English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner from the 1790s may also be the modern-day lament of farmers on the fertile Alstonville Plateau south-east of Lismore on the New South Wales north coast.
Many of the region’s primary producers are mounting a campaign against a proposal that would result in water from an aquifer ending up in plastic bottles on supermarket shelves.
Michael Hogan, who is several hundred metres from the aquifer, said he was concerned for his farm, which started 20 years ago with him planting avocados and now expanded to custard apples, vanilla bean, and native bees.
“That water will come out of the ground and leave the Alstonville Plateau,” he said.
“If they take the maximum amount they are allowed to, which is 100 megalitres a year, and continually taken then God forbid if we go into another drought — that aquifer will not recharge,” Mr Hogan said.
People like Mr Hogan argue the bores were licensed for agricultural use and not for a commercial operation, such as water bottling.
The rich soil of Alstonville supports macadamias, custard apples, vanilla beans, dairy and beef, along with a flower and blueberry farm, which is where the bores are located.
The development application is before the Ballina Shire Council.
It has been lodged by the owners of the flower farm, with Victoria-based firm Black Mountain Springwater to carry out the water extraction and bottling.
The bottling company intends to purchase the farm and Tim Carey, who is behind Black Mountain Springwater, argued a hydrological study showed there was not a problem.
“What it showed is there is no effect on the local groundwater users in the area,” he said.
“What we are looking for is something that is sustainable.
“We are looking to be there long term. We are certainly looking to continue farming on the property.”
The Black Mountain Springwater-commissioned hydrological study, was questioned by a researcher who also farmed the area and still lived there.
David Huett spent more than 40 years in horticultural research at the New South Wales Department of Primary Industry’s Tropical Fruit Research station at Alstonville.
Dr Huett’s research included irrigation efficiency, hydroponics and sustainable water recycling using constructed wetlands.
He also owned and maintained a hydroponic tomato farm on the plateau, which was at times dependent upon the aquifer.
From 1966 to 2010 rainfall was recorded daily, and Dr Huett claimed that there were 17 years when rainfall was less than average.
“Typically most of the rainfall is in late autumn up until early winter. Late winter up until spring is quite dry,” Dr Huett said.
“That’s the real killer and if you get a typically dry spring with below-average rainfall, regeneration of aquifers will be very significantly affected.”
While the majority of primary production on the plateau was horticulture-related, it has had a long history of dairy and beef.
Since the late 1890s Peter King’s family had farmed the plateau, which included a dairy.
These days he grows macadamias and maintains a commercial beef herd.
He cites the “unreliability” of water and is “concerned about any water” that may be taken away as the bore water is also used domestically by his family.
“The water below the surface is absolutely of dire consequence to me,” Mr King said.
“I water my cattle every day with water from a bore.
“I have a creek but in times of drought the amount of water from the creek is known to reduce drastically.”
While continued access to a reliable water source was the major concern, so to was the question of road safety and noise.
Opponents argued that the increase in traffic to cart the water would require large vehicles.
Black Mountain Springwater’s Tim Carey claimed the plan was to use 19-metre tankers.
“They were originally designed for the milk industry, so they’re designed specifically for rural roads. We are looking at six loads a day should it all go ahead,” Mr Carey said.
“It is certainly not a material increase in traffic on that road.”
A view not shared by Michael Hogan who, while arguing his case among the avocado trees, pointed to a number of trucks using the road to get to a nearby nursery.
He dismissed Mr Carey’s truck description, and argued they would be more like B-doubles.
“It is a rural road. It is not constructed for 57 B-doubles. It was never constructed for that weight.”