Management History

More Than A Century of Mismanagement of the GAB

In 1878, a shallow bore was sunk on a station about 180 kms. south-west of Bourke NSW – and it yielded flowing water at about 44 metres.  Many shallow bores were then drilled at the margins of what we now know as the Great Artesian Basin.

Drilling of deep bores into the Basin began in 1886, and by 1899 (only 13 years later) 524 bores had been sunk, 505 of which were productive. From the beginning of the discovery of this artesian water, most bores were allowed to flow freely onto the ground, running into open drains to water stock.  At the time, a very strong flow of water – approx. 1 million gallons (or 455 megalitres) per day – was usual.  Sometimes the jet of water from an open bore would spout over 30m into the air.

By 1890, there was already serious concern about the gradual decline in the flow from the bores.  In 1891, legislation to control the waste of water was twice proposed in the Queensland Parliament, each time being carried through the lower house of state government, and each time being rejected by the upper house.  The grounds for rejection were the belief that the water was being recharged from surface rainfall, somehow, somewhere, and that there was no cause for concern.  In N.S.W., a similar Bill was proposed in 1894, and similarly failed to pass.

By 1915, over 1500 free-flowing bores had been drilled throughout the Basin. Thousands of kilometres of open bore drains were excavated, and the total discharge of all bores reached a maximum around 1915, estimated to be about 750,000 megalitres per annum. This was (in hindsight) insane wastage, but was encouraged by flawed government policy. Government scientists drew simplistic diagrams to show how the rainwater would seep through sandstone and recharge the basin, and this was accepted.

In 1901, Professor J. W. Gregory, FRS, who was Professor of Geology at University of Melbourne from 1900 to 1904, and was an outstanding scientist with a wide experience in geology, took a group of students into the area around Lake Eyre, to study the flowing bores of Central Australia. Gregory, who had studied the geothermal waters and volcanic features of the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, stated firmly that the basin waters were plutonic, and finite, and that the Basin was a closed system.   He claimed that the compressed gases and methane which came out with the water, clearly indicated that the water was from inside the earth’s crust, and was ancient water.   Also when the bores were first sunk, they gushed out at enormous pressure, the fountains shooting 100 feet and more into the air – this was certainly not the result of seepage through porous sandstone, but the release of high pressure water stored in open fissures in the rock.   But Professor Gregory was ignored, and the wastage continued.   So much natural gas (that comes out with the artesian water) has also been wasted over the last century, along with the precious water.

It has been stated that one reason for this inability of most governments to comprehend the situation lies in the nature of the professional advice that they receive.   The text books on groundwater hydrology appear to be the problem – they all show mathematical models of groundwater flow based on the key assumption that the groundwater is recharged from surface rainfall.   As a consequence, the related computer models of groundwater flow are very seriously misleading.   As the govt.-funded NCGRT (see the end of this article) say on their website:  “Because existing data is limited or non-existent, management decisions are being made using hydrogeologic conceptual models that can be grossly misleading.”
Also there is big money at stake – governments receive a lot of revenue from mining, and mines are huge users of GAB water.   The GAB water entitlement for Olympic Dam mine alone is 42 million litres a day.   It is likely that governments would be reluctant to admit they were allowing a finite resource to be squandered in this way.   Much better to assure everyone that it is recharging.

Another problem is that the separate States and the Territory are in charge of their own GAB water.   As a consequence, there are now very serious problems in the matter of development and protection of national water resources, including groundwater, with continuing disputes between national and state governments and between separate state governments.

Even in the early 1900s, it was realised that extraction and use of waters from the Basin was unsustainable.   This realisation led to the first Interstate Conference on Artesian Water which was held in 1912.   But it took until 1939 for the Conference to recognise that water wastage from free-flowing bores was a major problem, at which point the Conference members commissioned a report to investigate the nature and structure of the Basin.  This report was completed in 1945; however, it was not until 1954 that the Artesian Water Investigations Committee provided a published report, which was addressed separately in each State.   This disjointed approach is an impossible way to manage a resource spanning three States and the Northern Territory, and yet it continues today.

About 20 or 30 years ago, some landholders began capping and piping their bores, and the water was then piped through poly pipe to tanks and troughs, where the stock watered.  This eliminated the water running down open drains, and an estimated 95% of water was thus saved.  But it was a very expensive exercise, and many could not afford it.  So it was not until 1999, when govt. funding became available, that capping and piping of bores began in earnest.

In 1999, a government initiative called GABSI was introduced, whereby bore-owners were offered govt. assistance (between 40% to 60% of the cost) as an incentive to accelerate work on the repair of uncontrolled bores and the replacement of open bore drains with piped water reticulation systems.   The Australian Government committed $31.8 million over five years, to be matched by the States, through the Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative (GABSI), predominantly for infrastructure renewal, including bore rehabilitation and bore drain replacement.   This infrastructure is commonly known as ‘capping and piping’ the bores.

This has been a breakthrough, and is the single greatest thing that has ever happened to the GAB.  But there is still too little funding to undertake capping & piping on a large enough scale, and the process (the paperwork, applications, funding approvals, etc) is too slow, through no fault of the DWE.   It is severely under resourced, and it appears there is an embargo on replacing any staff, in regards to GABSI.    And there is only one drilling rig (that can get to the necessary depth) available!

At the present time all applications for any funding for cap & pipe ended last June, and “expressions of interest” cannot be submitted until March 2010 – and that is just for the submission of proposals for consideration.  Funding for GABSI 3 has been approved, but I quote here from the department’s information: “Expressions of interest will be called for in March 2010 with applications prioritised in May/June 2010.   Planning (survey and design of projects) will then take place, leading up to implementation of the bore and piping works for approved schemes in financial year commencing July 2011”.   Therefore it will be at least 2 years before any further projects are funded or commenced, at the earliest.  This is a further two years of wasted water, before any government assisted projects are even commenced.

So there is a real and urgent need for increased govt. funding for all aspects of the capping & piping scheme. It is equally imperative that funds are not obtained for capping, by selling off water “saved” through capping – this is totally illogical, and will deter bore-owners from investing in the considerable expense of capping their bores.

But there is some good news –  the Federal Government will contribute half of the $60 million needed to fund a National Centre for Groundwater Research & Training, at Flinders University.   (see Government Documents).  This is a wonderful initiative, as the govt. are acknowledging how little is known about groundwater, and are now intensifying research on it.   Here is a quote from their website:

“Groundwater is now recognised as a crucial asset that must be an integral part of Australia’s long-term water planning.  But to effectively manage this resource requires far more knowledge of sub-surface water systems than is currently available.

Because existing data is limited or non-existent, management decisions are being made using hydrogeologic conceptual models that can be grossly misleading.   Addressing these major inadequacies will be the focus of NCGRT’s research program Innovative Characterisation of Aquifers and Aquitards.

Groundwater is often called the forgotten resource.  Despite the fact that groundwater accounts for over 30 per cent of Australia’s water consumption, we simply do not know enough about this vital water resource, and how to manage it.

With severe droughts and climate change placing extreme pressure on existing water supplies, there is an urgent need to expand this knowledge base.”

This quote from :