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Published: 2009

Addressing our groundwater crisis

Rachel Sullivan

Throughout Australia a growing number of domestic users as well as commercial and industrial organisations are relying on groundwater to compensate for shrinking surface water reserves. But in a drying climate it is a limited and potentially fragile resource. Now, clearer information about what constitutes sustainable consumption is evolving.

A bore water tank during drought near Mossgiel, NSW.
Credit: Greg Heath, CSIRO

Until recently, Australia lacked the resources and information to manage groundwater systems properly. Over decades, bores have been sunk to water stock, irrigate crops and for domestic use. And while licences were required to extract groundwater in non-urban areas, few bores had metering. Just how much water was being extracted was not always properly understood.

‘Since the heyday of the Great Artesian Basin [a vast aquifer running from the Great Dividing Range to Lake Eyre] when you could drill a bore and hey presto, there was water, Australians have held something of a “magic pudding” attitude to underground resources,’ says Matt Kendall, General Manager of the National Water Commission’s water science group. ‘People would say “we’re on bore water” and assume it was fine to use as much as they liked. Well no, it isn’t.’

Today, groundwater measuring equipment and infrastructure are still very limited, but new research has been highlighting a usage crisis.

Dr Glen Walker, Theme Leader, Regional Water, from CSIRO’s Water for a Healthy Country Flagship, reinforces that fact. ‘The main issue facing groundwater in Australia is over-extraction, primarily for irrigation and stock watering purposes, although some towns are also reliant on underground reservoirs,’ he points out.

‘Continuing water scarcity and climate change are also placing pressure on reserves, but when too much groundwater is extracted, water tables drop and the remaining groundwater can become more saline.’

There are also consequences for groundwater-dependent ecosystems and for other users downstream of extraction sites, with landowners expressing concern that upstream extraction has caused groundwater to dry up on their own property or for subsidence to occur.

Through recent initiatives to measure and monitor Australia’s shrinking water resources, research is now extending to better quantify the extent of groundwater reserves and how they relate to surface water flows.

‘Although the exact mechanisms aren’t always clear and vary from one region to the next, groundwater is closely linked to rivers, wetlands, lakes and ponds on the surface. When groundwater dries up, so too do dependent ecosystems,’ Dr Walker continues.

‘Streams can lose water to groundwater and vice-versa.’ This is particularly significant in northern Australia where there is high, episodic rainfall for a few months then high evapotranspiration for the rest of the year – streams are dry except where they are fed by groundwater.

‘Some of Australia’s groundwater has also been lying underground for thousands of years; it’s a paleo-resource that last recharged in a past, wetter climate 10 000 years ago,’ adds Dr Walker. ‘And in the Murray-Darling Basin, where considerable work has been done to understand groundwater through the recent Murray-Darling Basin Sustainable Yields Project,1 the normal process of floods recharging some aquifers has not occurred during the prolonged drought.’

A flock of little corellas (Cacatua sanguinea) drink from a leaking bore water pump.
Credit: CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems

Researching sustainable use

Failure to understand the importance of groundwater recharging, and years of managing groundwater and surface water as two separate entities, led to separate extraction licences being granted for the same water resource and to some double accounting of water. A 2008 CSIRO study2 conducted as part of the Sustainable Yields Project found groundwater use or allocations, if fully taken up, could not be sustained in seven of the Basin’s 20 major irrigation areas.
It was heavily over-allocated.

‘We’ve seen a big shift in attitudes to groundwater,’ says Professor Craig Simmons, Director of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT), a national consortium of research and industry organisations throughout Australia, headquartered at Adelaide’s Flinders University. ‘It was only a few years ago that we barely heard anything at all about it, but recently a lot of positive initiatives have been undertaken, including widespread monitoring and management programs being funded by the National Water Commission.’

The $82-million national Groundwater Action Plan is funding groundwater investigation programs aimed at mapping reserves across the country. It also includes the NCGRT, which is helping to develop the skills and build the capacity needed to manage the resource, and education programs aimed at raising awareness of groundwater in the wider community.

‘Another $15 million in federal funding [through the Super Science scheme] has just been made available for additional groundwater monitoring and to establish vital new infrastructure at key sites that will help us both better understand and manage our groundwater resources,’ says Simmons. ‘We will get much better data to inform our understanding of groundwater flow rates, linkages between ground and surface water, and the potential future impacts of climate change.’

While there has been progress with the advent of water rights, water trading and the commoditisation of water, experts agree that much better information, and transparency into decision-making processes, is the key to managing groundwater effectively.

‘Too often governments are forced to make policy about groundwater without much knowledge or information about the resource,’ comments Simmons. He cites the recent moratorium on new domestic bores in Adelaide, which was imposed without rigorous discussion or debate after years of virtually unrestricted groundwater access.

A cluster of windmills pumping groundwater at Penong, SA.
Credit: Willem van Aken, CSIRO

Commercial extraction weighed up

In NSW’s Liverpool Plains region, BHP Billiton’s controversial plans to mine coal in a huge area of prime farming country have caused outrage among local farmers concerned that the mining works will damage the area’s underground water resources. But Glen Walker says ‘it is actually difficult to get good information on Liverpool Plains, and if coal-mining is not going to underlie alluvial aquifers, the impact actually may be small.’ The community is awaiting further advice.

Similarly, near Sydney, Coca Cola Amatil (CCA) was granted commercial access to Peats Ridge Spring, an ancient water body, for what is widely regarded as a pittance. The volumes being extracted by the beverage company for sale as bottled water have provoked considerable public discussion, but according to Glen Walker, currently 2.5 gigalitres per year (GL/yr) are extracted from the Mangrove Mountain aquifer, a third of the 8 GL/yr extraction limit. Of this, CCA extracts 0.07 GL/yr; as a proportion of total extraction, CCA’s consumption doesn’t appear excessive, but Walker believes better information on groundwater-dependent ecosystems might help lower extraction limits which could also have commercial consequences.

It is unlikely any measures to restrict commercial activities that negatively impact depleted groundwater resources will be welcomed: moves to reduce agribusiness giant ICM’s water entitlements resulted in a High Court challenge questioning whether the compensation proposed by the government accurately reflected the value of the entitlement.

‘As over-allocated systems are brought back to sustainable levels of development, there will need to be losers and claims of compensation,’ Walker comments, adding that greater knowledge will help avoid similar situations.

Professor Simmons adds: ‘There are a great many biophysical, social, economic and policy questions still to be discussed when it comes to groundwater. If we’re not careful we will have inequities where certain consumers have access to underground reserves but others don’t.

‘Before any major decisions are made about how we use any of these resources, we need to ensure we have all of these angles covered. We’ve also got to make sure we are thinking very carefully about future generations and not just our own.’

Rainfall variation, plant use and evaporation

A domestic pump on the banks of the River Murray at Younghusband, SA.
Credit: Greg Rinder, CSIRO

A new project, part of the government’s $12.9-billion Water for the Future Program, will investigate how climate change may affect rainfall, and what water is lost through evaporation and water use by plants. It will then determine the impact of these factors on groundwater recharge and base flows to water systems at a regional level, and will build on the Sustainable Yields work undertaken by the CSIRO in the Murray-Darling Basin, northern Australia, south-west Western Australia and Tasmania.

1 Widely recognised as the world’s most complete water audit, the Murray-Darling Basin Sustainable Yields Project is just one of a raft of new initiatives aimed at understanding the whole of the water cycle.
2 CSIRO (2008) ‘Water availability in the Murray-Darling Basin’. Summary report from CSIRO to the Australian Government.

Published: 2009

Northern water assessment informs development capacity

Helen Beringen

It either doesn’t rain or it pours up north. Such variability is one of the challenges identified in the first consistent, analytical water assessment of northern Australia released from CSIRO’s Water for a Healthy Country Flagship. The work is informing thinking about the development capacity of the region.

Regional coverage of the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project.
Regional coverage of the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project.
Credit: CSIRO

Rainfall and runoff variability are just two components of a comprehensive review of water resources for water policy decisions which form part of the assessments undertaken by the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project.

Released by Parliamentary Secretary for Water, Dr Mike Kelly, at the RiverSymposium in Brisbane on 21 September, the study resulted from a March 2008 agreement by Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to extend the CSIRO work on sustainable water yields and availability that had been completed in the catchments of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Dr Kelly said the research would be a valuable resource to inform decisions about the conservation and development of northern Australia’s water resources.

‘From Broome in Western Australia to Cairns in Queensland, the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields (NASY) reports provide important information on current and likely future water availability in northern Australia,’ he said.

Despite popular perceptions that northern Australia has a surplus of water, the research found the extremely seasonal climate with continuously high temperatures meant that the landscape was annually water-limited, with little or no rain for three to six months every year, and very high potential evapotranspiration rates.

‘Northern Australia experiences high rainfall during the wet season, with most falling near the coast and with year to year amounts that are highly variable,’ said project leader Dr Richard Cresswell.

‘Runoff follows a similar pattern to rainfall, with most surface flow approaching the estuaries, with potential inland dam sites receiving less and quite variable amounts of water and suffering very high evaporation rates.

‘The very few river reaches that flow year-round are mostly sustained by localised groundwater discharge and have high cultural, social, ecological and developmental value,’ he said.

‘Groundwater may offer potential for increased extractions for development, though the highly dynamic nature of shallow aquifers, which rapidly fill during the wet season and drain through the dry season, means there is little opportunity to increase this groundwater storage and careful management is required where these groundwaters also provide sources for the few perennial rivers.’

Dr Cresswell said future climate predictions for the north suggest that evapotranspiration was likely to increase while rainfall was likely to be similar to historical levels, which were lower than the last decade, particularly in the west.

Speaking to ABC Rural, Joe Ross, Chair of the federal government’s Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce (charged with finding new development opportunities in Northern Australia), said the CSIRO report confirmed that expectations for food production in the north have been ‘over the top’, and that there would be limited opportunity for broad-scale agriculture in the tropics.

The Taskforce’s submission to the government later this year will take into account the central findings of the CSIRO teams’ work. ‘It covers not only the amounts of water in northern Australia, but also what impact there’ll be on the livelihoods of the community of northern Australia, in particular, one of the main constituents being Indigenous Australians,’ Mr Ross said.

The Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project is part of the Australian Government’s Northern Australia Water Futures Assessment (NAWFA), a five-year program to develop an enduring knowledge base to inform decisions about conservation and development of northern Australia’s water resources, so that any development proceeds in an ecologically, culturally and economically sustainable manner.

More information:

Dr Richard Cresswell:

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