BHP Billiton’s thirst triggers an outback water fight – by Sarah Martin (The Australian – August 9, 2014)

SHANE Oldfield kicks the red rocks on his vast, dry pastoral lease north of Marree where he raises organic Angus beef for ­export.

The outback Clayton Station in northern South Australia has always been marginal farming land. With an average of 10cm of rain a year the property is dependent on water from the Great ­Artesian Basin in dry years.

“We are living in a desert, and without the basin we are non-existent,” Mr Oldfield says. “We haven’t had a decent rainfall since February 2012, so without the Great Artesian Basin we wouldn’t be here.”

But while accustomed to battling drought, the Oldfields now have another fight on their hands. The water level of the basin is dropping dramatically, raising fears that the pastoral land will become unviable.

The culprit, they say, is BHP Billiton, which pumps all of its water from the basin to its Olympic Dam mine and the Roxby Downs township 250km away. “BHP aren’t going to own up to the fact that they are sucking the guts out of the basin,’’ he tells The Weekend Australian.

“But they are. They want the water from this country because without the water they can’t mine, and the GAB water is the cheapest water they are ever going to get.”

So cheap, in fact, it is free.

Under the indenture act established in 1982 for the Olympic Dam mine, the state may not ­impose any groundwater charges on the operators.

This was to change if the company’s mine expansion went ahead, with a revised indenture proposing that Olympic Dam ­operators would pay the natural resources management levy paid by other users of groundwater, which is set at 3.18c per kilolitre.

BHP Billiton’s extraction rate over the past few years has averaged about 32.5 megalitres (million litres) per day, the equivalent of 13 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Mr Oldfield says that the basin level has dropped by as much as 6m in parts over the past five years, leading to a dramatic drop in water pressure.

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