GROUNDWATER resources are the lifeblood of communities across much of inland Australia and but careful management of emerging challenges is needed to preserve the Great Artesian Basin into the future, according to a new report commissioned by the Commonwealth.
Artesian water resources support 180,000 people and 7600 business enterprises and nearly $13 billion of economic activity each year.
Frontier Economics’ report to the federal Agriculture and Water Department was commissioned to inform government’s future policy and funding settings across the Great Artesian Basin.
It highlighted opaque Artesian water trading regulations, uncertainty over future government funding and emerging demand for water from new or expanding industries, such as coal seam gas in Queensland – which is compounded by questions over the volume of extracted during gas production.
“Information available on (Artesian) water resource use is limited, with much of the stock and domestic use estimated,” the report said.
Due to a combination of the complexity of groundwater systems and trade regulations “there are limited opportunities to reallocate water use between existing uses and from existing to new uses”.
It’s estimated there are nearly 35,000 on-farm bores across the Artesian Basin, which support some 14 million beef cattle generating $4b in annual gross value, and 11 million sheep valued at $600m. Irrigated agriculture, which mostly uses bore water to blend with other fresh sources, is estimated to top $60m.
Mining output dependent on Artesian water exceeds $6b annually, while gas, which sucks groundwater from coal seams to liberate gas trapped underground, grew to $1.7b in 2014-15 and could increase further.
Growth in water volumes extracted for gas production in Queensland has grown “significantly” in recent years, following a four-fold increase in the volume of associated water production from the Surat Basin from 2005 to 2013.
The number of producing CSG wells in Qld almost doubled in the first half of 2014 and the most recent estimate, from 2015, indicated the annual rate of extraction of Artesian water for gas production was 65,000 megalitres.
Water extraction for gas typically falls after an initial rush, the report said, but noted “a high degree of uncertainty associated with volumes and reliability” as the industry continues to grow.
Qld’s Department of Agriculture has identified potential to increase broadacre cropping in the Surat management areas, horticulture opportunities across the state, particularly the Cape and Surat management areas.
But the report notes that successful conservation techniques are running out of funding.
The latest scheme, the Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative (GABSI), has been funded by the federal and Basin states to the tune of $280m since 1999 to cap and pipe uncontrolled bores. It has secured more than $50m in direct and in-kind from landholders.
About 650 bores have been controlled, nearly 20,000 kilometres bore drains deleted, and 28,000km of piping installed. These works save about 200,000ML of Artesian water a year (including 65,000ML in NSW, 120,000ML in Qld and 20,000ML in South Australia).
“Infrastructure investment, to address this issue of losses and to maintain aquifer pressure, has also brought the challenge of funding that infrastructure maintenance which, if not done, risks the loss of the benefits from investment to date,” the report said.
Funding for the scheme is set to end in 2017.