National groundwater reform

Posted 6 September 2007

Residual Rainfall is an indicator of climate change: prolonged falls indicate droughts

A position paper prepared by concerned groundwater professionals to encourage change in addressing national groundwater issues.


Groundwater is often called the forgotten resource. It lies beneath our feet and supplies wells, bores, springs and flow to our rivers. One-third of the world's population is dependent on groundwater.

This position paper expresses the concern by the authors that groundwater is not being effectively managed. The paper highlights important national scale groundwater issues and provides recommendations as to how they can be addressed. The key points of the paper are:

  • Planning must identify sustainable levels of groundwater extraction and Governments must return over-allocated systems to sustainable levels.
  • All groundwater use, except low yielding domestic and stock use, must be licensed and large users metered.
  • We must develop a compliance program to stop unauthorized use of groundwater.
  • All groundwater must be properly priced to pay for the ongoing resource assessment, monitoring and management and compliance program.
  • There are opportunities for surface water to be stored in aquifers rather than surface storages which have such high evaporation losses.
  • Effective management of groundwater can't be achieved with the current organisational arrangements within Government.
  • Environmental water allocations must be managed by agencies that are not the same agencies who allocate water.

Many of these points have been agreed by the jurisdictions as part of the National Water Initiative.

A. Why Australian groundwater management needs reform

Groundwater is far more important to Australia than its national usage figures would suggest (i.e. 20% of total water use). This is because it has many important characteristics (e.g. broad scale availability, interaction with surface waters, availability during drought, high security) which mean that in much of Australia it is now and will continue in the future as a key water resource for Australia. But it must be more effectively managed.

Since 1987 Commonwealth, State and Territory investment in water resources assessment has been less than half of what it was prior to 1987 when both the Australian Water Resources Council and the Commonwealth Water Resource Assessment Program was in place. After the demise in 1987 of the Australian Water Resources Council and the Commonwealth Water Resource Assessment Program, water resources functions in the Commonwealth, States and Territories have been placed in agencies where water is not usually their major business.

It is believed that the above average rainfall that had persisted for 20 to 30 years prior to 1987 across most of eastern Australia resulted in the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments becoming complacent regarding the need to better understand Australia's water resources. The only exception was the increasing focus on land salinisation. The folly of this approach was not appreciated even though the rainfall records indicated Australia has long periods when rainfall is significantly above or below average (refer figure below).

Accelerated groundwater development over the past few decades has resulted in great social and economic benefits, by providing low-cost, drought-reliable and (mainly) high quality water-supplies for urban areas, for the rural population and for irrigation of (potentially high-value) crops. However, investment in resource management has not kept pace and has been seriously neglected.

Excessive resource development, uncontrolled urban and industrial discharges, and agricultural intensification are causing increasingly widespread degradation of aquifers. In some areas the consequences are far from trivial - falling water-tables, reduction of groundwater flow to sustain wetlands, springs and rivers, irrevocably salinised or polluted groundwater and land subsidence.

B. Policy and Management

1. Sustainable Levels of Extraction
It is clear that many of our groundwater resources are over used. As such groundwater levels continue to fall past acceptable levels and this is clearly not sustainable. There seems to be little will to address this vital matter and arguments of adverse economic impacts abound. Reducing groundwater use to sustainable levels, must be a key national priority.

Those areas of Australia, where there has been a conscious decision made by Government to "mine" the groundwater resource (i.e. non sustainable use), must be clearly and publicly identified.

2. Licensing
All groundwater users, excluding low yield domestic and stock users, must be licensed. Domestic and stock users, as a minimum, must be registered. There are still many parts of Australia where usage is not licensed. It is impossible to manage groundwater when usage is not controlled or even known.

3. Metering
All bores, other than low yield domestic and stock bores, must be metered. There are still many parts of Australia where licensed usage is not metered.

4. Environmental water requirements.
Most States and Territories across Australia now have provision within their relevant water legislation to make allowances for the water dependent environment systems. In most cases where water allocation plans are framed, there is little knowledge, if at all, of the water requirements of these ecosystems. The water for the environment usually gets traded off to other consumptive uses during the negotiations over limited water supplies. The environment will continue to be traded for wealth creation activities until we properly fund data collection and knowledge of the water requirements of ecosystems and provide for those requirements via specific allocatable rights.

States and Territories must establish statutory-based environmental water allocations and environmental managers that are accountable for the management of environmental water provisions. The environmental managers must not be the same managers who allocate water. Environmental managers must have an equal voice at the table when water allocations are being decided within the context of sustainable extraction limits.

5. Compliance
Embargoes have been imposed on new licences in many of the highly developed and over developed aquifers. It is believed, however, that illegal use is rampant. The lack of a serious compliance programme in many regions of Australia is resulting in the existing management regime being ineffective. Compliance includes effective metering and enforcement and prosecution of illegal use. A fundamental cultural change both within government and by water users is required.

6. Unused or sleeper licences
Long term poor enforcement of development conditions in licences has resulted in much of Australia’s groundwater being locked up in licences where the water is not used. A serious programme to eliminate unused licences must be embarked upon by all of the States.

7. Trading
The introduction of trade has caused the capitalisation of water entitlements. Many irrigators use that entitlement as a capital asset for lending purposes. Groundwater trading has significant economic advantages, so long as it is managed effectively. The large number of aquifers where total entitlement exceeds sustainable yields in mostly eastern Australia, creates a problem for the widespread introduction of trading. Ideally the over entitlement problem should be addressed before trading is introduced. This however is not feasible as current demand is high and it will take some time to bring entitlements back to sustainable levels. Hence trading should be encouraged, with appropriate conditions, provided that governments and users are aware of the risks. It is noted that trading, without appropriate conditions, will only make the over allocation problem worse.

8. Surface water groundwater interaction
It is now recognised that much of our groundwater resources are intimately linked with our surface water resources. This has resulted in double accounting and double allocation of much of our groundwater and surface water resources. In other words, the same drop of river water often is allocated twice. Failure to address this issue is having a serious effect on security of supply to surface water users, to surface water environmental flows and to groundwater dependent ecosystems.

The superficial response is to stop or limit groundwater users, both new and existing. However this is considered to be poor total water management. In many cases groundwater usage is far more efficient and environmentally compatible than surface water usage. There is a clear need to implement policies dealing with the impacts of groundwater extraction on streamflow by considering intervention at the total resource level. More efficient gains will be made in the system by adjusting surface water allocation policies.

9. Pricing
The value of groundwater, as with water generally, must reflect its true place in our society. In some jurisdictions there is virtually zero cost recovery for groundwater management. In view of the poor or zero income stream to governments it is little wonder that groundwater management is also poor. A major increase in groundwater fees and charges to reflect a major increase in the required level of groundwater management is called for. This cost should not only be borne by consumptive use groups such as irrigators, but also by the broader society who wish ecological systems to be maintained and to prosper. Governments must continue to invest on behalf of the broader societal wants and needs related to water.

10. Monitoring
During the 1960's to 1980's much of the groundwater level, spring discharge and groundwater quality monitoring network for Australia was constructed. As most bores and gauging structures typically have a life of 20 to 30 years much of our monitoring infrastructure is collapsing at the moment and this will only increase over the next decade or two with the current level of investment. There is a major need for an injection of funding by government to maintain and replace this monitoring network. Furthermore as allocations increase greater monitoring is required.

11. Water Departments
The Commonwealth, States and Territories need to appreciate their social and economic dependency on groundwater, and to invest in strengthening institutional provisions and building institutional capacity for its improved management, before it is too late and groundwater resources are irrevocably degraded. Commonwealth, State and Territory government agencies whose major business is water need to be established and these agencies must work flexibly with local stakeholders as partners in resource administration, protection and monitoring, whilst also acting on broader water resource planning and management strategy.

C. Technical

12. Understanding the Groundwater Resource
Decisions concerning the availability of groundwater need to be underpinned by better technical understanding. This covers a broad range of areas, including recharge and discharge rates, groundwater dependent ecosystems, groundwater salinisation, climate influences, and connectivity with surface water. The need for ongoing research and investigation is a vital requirement for good groundwater management.

There has been a deskilling of some Commonwealth, State and Territory agencies over the last decade or so, that has led to a decline in our intellectual capital to attack this issue. This deskilling has also occurred at a time when most groundwater knowledge gathering programs are now run via Program budgets from government. There is a clear need for a strategic approach to safeguarding the ongoing collection of knowledge about the resource.

Since the withdrawal of Land and Water Australia's groundwater research program, and the notable absence of dedicated CRCs or Centres of Excellence whose primary focus is groundwater research, there is no longer a focus for groundwater R&D and a nationally coordinated approach is desperately needed.

13. Managed Aquifer Recharge
Using aquifers to store excess water (eg stormwater) during times of excess (eg. the wet season) and then using this stored water during times of need (eg. the dry season) is a well established practice in some countries, but is in its infancy in Australia. There is huge potential to use this technique to augment the total available water resources of Australia.

D. Education

14. Training
There is currently a serious capacity shortage in hydrogeology across the nation and it is clear that current supply of trained professionals falls short of industry demand. A small number of Universities have developed their capacity to train hydrogeologists, however, their graduate output is clearly unable to match the growing demand placed on the sector. A critical issue is not only the limited number of degree programs in the country but also the difficulty Universities face in attracting students into those degrees, under conditions of increasing financial and resource pressure.

E. Conclusions

Groundwater offers a serious new water resource in some parts of Australia, while in other parts it is over developed and in need of greatly improved management. Political will and adequate funding are both required to improve our understanding and use of groundwater. A myriad of policy, management, institutional, technical, education and research matters as outlined in this paper must be addressed with urgency.

If these actions are not taken then the crisis, 20 years in the making, will only accelerate. The magnitude of the crisis will be even greater if the rainfall pattern that existed for the first half of the 20th century recurs.

Written by:
Rick Evans, Ray Evans, Peter Jolly, Steve Barnett, Tom Hatton, Noel Merrick, Craig Simmons.
Senior professionals from both the private and public sector from across Australia with extensive experience in the assessment and management of groundwater resources.

November 2006

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