Since a moratorium on an on-shore gas industry was lifted in 2018, trailblazing residents have fought back against big energy companies and the NT Government.
But now as a new industry emerges, threatening to clear hectares of land in the region, guzzle gallons of water and make use of possibly toxic chemicals, the Environment Centre of the Northern Territory's river campaigner Jason Fowler says fears have switched to cotton.
"People are very worried about water issues in Katherine. I've heard a lot of tales of woe, a lot of stories of PFAS impacts," Mr Fowler said.
"They've had their battles over fracking, and now after showing [residents] the scale of how big the [cotton] industry wants to get, I think a lot of locals have gone 'crikey, I didn't realise it was that big'."
More than 200 people filed through an information day held in Katherine on Saturday where large maps of the region displayed the sites earmarked to be cleared for cotton crops.
Both irrigated and dryland crops have been proposed at Manbulloo, Katherine, areas of the Adelaide River and Victoria River - and while Mr Fowler says the sheer scale of the proposed industry should alarm residents, the NT Farmers Association chief executive Paul Burke says the industry is focused on "delivering outcomes for growers and the broader Territory economy whilst protecting the environment".
"Five times the water that is already allocated is what they want to use for cotton," Mr Fowler said.
"There is currently 130 gigalitres regulated and they want to use 520."
To grow the crops, Mr Fowler said many hectares of land will need to be cleared, but by sticking to areas of no more than 5000 hectares on cattle station leases the industry is able to evade key environmental studies.
"There are loopholes with land clearing, which is a big concern because the environmental impact assessments are not being done," Mr Fowler said.
"These are critical because we have to know what is out there before you bulldoze the bush, otherwise you lose species and you don't even know about it.
"It is standard practice elsewhere in Australia, why aren't we doing it here."
Mr Fowler said the industry is trying to convince the government to convert four cattle stations in the region into freehold land parcels of less than 5000 acres, so it can be sold to grow cotton.
However, recent NT Government studies, which found low levels of agricultural chemicals in both the Oolloo aquifer and the Katherine Tindall aquifer, and a rare dust storm that blanketed Katherine brown late last year point to the risks already being seen from developing the north, Mr Fowler said.
"Every single sample of water [scientists] took out of the Oolloo Dolostone had agricultural chemicals," he said.
"The industry is tiny at the moment, what happens when we massively expand the use of agricultural chemicals trying to grow cotton? It all goes straight through into that aquifer. What impact will that have as we drink that water? Stock drink that water.
"That's a big worry."
Land clearing is "shocking" for biodiversity, Mr Fowler said.
"Of course it gets dry and dusty.
"When it rains the top soils get washed away into the river systems and the river systems silt up and they get shallower and shallower - and that means you have less habitat for fish to live in.
"The whole Daly [River] used to be deep blue and it has slowly filled in over the last 50 years because of the land clearing we already have.
"You speak to the Elders that know the river from the 1950s and the story they paint is very different to how it is today."
Ken Barnes says he is one of many Katherine residents concerned for the future of the environment.
"I have concerns about land clearing, the impact on biodiversity and the destabilising of soil, but I don't yet know enough about the technical side of planting to know if I'm concerned about the chemical use," Mr Barnes, a retired teacher, said.
"I listen to the [ABC] Rural Report and I get a perspective of industry - and they are very enthusiastic. But intuitively a lot of these things can't come without environmental costs.
"Some might accuse us of being hysterical, but when you limit key performance indicators to what corporate models want and exclude costs to the environment - that's damaging."
In response to the Environment Centre's claims, NT Farmers Association chief executive Paul Burke said the cotton industry will abide by all environmental policies, while running a Best Management Practice program with growers.
He said the industry is tipped to grow slowly to 30,000 hectares over the next decade and will work on a dryland production system.
"The cotton industry is being developed by many small Territory born and raised farming families on land that is already cleared and has been used for other crops," Mr Burke said.
"The use of modern cotton has significantly reduced the chemical usage required to grow [cotton]... through the use of science cotton uses more than 90 per cent less chemicals than two decades ago and is a crop that is not highly reliant on chemical inputs during the production period."
He said that while "cotton is one of the lowest insecticide using crops in the NT", the main herbicide used will be Glyphosate at registered rates.
According to Mr Burke, 80 per cent of the cotton set to be grown in the region will be planted at the beginning of monsoonal events - for the remaining 20 per cent the average water used per hectare has so far been 3.5 megaliters.
"The industry would like to harvest small amounts of water during flood events to store on farm in 'on farm storage solutions', this represents an opportunity to get more water into the system without any detrimental environmental effects," Mr Burke said.
"Just imagine taking one or two per cent of the water that is currently running through the Katherine River and storing it on a farm for use at a later date, this would be unnoticeable and a sensible use of a renewal resource."
As for a cotton gin in the Katherine region, Mr Burke said planning for construction is well underway.
"A site will be announced in the coming months," he said.
"This piece of infrastructure will drive economic outcomes for regional and remote areas in the Top End. The construction of a cotton gin will bring employment and economic outcomes and diversify our economy which is badly needed.
"The industry is not seeking funding from the Federal or Territory Government to construct a cotton gin and the gin will be fully funded by private capital.
"It is important to note that the Industry did have an opportunity to gain seed funding, but a decision was made last year to no longer seek this funding."
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