Port Lincoln, South Australia is home to some of Australia’s best aquaculture but the industry and city are locked in a battle for its future.

Home to approximately 15,000 people the region faces a water crisis and in just two years time the water there may be completely undrinkable.

“The water situation is dire,” SA Water Minister Nick Champion told 7.30.

“We’re running out of time, and we need to act.”

Residents there and from the broader Eyre Peninsula have been taking their drinking water from an underground basin, but Mr Champion said the aquifer was predicted to be undrinkable in around two years’ time because of over extraction.

In total, about 28,000 water users are at risk.

“The aquifers are running salty. We’ve exhausted our capacity to utilise Mother Nature for a water resource,” he said.

“We’ve just got to get on and look at the solution to it.”

South Australian Water Minister Nick Champion says there is no other option but a desalination plant.(ABC News: Carl Saville)

An aquifer is a geological formation which holds water in sufficient quantity to provide a source of water that can be tapped by a bore.

The solution Mr Champion is talking about is a desalination plant but despite the urgent need, there’s fierce opposition to the project.

Taking away from industry?

Port Lincoln is referred to as Australia’s seafood capital and CEO of Eyre Peninsula Seafoods Mark Andrews, is concerned the proposed location for the plant will put his industry at risk.

“I started this business from nothing,” Mr Andrews said.

Mussels growing off the Port Lincoln coastline.(ABC News: Carl Saville)

“Today, we are the largest processor, farmer, marketer of mussels in Australia representing 65 per cent of the industry, pulling 76 people between the factory boats, office and in marketing.

“Why would you want to put a desalination plant in an aquaculture zone?”

Mr Andrews said his business had been built around the abundant natural spat or baby mussels that float through the waters near Port Lincoln, which have been earmarked for a huge pipe that will take seawater into the desalination plant.

“Let’s call it a vacuum cleaner and that vacuum cleaner is taking in the water through the desalination plant and my spat goes with it,” he said.

Mark Andrews believes a desalination plant at the proposed location will negatively impact his business. (ABC News: Carl Saville)

“It gets sucked into the intake into the desalination plant and then therefore, it is not out there for me to catch.”

‘Catastrophic effects’

Mr Champion said following industry feedback, pipes would now be placed in deeper water at the location known as Billy Lights Point.

He says government scientists have exhaustively examined the potential impact on aquaculture and that there would be none on spat, while running out of water would be a disaster.

“We could examine this forever, if we liked but we don’t have the luxury of time,” Mr Champion told 7.30.

“We will run out of water on the Eyre Peninsula [and] it will have catastrophic effects for the people of Eyre Peninsula, including the fishing industry.”

Billy Lights Point is the cheapest option to locate a desalination plant, coming in at an estimated $313 million dollars.

These pipes currently carry water from the underground basin.(ABC News: Carl Saville)

Another site was initially chosen further away from aquaculture farms but Mr Champion said it was abandoned because construction there would cost at least half-a-billion dollars.

“It’s just not a practical place to build one,” he said.

“It’s 20k[m] away from Port Lincoln, you have to pump the water uphill. There’s no power or water in …  there’s no pipes or anything.

“It’s a fool’s investment, where we’d be throwing good money after bad.”

Mr Andrews disagreed and says that  considering the region’s fishing industry is worth more than $200-million annually, a more expensive plant further away from aquaculture would be a good investment.

“Everybody on the Eyre Peninsula wants water security … a little bit of money extra spent now for the long-term growth and benefit of a region pays dividends,” Mr Andrews said.

‘Real frustration’

The aquaculture industry isn’t alone in its fight.

A state parliamentary committee recently travelled to Port Lincoln and Liberal MP Nicola Centofanti said it appeared most residents opposed the proposed Billy Lights Point location.

“We do have a situation here where we are running out of time, the peninsula does need a desalination plant but we’ve got a site that’s been chosen by the government that does not have community support,” she told 7.30.

Ms Centofanti said it was first flagged in 2009 that the region would need desalination to secure its future water supply.

“I think there’s a real frustration in the community and we’re hearing through this committee that SA water and successive governments have sat on their hands for the best part of 15 years on this issue.”

Mr Champion acknowledged time had been wasted.

“I think there’s been a lot of wishful thinking around the place, indulgent thinking, frankly, not just in [the] bureaucratic world or political world .. but in the community as well, and still goes on to this day,” he said.

Jamie Siviour is a farmer who lives about 90 minutes north of Port Lincoln. His mains water currently comes from the over extracted underground basin.

Farmers are concerned without a plant they may not be able to run sheep on properties in the area.(ABC News: Carl Saville)

“Without mains water we can’t run sheep,” Mr Siviour told 7.30.

“We don’t have a river … this area around here is not conducive to dams. And the sort of rainfall that we get is usually smaller amounts and sort of small soaking rains rather than running rains,” he said.

Mr Siviour said he sympathised with aquaculture growers but was worried about further delays in building the desalination plant and what could happen if the aquifer becomes undrinkable.

“It would mean that we would have to start reducing the number of sheep, even not having sheep at all,” he told 7.30.

But Mr Andrews says the government couldn’t afford to ignore the aquaculture industry’s concerns.

“We all want water here on the peninsula but not in an aquaculture zone, where there is a risk,” he said.

Mr Champion said the government would not reconsider the current location.

“I’m absolutely confident that what will happen is, in 10 years’ time, we’ll go to Port Lincoln, and we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.”

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