When is a groundwater plan not a plan?

12th March 2018 9:14 AM
UNDERGROUND WATER: Glenn Morrison discusses an out-of-date report into the Great Artesian Basin, calling for a new plan to protect and utilise the vital water source. UNDERGROUND WATER: Glenn Morrison discusses an out-of-date report into the Great Artesian Basin, calling for a new plan to protect and utilise the vital water source. Mike Knott

THE wheels of government turn slowly.

The original version of this saying is often attributed to the notable strategist of ancient China, Sun Tzu, and concerned the wheels of justice.

But the meaning is similar: Important stuff takes time.

In the case of Australia's Great Artesian Basin (GAB), the length of that time is nearly two decades, which is how much time has passed since the first overarching plan for its sustainable management was launched in 2000.

A new plan to replace the now outdated report, valid to 2015, is overdue.

Covering more than 1.7 million sq km of Australia's interior-about one-fifth of the continent-the GAB is the nation's largest groundwater storage and underlies parts of the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales.

Only some 5% of the GAB lies in the Northern Territory, all of it to the south east of Alice Springs and east of the community of Finke.

But in dry country, underground water is precious.

Much of this south-eastern region of the Territory is declared a Great Artesian Basin Water Control District, protecting wetlands such as Poeppel Corner and central Andado, where shrubby swamps boast a diversity of plants and animals.

You wouldn't know it from much of the surface round these parts, because they are mostly sand dunes where major rivers from the north-west flood out during rains.

But adding up water volumes across the basin and its four jurisdictions, reveals an underground reservoir trapped in layers of sedimentary rock of roughly 65,000 million megalitres.

The episodic appearance of such water in the otherwise dry landscapes of Australia's interior helped shape the extensive trade routes of Aboriginal people.

Now the hidden resource provides water to more than 180,000 people and 7,600 businesses in regional and remote Australia, and is worth an estimated $13 billion to industry

But at times the divergent water needs of mining and human life have clashed, most recently at Coober Pedy, 688km south of Alice Springs, where plans to drill for oil and gas are thought to be putting at risk the town's water supply, which is drawn from the GAB.

The 2000 Strategic Management Plan for the GAB was supposed to help water managers ensure our underground water resource was safe for future generations, at least up to 2015 when the plan was due for replacement.

For the past 100 years, artesian pressures in many locations across the basin have been falling for a variety of reasons.

Groundwater is used right across the continent, and as GAB pressures decline, the water table drops, mound springs may dry out and swamps and wetlands can be lost.

With growing populations and increasing commercial use, extraction rates of groundwater increased between the 1980s and the early 2000s by about 100%.

The 2000 GAB plan was reviewed in 2006, and a further review published in 2015 concerned future directions for managing the resource.

Among a series of major findings, the 2015 review revealed that bore capping had been helping to stabilise declining artesian pressures.

A new Strategic Management Plan was supposed to be ready for 2016.

Consultation on the new plan was due to take place during 2017.

However, progress has lagged.

According to a fact sheet provided on the federal Department of Agriculture's website, "a draft Great Artesian Basin Strategic Management Plan 2018 has been developed to guide governments, water users and other stakeholders on the management of the basin's water resources."

The new draft apparently covers 2018-2033, and consultation on the draft is supposed to be taking place now.

But the website still directs the interested reader to a 2016 Frequently Asked Questions page.

As the government itself explains in its FAQ, we need a new plan because "management issues, threats, science and knowledge within the Great Artesian Basin have changed."

The website notes that consultation on the plan (to occur "in early 2018") will include regional meetings in the basin, stakeholder discussions and an online survey where stakeholders can provide comments on the draft plan.

At the end of February the federal Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud announced the first of a series of touted water-saving infrastructure projects under an $8m Interim Infrastructure Investment Program put forward in 2017, aimed at plugging further losses of artesian water.

For now, the announcement is limited to $2.225 million for NSW, where the state government has matched federal funding.

While the $8m funding pledge is certainly welcomed, there is still no sign of the 2018 Draft Plan, nor of its planned consultation.

To provide comments on the Draft Plan 2018, once can write to the GAB Secretariat, Water Division, Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, GPO Box 858, Canberra ACT 2601. Or one can email gabsecretariat@agriculture.gov.au.

One cannot, however, see the plan.