A company planning to build a massive Central Australian fruit and vegetable farm has been handed the biggest water license ever granted in the Northern Territory.
Fortune Agribusiness wants to build a 3500-hectare irrigated horticulture project at Singleton cattle station, about 380km north of Alice Springs.
It applied to the NT government in July to extract 40 billion litres of underground water per year, causing concern among native title holders.
The Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security on Thursday approved a 30-year licence to extract the water, saying Fortune would have to comply with strict controls.
"The protection of environmental and cultural assets, along with the interests of existing users, are always the key priorities when assessing water licence applications," NT Controller of Water Resources Jo Townsend said.
"That's why stringent conditions have been attached to this water licence, which will be monitored closely by the department and publicly reported."
Fortune Agribusiness chairman Peter Wood said the company was delighted with the decision.
"We recognise that it's quite an onerous license with regard to the conditions attached to it," he told AAP.
"But we understand and respect those and we're confident we can meet the conditions."
Mr Wood said the $180 million project could be underway by late-2022 pending appeals to the licence.
The farm will cultivate permanent crops such as mandarins, grapes and avocados.
About 110 full-time jobs and 1350 seasonal jobs will be on offer along with opportunities for businesses in nearby towns, such as Tennant Creek, Mr Wood said.
Groundwater will be released to Fortune in four stages over the next decade, peaking at 40,000 megalitres through about 100 bores.
Ms Townsend said rigorous modelling and data showed the licensed water was sustainable and its extraction would not adversely impact other users or the environment.
The Central Land Council says it will review the licence decision with independent water experts but is likely to appeal it.
"At first glance, this water licence is simply too large," chief executive Joe Martin-Jard said.
He said not enough was known about the aquifer storage in the area.
"We (also) have very real doubts about the department's capacity to ensure the company rigorously monitors and manages the project," he said.
The council has previously voiced concerns about the alleged lack of scientific data about groundwater availability in Central Australia.
It said the extraction of such a large amount of water could have long-term effects on traditional owners, animals and plants, who rely on groundwater for their survival.
Environment Centre NT said the decision defied logic and could result in the aquifer being drawn down by 50 metres.
"A drawdown of that level is unsustainable and could kill much of the life on the surface, such as the trees, whose roots rely on the water much closer to the surface," director Kirsty Howey said.
Dr Howey said the licence assessment also showed up to 28,000 tonnes of dissolved salts may be brought to the surface each year.
"This could be catastrophic for groundwater quality and ecosystem function in the region," she said.
The NT Farmers Association has been contacted for comment.
Australian Associated Press