Great Artesian Basin: Don’t pull the plug

| April 13, 2017

The granting of an unlimited 60-year water licence to the Adani Carmichael coal mine in early April has farmers and community groups concerned as they fear this would allow it to drain huge amounts of water from the Great Artesian Basin. Max Thomas says users of water above a certain volume could simply be required to invest in the existing artesian water conservation and research programs.

The Queensland government has passed new exemptions for the Adani Carmichael coal mine. Conservation groups base their objections on the premise that carbon emissions from the mine’s coal will contribute to global warming. Another concern is that the community will lose its right to object to use of groundwater by the mine. It has to be acknowledged that carbon emissions would result from burning the coal. However, it is either uninformed or a misleading pretext to claim that groundwater will necessarily be depleted by the mine.

In the late 19th century, thousands of bores were drilled into the Great Artesian Basin (GAB). These bores were uncapped and discharged into surface channels, mainly for stock watering. By 1915, artesian water was being extracted from the basin at a rate of more than 2,000 million litres per day. Up to 95% of this water evaporated or found its way into shallower aquifers and surface waters. A lot of gas rises with the artesian water and this has contributed to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, whereas it could have been managed as a valuable energy resource.

Mining does consume large volumes of water and this should be regulated as part of an integrated national framework that would encompass energy and other strategically crucial resources and infrastructure.

Past mismanagement was evidently based on the convenient but incorrect belief that the capacity of the GAB was unlimited or it was being constantly recharged. In recent times, artesian water ‘cap and pipe’ schemes have been implemented to reduce this shocking waste of water, but funding has not been sufficient and much remains to be done. Research is also needed to gain a better understanding of the GAB to inform decisions on water allocation and management.

Attention is rightly drawn to any proposal that would increase demand on scarce and diminishing water resources. However, a great deal more could be achieved by also insisting on action from state and federal governments to improve overall management of the GAB, a great but grossly undervalued national resource.

There is evidently a lack of sufficient will and imagination to require that miners, and others, offset their water extraction from the Great Artesian Basin. Users of water above a certain volume could simply be required to invest in the existing artesian water conservation and research programs to the extent necessary to at least balance their water demand.

Max Thomas, Dip. Agric. (retired) worked in the public sector and in private consulting on a range of land, water and waste management projects. He prepared guidelines for irrigation with recycled water for EPA Victoria and developed a number of Environmental Management Systems in the water industry.

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