The proliferation of white netting and plastic covered igloos that are springing up across the region is hard to ignore as the flourishing blueberry industry takes off.
Bringing “jobs and growth” to the North Coast, this type of intensive horticulture is receiving strong support from governments at all levels. However, the industry is almost totally unregulated, allowed to clear what is termed regrowth forest, build enormous dams, and transform rural landscapes into a 'sea' of plastic without the need to seek any approvals whatsoever.
The problem is, blueberries are largely grown hydroponically, and so are highly dependent on water, hence the huge dams to capture the 10% of rainfall run-off that each landowner is entitled to.
Last year an international consortium purchased a large grazing property adjoining the Orara River and announced their intention to set up Australia's largest blueberry farm, 850 hectares. They are entitled to capture 90 megalitres (ML) of rainfall run-off and have applied to extract an additional 66 ML/year from the Orara. However, blueberries require between 2 and 3 megalitres of water per hectare annually, so already they have an annual water shortfall of close to 2,000 ML.
Since declaring their plans for the mega-plantation, the same consortium has reportedly purchased another property of similar size nearby, and are currently preparing that land for planting. We also have other blueberry farms starting up at Glenreagh, Kremnos, Halfway Creek, Kungala, Lanitza (north and south), and Qwyarigo, all within the Lower Orara catchment area. Nobody appears to be giving any thought as to where the necessary water will come from, or what impact the damming of all first and second order streams will have on flows in the river itself.
The current total available water for irrigation from the Lower Orara is under 800 ML annually. You don't need to be a mathematician to see the problem.
Councils need to take control, and change their LEPs to require commercial intensive horticultural ventures to seek approval via a development application, along with and a comprehensive water management plan.
- John Edwards
This article was originally published in the VOICES FOR THE EARTH column in The Daily Examiner on April 17, 2017.