It’s the new battle in the bush — the bottled water wars.
On one side is Australia’s $800-million-a-year bottled water industry and its suppliers, on the other, rural residents who fear their most precious resource, groundwater, is being squandered.
“It’s dividing the local community,” said Larry Karlos, one of half a dozen water extractors in the Tweed Valley in northern New South Wales.
He’s been pumping water from an aquifer beneath his property for 16 years.
But his recent bid to increase the amount he sells to bottling companies has ignited local opposition.
Fourth-generation farmer Patrick O’Brien fears his children’s future is being jeopardised for the profit of the water industry.
“If they don’t stop this type of thing then, you know, what’s going to be left?” he told.
“What’s going to left for future generations? No-one was really worried when they were trucking the water out in small amounts, but then they want more, they want more trips, they want bigger trucks.”
Does extraction affect groundwater?
Without access to a town water supply, locals in the Bilambil Valley rely on water from the creek.
Mr O’Brien is concerned water extraction is affecting that supply.
“We never used to see any problems with it,” he said.
“Lately, in the last few years, it’s stopping more and more constantly throughout the year.”
Mr Karlos rejects that link.
“The water we’re taking out has no bearing on localised water, groundwater or creek water, which is what the farmers are using,” he said.
A hydrology report he commissioned in 2016 found his water extraction was “not considered likely” to have an impact on local creeks.
But Ian Acworth, an Emeritus Professor with NSW University who has researched ground water for the past three decades, said on the scant data available it was quite possible the two water systems were interconnected.
“It requires more investigation,” he said.
Water mining v licensed extraction
The Tweed Water Alliance (TWA), a group of concerned residents, is campaigning against what it calls “water mining”.
“It’s not just the extraction of water, but concerns that this has become a lawless industry, an industry which pays no attention to their conditions of approval,” TWA member Jeremy Tager said.
“They breach hours of operation and size of truck. “It appears they also take water they’re not entitled to — it’s water theft.”
Mr Karlos denied such claims.
“That is an untrue comment. I’ve never stolen water in my life,” he said.
“The water that we’re selling does belong to me because I have a licence to sell 60 megalitres a year,” he said.
But it’s complicated.
The Karlos operation does have a licence from NSW Water to extract a maximum of 60 million litres of water a year — enough to fill 24 Olympic swimming pools.
However, to transport the water it needs development approval from the Tweed Shire Council.
By limiting the number, size and hours of operation of water tankers, the Greens-led council has effectively halved the amount of water the Karlos operation is allowed to sell.
“It’s a political thing and there’s no sense as to why we have the restrictions that we do on our business,” said Mr Karlos’s son, Matthew, who joined the family business three years ago to ensure it was complying with its licencing and council conditions.
Larry Karlos is taking the council to the Land and Environment Court this week after it rejected his bid to run bigger tankers, which would allow him to sell his full 60-megalitre allocation.
The Tweed Shire Council last year narrowly voted to prohibit any expansion in the water-extraction industry, although it needs state government approval.
Faced with a burgeoning population, climate change and potential water shortages, Greens Mayor Katie Milne said a precautionary approach was needed.
“The problem is really that we don’t know what’s going on … underground,” she said.
She said there had been a recent “rash of applications” for water extraction and that she was worried the industry could “expand exponentially”.