By Jeremy Sollars
Southern Downs councillors say they are powerless to stop the movement and private sale of water and its transport out of the region, at their December meeting held in Warwick today, Wednesday 18 December.
Earlier today a majority of councillors – including Mayor Tracy Dobie – voted in favour of approving an application by the owners of Cherrabah Resort east of Warwick to establish a commercial water bottling operation based on water extracted from the Cherrabah property.
As reported online by the Free Times earlier this week, the Brisbane-based owners of Cherrabah – brothers Wenxing and Wenwei Ma – applied for council approval to extract up to 96 megalitres of water from Cherrabah each year, based on their current underground water allocation, and truck it to the Gold Coast for commercial plastic bottling.
Voting in favour of the approval were Mayor Tracy Dobie and Councillors Neil Meiklejohn, Rod Kelly, Sheryl Windle and Deputy Mayor Jo McNally.
Voting against were Councillors Vic Pennisi, Yve Stocks and Cameron Gow.
Cr Marika McNichol was absent from today’s monthly council meeting – the last for 2019 – due to her property in the Mount Lindesay area in northern NSW being currently threatened by a bushfire.
Debate on the Cherrabah proposal was brief, but Cr Yve Stocks said in her view it was “very ironic” that councillors were considering an application for water extraction and its transportation to the Gold Coast at a time when the council and State Government were about to commence full-scale carting of water by road from Connolly Dam in Warwick to Stanthorpe’s Storm King Dam to supply Stanthorpe with town water.
Cr Stocks also said there was “not enough data” in the application about the effect the Cherrabah operation would have on the water table in the area.
Cr Vic Pennisi said the council’s planning scheme contained provisions to protect against impacts from water extraction on the “productivity” of neighbouring properties, and that he could not see how it would not affect adjoining landowners.
Cr Cameron Gow said while he understood the council was legally obliged to consider any planning application put before it, he felt that for council to approve the Cherrabah plan failed to take into account the “concerns” of the community about water issues, and that councillors were “duty-bound” to look at the bigger picture of water use, including the potential ability of the State Government to restrict certain aspects of private water extraction in drought conditions.
A number of neighbouring properties owners surrounding Cherrabah lodged formal objections to the Ma brothers’ application, largely on the basis it would affect overall underground water supplies in the Elbow Valley area around Cherrabah.
But other councillors, including Mayor Tracy Dobie and Deputy Mayor Jo McNally, argued that the council was powerless to rule on the use of privately-held underground water allocations, which are granted by the Queensland Government and not by the council.
Cr McNally went a step further, saying the council was aware of many individuals extracting underground or bore water in the region and selling it privately to users from outside the region, and there was nothing the council could do about the practice.
“This is happening all over the region and here we are singling out one landowner,” Cr McNally said.
She commended Cherrabah’s owners for “doing the right thing” and applying for council approval for their proposed operation.
Cr Rod Kelly stated the Cherrabah water extraction would be “metered”, unlike underground water being used for farming irrigation by primary producers in the Goomburra Valley and nearby areas in the Upper Condamine catchment, and that reports commissioned by the Ma brothers had involved “considerable cost” to them.
Cr Neil Meiklejohn said the application before council was “not about water” and it was only concerned with the council’s planning rules around “truck movements” and the placement of water extraction “infrastructure”.
Cr Sheryl Windle congratulated council officers on the work they had done on the application and said the “concerns” of other property owners who had objected to the Cherrabah plan had been “addressed”.
The Free Times sought comment from the Ma Brothers – who attended today’s council meeting – but they refused.
The Ma brothers originally submitted the same application in December 2018 but withdrew it before it went to councillors.
The Ma brothers have a current licence to extract up to 96 megalitres of underground water per year from Cherrabah, until the year 2111.
Details from the council officers’ report tabled at today’s council meeting –
“This application seeks approval to establish a water extraction and distribution facility within the north-eastern portion of the Cherrabah property at Elbow Valley.
“The proposed facility is to include a proprietary filter system and water storage tanks within a purpose-built shed.
“Bottling of water is not proposed to occur on site.
“Water is to be collected by a water tanker (19m articulated vehicles) and delivered to a bottling facility on the Gold Coast.
“The applicant has also outlined that the water will be made available for collection by agricultural or domestic users with standard B99 vehicles.”