The State Government has stepped in and halted plans to sell water to blueberry growers.
The State Government has stepped in and halted plans to sell water to blueberry growers.

State puts the brakes on water sell-off

THE State Government has suspended plans to sell water from Woolgoolga Dam to the blueberry industry.

The decision by Coffs Harbour City Council to sell water to some of the biggest operators including Costa Berries, who've already invested in the necessary road and pipe infrastructure, has met with some strong opposition.

Plans were revealed in a Council press release on December 12 with the proposal described as a win-win for the entire community.

RELATED: Water in Woolgoolga dam to be sold-off to farmers

The media release made reference to new State Government regulations that could possibly make the dam non-compliant but with the changes only coming into force in November (2019) year it's still unclear what this will mean for Woolgoolga Dam. The Advocate understands council has two years to meet the requirements of the new legislation.

Constructed in 1967, it was used as water supply for the Woolgoolga area until 1986, when Woolgoolga was connected to the Coffs Harbour Water Supply and Karangi Dam.

A sign at the dam gate states: Woolgoolga Dam is currently available as a backup water supply for the Northern Beaches area.


Woolgoolga dam.
Woolgoolga dam.

In the current climate of ongoing drought and bushfires community groups have come out in opposition to any attempts to sell the water to large berry producers.

Councillor Sally Townley, who says the first fellow Councillors learnt of the plan was via the December 12 media release, called on the State Government's Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) to look into the deal.

Discussions between NRAR and senior council staff on Christmas Eve centred around the definition of 'town water' as stipulated in council's water access licence.

"Town water can be for two different purposes - domestic or stock purposes - and the Act (Water Management Act 2000) is actually open, as to what both of those mean, so we're not able to get a crystal clear definition as to what exactly the licence allows," a council representative explained.

So for now any sale of water from the dam has been suspended until further discussions scheduled for January 2.

While many community groups celebrated NRAR's intervention, some industry groups including Berries Australia praised council for the plan and made accusations of "political game playing".

"Some growers have already had to stop watering their crops. Hundreds of workers have already been laid off with many more to follow if there is no access to water," Berries Australia Chairman Peter McPherson wrote in a letter to the editor.

"Council to its credit identified capacity through its Woolgoolga dam and has sought to make water available to local berry growers.

"It is unfortunate that before this could even occur, local elected officials and members of the community with a long and sustained history of opposing the berry industry, have sought to do everything they can to stop the industry from accessing this much needed water."

Cr Townley says there should be consideration given to a range of different options for farmers doing it tough in times of drought.

"The eagerness of blueberry growers to access additional water is surely a signal that we should be looking for a sustainable source, apart from town water," Cr Townley said.

"About eight to 10 megalitres of treated water is pumped to ocean outfall every single day in Coffs. I would like to see Council and the horticultural industry join forces to scope out a proposal for infrastructure to take this water where it can be re-used."