Controversy has emerged following plans to use River Murray water for a hydrogen power plant in SA. 

The South Australian government's commitment to using River Murray water to power a $500 million hydrogen power plant project in Whyalla has sparked concerns among irrigators and environmental experts about the use of the natural resource. 

The hydrogen plant, part of SA Labor’s 2022 election promise, is scheduled to become operational by 2025 and will be accompanied by a proposed desalination plant.

While the approval for the desalination plant is still pending, the state government has confirmed its intention to draw River Murray water for the hydrogen plant. 

The plan was revealed in the South Australian parliament this week, with State Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis claiming that only 200 megalitres of water would be used annually.

The SA Murray Irrigators group has expressed concern about the mixed messaging conveyed to the farming community, which has been consistently urged to prioritise water efficiency. 

The group says it acknowledges the potential benefits of the hydrogen plant but notes it will strain an already stretched system when water is incrementally diverted.

The Conservation Council of SA also voiced apprehension, pointing out that relying on the River Murray during a period of environmental change and approaching drier conditions raises fundamental questions about water allocation priorities. 

The council notes that hydrogen production is a “thirsty technology” that will lead to trade-offs and tensions when deciding how to allocate water between human consumption, environmental preservation, irrigation, and industrial use.

Professor Stuart Khan from the University of New South Wales says that if the government can identify available water within existing licensing structures and SA Water has surplus water for sale, the extraction could be considered sustainable. 

However, he acknowledges that the long-term driver for transitioning away from river water lies in ensuring a more dependable water supply.

Mr Koutsantonis has defended the use of river water, noting that most industrial purposes in South Australia rely on the River Murray as the primary water source. 

“Almost every industrial purpose in South Australia takes water from the River Murray. It's where we get all of our water from, so this would be no different,” he said. 

Shadow Minister for Energy Stephen Patterson expressed disappointment that this information was not disclosed earlier, raising concerns about the project's risks and tight timelines that could lead to mistakes.