the strategy resulting from this review can provide flexibility to accommodate innovative approaches to manage industrial water use that are consistent with existing legislation, the principles of environmentally sustainable development and the need to balance the needs of society, economic development and the environment.

Locally, the MCA NT has completed its review of the discussion paper and has included its detailed feedback in the submission form available from the Our Water Future 2015 website (Attachment A).  Overall, the document is clear, well-organised and easy-to-read. The vision, guiding principles, goals and priorities all make sense and are appropriate in the context of developing the comprehensive water strategy. On the whole, they accommodate the aspirations and needs of the minerals sector. The MCA NT would welcome the opportunity to play an active role in developing the government’s strategic plan for water, to ensure the continued consideration and integration of these needs and aspirations in the planning and drafting process.  In addition to the importance of including the minerals industry in the water planning process, the following are key matters that should be addressed in the draft strategy:

No ‘one size fits all’ approach - Mineral operations (mining, processing, etc.) can be constrained by a range of special circumstances or conditions for which the application of contemporary planning and entitlement approaches would be unsuitable, impractical and/or inappropriate (e.g. isolation, use of low-quality/saline water, short project duration and obligations to offset impacts). These have been recognised under Clause 34 of the NWI, which provides an important transitional mechanism until planning and entitlement regimes are sufficiently developed to accommodate these circumstances.[2] Importantly, Clause 34 is not about special treatment that would unjustifiably put mining on an unequal basis to other activities, but about special and careful consideration that recognises the features of the ways in which mining interacts with water systems.

The MCA NT urges that the Territory’s future framework for managing water facilitate the best water management outcomes for a given region.While water planning and management can be consistent with the overarching principles of the water strategy, it does not necessarily mean the same approach should always be applied.  Water management should be tailored to the specific characteristics of individual water catchments/groundwater systems and the needs of water users, including mining.

Regulatory efficiency. Where mining development approvals (including environmental impact assessment and approvals) overlap with water access and planning arrangements, this can result in duplication and an unnecessary regulatory burden on the water user, comprising a barrier to market access. Should a revised regulatory framework be recommended in the future water strategy, primacy of legislation needs to be made explicit and duplication avoided.
Access to low quality water resources. The discussion paper recognises the importance of effective management of water quality and salinity, with a focus on protecting water quality for drinking, irrigation and other sensitive consumptive uses.  In contrast, much of the water used by the minerals industry is not fit for purposes other than for industrial applications, with water used ranging in quality from simply non-potable, through to saline groundwater.

Access to differing or poor water quality is not adequately accommodated by contemporary water management regimes, as poor quality water supplies are often excluded from water resource plans.  This may in effect create a barrier for minerals industry access to these poor quality water resources that could otherwise be beneficially used to create significant economic returns.  The draft strategy should recognise and incorporate this issue in proposed planning.

Water information. The MCA NT recommends that water reporting requirements be targeted, have direct water resource management or public good benefits and be done in an efficient and non-duplicative manner.  Data collection and reporting requirements need to be proportional to the water resource management risk. Furthermore, it is important to ensure water data made publicly available are linked to sufficient contextual information to avoid misrepresentation or misinterpretation.

Once again, the MCA NT commends the Northern Territory Government on preparing a comprehensive discussion paper to focus industry, community and other stakeholder feedback on key issues for developing a balanced and practical long-term water management strategy for the Northern Territory and appreciate the opportunity to provide feedback

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2610 – Water Account Australia, 2012-13

[2] Intergovernmental agreement on a National Water Initiative

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