Food and Water Security

Briefing Note Summary

The ability to meet increased demand for fresh Australian food from North Queensland is at risk due to the lack of a long-term water implementation strategy.

To cater for growing demand for water, four significant water supply and infrastructure projects are considered essential enablers for the region: Lakeland Area Irrigation Scheme, Cairns Water Security – Stage 1 project, Etheridge Shire Agricultural and Irrigation Precinct Project, and North Johnstone River Diversion Scheme.

All four projects require bilateral commitment and shared investment to facilitate environmental approvals and to progress to construction stage.

A $7M investment is required to progress a North Johnstone River Diversion Scheme business case with completion of the business case by June 2022, to enable and inform a rewrite of the water resource plans for both the Barron and Wet Tropics catchments.

A $2M investment is needed to progress the Etheridge Agricultural and Irrigation Precinct implementation strategy which includes an Economic, Environmental, and Social Impact Assessment; farming land analysis; and synthesis of existing work on the Gilbert River to identify available and potential water supply with a view to obtaining pre-approval for the key components of the precinct.

The Issue

Essential enablers for regional water security

Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) has seen sustained population growth during the past 30 years underpinned by the expansion of industries including agriculture, tourism, fisheries, education, health, and retail. Throughout 2020, agriculture has been a continuing success story for the region and vitally important in driving post-COVID-19 economic recovery. At the forefront of agricultural growth has been the Atherton Tablelands, driven by the Mareeba Dimbulah Water Supply Scheme (MDWSS) with rapid expansion in high-value crops such as avocados, bananas, berries, and sugarcane. Water is now 100% allocated1 and 80% used, with purchase prices rising more than three-fold since 2011, peaking at $4000/ML.

To address high prices and supply issues on the Tablelands, short- and long-term action is urgently needed. The Queensland Government, via the Regional Water Assessment Program, is currently undertaking a $3M investigation into possible additional water supply and long-term water security across the broader Tablelands region. Sunwater is undertaking much-needed improvements in the MDWSS to provide efficiencies in the short term, but the scheme will also need supplementing with extra supply through the proposed North Johnstone River Diversion Scheme.

In addition, agriculture in areas such as the Lakeland district near Cooktown and surrounding the Gilbert River in Etheridge Shire has the potential to expand rapidly through value crops such as bananas, grains, cotton, legumes, and watermelons. Water security has been a concern for a number of years and is now limiting supply in both regions.

Agricultural exports are vital to TNQ with the industry sector output currently valued at $1.6B2, constrained mainly by factors such as irrigation and access to market. A landmark supply chain study titled Export 2030 – Fresh Food Fast3 was released in June 2020, which highlighted the potential to double high-value food exports through Cairns Airport within a decade.

Urban demand also continues to increase with Cairns’ population growth averaging 1.1% per annum. This, combined with a long-running history of attracting an estimated three million tourists visiting TNQ annually pre-COVID, means an effective and multi-faceted water supply strategy is required to ensure the growing needs of the region can be met. Addressing this urban need will also reduce the impact on agricultural water supply. In Cairns itself, modelling by the Cairns Regional Council shows that demand for water will outstrip supply within the next five years. As a result, the Cairns Water Security – Stage 1 project is an essential piece of infrastructure to secure urban water supply for Cairns well into the future.

In summary, four significant water supply and infrastructure projects are considered essential enablers for water security and growth in the region:

  • Lakeland Irrigation Area Project
  • Cairns Water Security – Stage 1 project
  • Etheridge Shire Agricultural and Irrigation
    Precinct Project
  • North Johnstone River Diversion Scheme.


Food and Water Security

Water and food security have become priority national policy issues on the back of record drought periods in Australia, as well as disruption to supply chains through COVID-19. In 2020, the Federal Government committed a further $2B to the National Water Infrastructure Fund to build resilience in regions and to help grow the agricultural sector. A National Water Grid Authority has also been established to develop investment frameworks. In strengthening the role of northern Australia as a food bowl, substantial feasibility work has progressed in the past three years to explore new agricultural development opportunities. With many of these studies now coming to a close, there are clear priorities for progressing environmental impact and construction activities, and a coordinated approach to development is required.

Lakeland Area Irrigation Scheme Project

Regional Development Australia Tropical North, through the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund (NWIDF), funded a preliminary business case that investigated new water storage options to expand the Lakeland irrigation area. Once constructed, the proposed dam will store 200,000ML with a secure output of 80,000ML per annum, irrigating up to 10,000ha of highly irrigable land. Federal Government funding of $10M to further develop the business case has seen work advance materially with aerial mapping, geological drilling and sampling, and dry season ecology fieldwork all completed. The draft Reference Design was completed in December 2021. Further work on the business case is continuing, with completion scheduled for September 2022. Bilateral government support will be required to further the development approval processes for the project.

Cairns Water Security - Stage 1 project

With forecasts indicating that supply to the Cairns urban region is due to be at capacity by 2026, the Cairns Water Security – Stage 1 project is a critical piece of infrastructure for the city. The project has been identified by the Cairns Regional Council’s Water Security Advisory Group (WSAG) as a key priority to meet the short- to medium-term water security needs of the Cairns community. The project is estimated to cost about $215M and will provide an estimated 630 FTE jobs and contribute an estimated $159M in Gross Regional Product (GRP) during the project’s construction phase4.

Etheridge Shire Agricultural and Irrigation Precinct Project

Etheridge Shire Council, in conjunction with Regional Development Australia Tropical North, proposes to develop an agricultural and irrigation precinct in the Shire. The project aims to establish protocols that facilitate the approval and expansion of agriculture and horticulture across the precinct on a regional basis. As much as 530,000ha of Class A and B soil is potentially available in the Shire, but there are barriers to water access and security. Around 495,000ML of water is available in the Gilbert River catchment area. A $2M investment is proposed for an implementation strategy to analyse the best means of accessing water and irrigating up to 50,000ha of land to diversify crop types and drive economic growth in the area.

North Johnstone River Diversion Scheme

Sunwater completed a preliminary feasibility study in early 2020 with favourable findings, and the Queensland Department of Resources has since been undertaking detailed hydrological modelling. The diversion scheme is considered a viable option to stimulate the economy, delivering up to 50,000ML. A $7M investment is sought for a full business case to enable and inform the rewrite of the Water Resource Plans for both the Barron River and Wet Tropics in subsequent years.

Next Steps

Development of the four proposed water infrastructure projects would meet a range of state and national policy objectives, including:

Expanding northern Australia’s agricultural productive capacity – this is nationally significant given the impact of drought on food and water security in southern Australia.

Increasing northern Australia’s contribution to GDP through an increase in agricultural production.

Diversifying northern Australia’s economic capabilities to facilitate investment and reduce reliance on tourism.

Strengthening Australia’s international competitiveness through proximity to Asia.

Our Recommendation

  • That the State and Federal Governments work together to facilitate and coordinate the development approval processes for the Lakeland Irrigation Area Project.
  • That in 2022-2023 the State and Federal Governments commit funding towards the Cairns Water Security – Stage 1 project as per the Town and City Water Security High Priority Infrastructure Initiative identified by Infrastructure Australia.
  • That the Federal Government provides $2M over two years for the implementation strategy for the Etheridge Shire Agricultural and Irrigation Precinct Project.
  • That the Queensland Government applies to the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund (NWIDF) in 2021-2022 for $7M to progress a full business case for the North North Johnstone River diversion scheme.