COONAMBLE was this month the venue for another community meeting that discussed what is a national issue for Australia – water security.
It is a pressing issue for the driest continent on earth and it was forefront of mind for the gathering of 500 people on February 10 at Coonamble Bowls Club.
The temperature that day topped at 43.3 degrees Celsius, heat you wouldn’t last long in without water.
There was deep-seated concern at the meeting about the potential threat of Coal Seam Gas mining to the Great Artesian Basin. CSG is methane gas that gathers around underground seams of coal and is similar, but not the same, as natural gas.
It was school teacher Adam Macrae who explained the issue the people had gathered to discuss and learn more about.
Mr Macrae made it clear he believed if a pipeline was built on the Western Slopes and Plains, gas wells would follow and he was against both projects.
He explained the concept of Coal Seam Gas exploration and what it meant for the people who rely on the water below them.
“The Great Artesian Basin is below us, underneath that are coal seams,” he said.
“The company wants to drill through the basin to the coal seams and then exploit gas reserves around them and bring it back to the surface.” Pipes will be punched through the basin’s waters, chemicals and huge amounts of water will be forced through those pipes, bringing the gas to the surface for capture. And that is the issue at hand.
The company proposing the mining operations says it will not depressurise, nor pollute the Great Artesian Basin and detractors say nobody can of good conscience make such assurances.
The company responsible for the Narrabri Gas Project is Santos, a company formed in South Australia in 1954 to drill for oil. Its name is an acronym for South Australian Northern Territory Search for Oil.
In 1954, the post-World War II dream of owning a motor vehicle was alive and well, with the FJ Holden first hitting the road and petrol prices at today’s equivalent of 39 cents a gallon (3.7 litres). And the country wanted as much oil as it could muster.
The Great Artesian Basin is the largest and deepest artesian basin on the planet, underlying 1.7 million square kilometres of Australia and reportedly containing 64,000 cubic kilometres of ground water.
It is a vast reserve and the water contained within it is held in positive pressure, meaning, in many cases, one need only puncture the reserve to tap into a reliable flow without a pump. Largely this is the only fresh water available for much of inland Australia. Without the Great Artesian Basin, much of inland Australia – including areas of the Northen Territory, Queensland, South Australia and NSW – would not be habitable, and the food produced in these regions would no longer be available to the world. In areas of the basin, water has been scientifically aged at more than two million years old.
As the Coonamble meeting took place, international news reports predicted Cape Town, a South African city of about half a million people, would run dry sometime in June this year after three years of drought.
Mr Macrae drew attention to Cape Town’s predicament and the fact water might no longer flow from the city’s taps.
If you want to talk significant, let’s talk about agriculture, we can do this forever.
“With a 17-inch (431 millimetre) rainfall, Coonamble can’t stand up on surface water alone, look at Cape Town now, the mayor’s got a plan there – rain.”
It is the precarious nature of water in Australia that had the assembled crowd concerned. Mr Macrae farms about 1500 hecatres of land – he crops wheat, barley and chickpeas and has a livestock component to his business. “Admittedly 2016 was a good year, but on our little plot alone we produced 10 million serves of chickpeas and five and half million serves of beef, and we cropped enough barley to help support our enterprise for two years,” he said.
“If you want to talk significant, let’s talk about agriculture, we can do this forever,” he said, referring to the finite resource extraction industry as opposed to farming and the potential land use conflict the two pursuits pose.
“Why can’t we value our farms? Other countries do. There’s one thing I know the world doesn’t have, and that’s someone who knows how to fix an aquifer.”
The issue of a gas pipeline and gas mining has been dominating the Macrae family, along with the five children included in it and the associated sports and social activities they’re involved in. Mr Macrae said his seven-year-old daughter asked him from the back of the car one afternoon: “Why doesn’t the government stop this?”
His nine-year-old son piped up: “Aren’t scientists saying it’s bad?”
His double barrelled response: “I don’t know, and yes they are.”