Traditional owners along Western Australia’s Fitzroy River are questioning figures in a major new report by CSIRO which could change the face of northern Australia through water resource development — and have called on its authors to meet with them.

More than 100 scientists spent more than two years investigating three river catchment areas — the Fitzroy in northern Australia; the Finniss in Adelaide; Mary and Wildman in the Northern Territory; and the Mitchell in Queensland.

Their $15 million Northern Australian Water Resource Assessment report for the federal government released last week found the Fitzroy has millions of hectares of soil that could be irrigated for cereal crops, sugarcane and lined ponds for prawns and barramundi.

The Darwin catchments had hundreds of thousands of hectares suitable for mangoes and rice, as well as for prawn and barramundi ponds, while cereals, cotton, soybean and sugar cane crops could be developed on several million hectares in the Mitchell catchment, it found.

But the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council, formed by Fitzroy River traditional owners in May, has asked CSIRO representatives to meet with it and explain the figures in the report, particularly the 1170 gigalitres the report says could be released from the Fitzroy for agriculture and other uses.

In a statement the Council said 1170 gigalitres “was more than the total flow of the river in one out of five years since 1957”. Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council members have native title over the whole of the Fitzroy River, it said.

The Council also wants talks with the Federal government over the future of the Fitzroy.

Interim chair, Dr Anne Poelina, said traditional owners wanted the Fitzroy River, which is heritage listed, protected from development that could damage it.

“Traditional owners are clear that we want to avoid the disaster of the Murray Darling catchment here in the Fitzroy Catchment,” Dr Poelina said. “We want sustainable development that is complementary to protecting the river, not development that will fundamentally change it.”

Dr Chris Chilcott, CSIRO research leader for Northern Australian Development, said they would be visiting the catchment areas for talks. He said some Aboriginal groups were consulted during the report.

“Generally there are two parts to the plan,” he said. “One of them is to go back and talk about the results as we would normally with a big project like this and the other part, with Indigenous engagement, is the people who were consulted and provided their opinions generously, we’ll go back to them with the outcomes of all the work.”

The Northern Australian Water Resource Assessment also identified potential for six new dams in northern Australia. The benefits of agriculture development were estimated at a potential $5.3 billion a year in economic activity and 15,000 jobs.

By Wendy Caccetta