National Water Commission: Groundwater position statement

Posted 14 April 2008

The groundwater challenge

Groundwater makes up approximately 17% of Australia's currently accessible water resources and accounts for over 30% of our total water consumption. However it is neither understood nor managed as well as it needs to be if this valuable resource is to be sustained into the future.

Continuing water scarcity and climate change are placing pressure on Australia's groundwater reserves and the security of supply. These 'hidden' reserves are increasingly being tapped to supplement declining surface water supplies. In fact, much of our groundwater is connected to surface water with consequent impacts on stream flows, aquifer recharge, groundwater dependent ecosystems, and water quality. Groundwater quality also requires careful management. Risks include uncontrolled urban and industrial discharges, the cross-contamination of aquifers, and seawater intrusion into heavily used coastal aquifers.

Groundwater and the National Water Initiative

Under the National Water Initiative (NWI) all governments of Australia have acknowledged the importance of groundwater and committed to a "whole of water cycle" approach, including the following actions:

  • improve our knowledge of groundwater-surface water connectivity, with significantly connected systems to be managed as one integrated resource;
  • complete the return of all currently over-allocated or overused systems to environmentally-sustainable levels of extraction;
  • improve understanding of sustainable extraction rates and regimes, and develop common approaches to achieving sustainability;
  • develop better understanding of the relationship between groundwater resources and groundwater-dependent ecosystems.

In addition, the National Water Commission recognises that as our climate gets dryer and hotter, and evaporation further affects surface water storage, there is likely to be greater reliance on groundwater, within sustainable levels of extraction, including potential augmentation in some instances by managed aquifer recharge.

Progress on groundwater reforms

In its 2007 Biennial Assessment of Progress against the NWI, the Commission expressed considerable concern about the management of groundwater throughout Australia. The assessment identified the following areas requiring urgent additional work: over-allocation of certain groundwater resources; failure to manage groundwater and surface water as a connected resource; lack of established measurement standards and inadequate monitoring. The failure to address these issues is having a serious effect on the security of supply to consumptive users, to surface water environmental flows, and to groundwater-dependent ecosystems.

Given these findings, the National Water Commission recommended a coordinated research effort to underpin progress on agreed groundwater policy reforms. In response, the Australian Government authorised and funded a comprehensive Groundwater Action Plan that is being managed by the Commission.

National Groundwater Action Plan

Through the $82 million National Groundwater Action Plan, the National Water Commission will undertake projects to address groundwater knowledge gaps and progress the groundwater reforms agreed to under the National Water Initiative. The plan consists of three major components:

  1. a National Groundwater Assessment Initiative ($50 million) to improve the understanding of groundwater resources and support NWI implementation, harmonise groundwater terminology and foster best practice management;
  2. a National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training ($30 million) to develop research skills and expertise including the training of a new generation of groundwater managers and experts; and
  3. a Knowledge and Capacity Building component ($2 million) to communicate learnings from the Plan and raise public awareness of the challenges to adequately manage our groundwater resources.

Future priorities for groundwater

To reinforce the Groundwater Action Plan, the National Water Commission has developed the following principles to guide future groundwater reform:

  • Groundwater and surface water planning and management should be integrated, to recognise their connectivity, with best available science to underpin the setting of environmentally sustainable levels of extraction;
  • Integrated water management should include compatible charging regimes for groundwater and surface water;
  • Unless otherwise established, it should be assumed that all surface and groundwater systems are connected and that the eventual impact of groundwater pumping on surface water flow may be as high as 100%;
  • Improved management of stressed water resources should include urgent implementation of a sustainable integrated groundwater and surface water cap in the Murray-Darling Basin;
  • All groundwater extractions should be licensed and metered (except stock and domestic bores where use is less than a defined limit, say 2-5ML per year);
  • Environmental water should be managed separately from agencies responsible for the provision of surface water/groundwater for consumptive use;
  • Managed aquifer recharge, storage and reuse of surface runoff that is excess to environmental requirements is a water supply option that should be considered alongside others, subject to suitable water quality treatment to protect the groundwater resource.

As the most urgent priority, concerted action must be taken to return over-allocated systems to sustainable levels. The ongoing use of groundwater for consumptive purposes from a number of stressed aquifers and connected water systems throughout the country is an unacceptable risk.

Other priorities identified by the Commission include the need for nationally harmonised groundwater measurement standards and definitions, a groundwater stocktake in Northern Australia, better understanding of groundwater dependent ecosystems, and overcoming institutional barriers to managed aquifer recharge developments.

The Commission considers groundwater to be a critical component of the water cycle that requires greater effort in the future to ensure its sustainable planning and management.

Source: National Water Commission Groundwater position statement

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