As big cotton eyes the north, fears mount over the ‘water-thirsty crop’

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On Douglas Station south of Darwin, a 200-hectare rain-fed cotton field is ready to be picked and spun into lucrative bales, part of a national crop worth $1.5 billion this season. 

“Cotton is going to be a game changer for the Northern Territory,” says part-owner Matt Dennis, standing on a dusty road at the edge of the crop.

Just three years after trials began in the Territory, cotton is at the centre of a predicted agricultural boom across Australia’s north tipped to be worth more than $200 million within a decade.

But the expansion is being criticised by environmentalists and has prompted calls by Aboriginal traditional owners to be consulted about laws to protect the environment.

Mr Dennis, an agronomist, said cotton growing, which has been condemned as water thirsty and land damaging in places such as the Murray-Darling Basin, has changed significantly over the past 20 years.

Cotton crop at Douglas Station - Drone 1Cotton crop at Douglas Station - Drone 1
Matt Dennis owns Douglas Station in partnership with several southern investors and global merchant Louis Dreyfus Company. (

ABC News: Hamish Harty

)

“A farmer has to be an environmentalist, otherwise farming is not going to be sustainable.”

CSIRO researcher Dr Stephen Yeates, who has been researching the viability of a cotton industry in the north for decades, agreed that “cotton is a low-to-moderate user of water”. 

But in Katherine, a town of about 10,000 people 320 kilometres south of Darwin, retired school teacher Shirley Crane said residents were not happy about the clearing of surrounding bushland for agricultural development, especially cotton growing.

The fight against a ‘game changer’ crop

Dust Storm by Ben CouttsDust Storm by Ben Coutts
Environmentalists blamed the whipping up of the dust on the dry conditions and clearing of surrounding bushland for agricultural development.(

Supplied: Ben Coutts

)

In December last year, a powerful storm blanketed Katherine in red soil, ripping the roof off a CBD business and cutting the town’s electricity.

Shop owners closed their doors and Ms Crane, a long-term resident, rushed to safety from her post where she was selling raffle tickets for a church Christmas hamper.

“That huge dust storm, it was a whopper, I’m still cleaning dust out of the corners of my house,” she said.

“I think cotton is going to be a catastrophe for this area.

“We’re really concerned about the threat to our drinking water supply.”

Ms Crane is not alone.

Even though farmers predict cotton-growing near Katherine could inject $25.7 million into the economy annually, the town’s mayor Lis Clark said the “community is concerned about how much water will be used”. 

An analysis of the economic impact of cotton-growing by the NT Farmers Association reveals plans to develop 60,000 hectares of cotton in the Douglas Daly region, about 150km from Darwin, which is surrounded by world-famous national parks.

The Territory’s first commercial cotton-processing plant is set to be built 35km north of Katherine on Tarwoo Station.

And Ron Greentree, Australia’s largest wheat farmer, has announced plans to develop 5,000 hectares of irrigated cotton and corn in the Ord Valley in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, saying northern Australia “is the place to farm in the future”. 

Water the big issue

The NT Farmers Association study reveals plans to extract 520 gigalitres of water from the Territory’s Daly River, an iconic destination for barramundi fishing.

“Water availability is critical to ensuring the development of agricultural precincts and plant-based agriculture and horticulture in the NT,” the study said.

“Cotton is envisaged to be the most pivotal plant-based agricultural crop for the region.”

An aerial view of 200 hectares of rain fed cotton crops at Douglas  Station in the Northern Territory. An aerial view of 200 hectares of rain fed cotton crops at Douglas  Station in the Northern Territory.
On Douglas Station, 200 hectares of cotton have been sustainably grown using just the wet-season rainfall. (

ABC News: Hamish Harty

)

According to the analysis, “between 40 and 50” new cotton farms are envisioned for the region.

Between 500 and 1,500 hectares will be irrigated operations.

Paul Burke, who took the helm of the NT Farmers Association in 2019 after a short stint as the chief executive of the NT Cattlemen’s Association, said 80 to 90 per cent of the cotton that will be grown in the NT will be dry-land or rain-fed cotton, which relies on downpours.

But he concedes water will need to be banked for later and argues “fundamental errors in water planning” are the reason some rivers surrounded by cotton in other parts of Australia are no longer healthy.

Mr Burke said a major part of the NT’s plan will centre on the ability to harvest and store water from floodplains, a practice that has divided Murray-Darling Basin communities and irrigators.

“We have no desire to pressure government to take more groundwater than is already nominated in the water allocation plan,” he said.

“We certainly don’t support dams on iconic rivers – we fundamentally disagree with that.”

But Environment Centre NT marine scientist Jason Fowler said the practice of floodplain harvesting, without protections, could jeopardise fishing and tourism.

Bulbs of cotton on a sunny clear blue day. Bulbs of cotton on a sunny clear blue day.
The NT Farmers Association says the development of four cotton gins is forecast to be economically viable in just four years.(

ABC News: Hamish Harty

)

“This is exactly what they did in the Darling River in NSW and Queensland,” he said.

“You divert flood water into dams and you take the flood off the river.”

Mr Fowler said floods are critical to the biology of the river systems.

“Our rivers have evolved over millennia to have big floods to clean them out and join up all the billabongs — all the fish are highly adapted to flood events,” he said.

A couple outside a houseA couple outside a house
Avid fisherman Harold Sinclair and his wife Val’s livelihoods depend on the Daly River. (

105.7 ABC Darwin: Emilia Terzon

)

Harold Sinclair, the owner of Sinclair’s Daly River Fishing Retreat, said he was concerned about the future of his tourism-dependent business.

“Taking huge volumes of extra water from the Douglas-Daly floodplains will be disastrous for the barramundi that bring locals and tourists alike flocking in,” he said.

“The NT government needs to listen to people who live and work downstream on the river system, like fishing guides, tourism operators, Aboriginal rangers and local communities.

The Territory’s water allocation has been governed by a longstanding 80:20 rule that determines how much of the resource must be allocated to the environment and how much can be used by industry.

But it wasn’t until 2016 that the NT Labor government introduced regulations that required all NT agricultural or commercial water users to obtain a licence and meter their water extraction.

Mr Fowler questions where cotton growers will get their water, if not from new allocations.

He said more than half of the Territory’s groundwater was already allocated to mango crops — the largest horticulture crop using licenced water in the NT — and sandalwood crops. 

A crop of cotton is in the background of dry red soil in the Northern Territory. A crop of cotton is in the background of dry red soil in the Northern Territory.
In 2019, the Territory’s driest year in almost half a century, farmers generated between five and eight bales of cotton per hectare.(

ABC News: Hamish Harty

)

“I don’t understand where he (Mr Gunner) expects this magical water to appear from. Growers can’t just switch crops.”

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