One of the creeks recharging the Mereenie basin, from which Alice Springs draws most of its water, is seen entering this Google Earth photo from the north-west (top left). A tributary, Laura Creek, joins it from the west after flowing past Pine Gap (bottom left). The main part of the town is in the top-right corner of the picture, the airport, bottom-right.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
One of the hottest Northern Territory issues is one of the hardest about which to get useful information: water.
Almost the entire supply for Alice Springs is coming underground basins, principally from Mereenie, which is being depleted in excess of its recharge.
Cr Steve Brown has traded blows about the situation in Central Australia with Jimmy Cocking, CEO of the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC).
During this dispute eminent Alice Springs based water expert, John Childs, retired from the NT public service, gave his views about options for the town.
Sparks were also flying over the allocation to the farm at Mataranka of the CLP candidate in Lingiari, Tina MacFarlane, in the lead-up to the last Federal elections. That still gets a regular mention and is set to bubble up again some time soon.
Is the Territory Government doing the right thing? In order to find out we began casting about for an authoritative source, independent from the NT Government, for answers to the following main questions:–
• How much water do we know Alice Springs has available?
• How much more water can we reliably expect will be available to Alice Springs?
• What is the recharge – the replenishment of the underground basins from rainfall?
• How much of that recharge can we responsibly use?
The results of our enquiries are dismal: The National Water Commission (NWC) – this year’s budget $8.3m – does not have any of the answers.
Neither can it say whether there are nationally or internationally accepted norms for the use of recharge, and what percentage should stay in the ground for environmental purposes, as is argued for by David Morris, principal lawyer and EO of the Environmental Defender’s Office in the NT.
We spoke with Mr Morris soon after he visited ALEC recently. He says his understanding of the norm is to use 20% of the recharge, which, he says, is what Alice Springs is using at the moment. That should not be increased. He says some experts claim it is too much. Mr Morris stresses he is a lawyer, not a scientist.
It’s a measure of the dismal shortage of information that Mr Morris’ belief is so far off the mark: the fact that the water level in the basin from which Alice Springs draws is dropping, shows beyond doubt that we are using more than 100% of the recharge.
The NWC spokesperson referred us to the National Centre for Groundwater and Training (NCGT) in Adelaide – budget of $60m over five years – which turned out to be as unrevealing as the NWC itself.
Says a NCGT spokesman: “Unfortunately we are unable to supply a generalised recharge percentage figure as requested.
“While it may seem like a simple request, there are many factors influencing aquifer recharge across different areas of Australia such as local geology, rainfall, recharge zones and time speeds and differences in regional policies.
“Additionally, Australia has many different temperate zones which complicates things further (e.g. the Great Artesian Basin recharges from tropical QLD but discharges in the arid outback).
“I have been told by our main arid zone expert that he doesn’t feel comfortable generalising this requested figure and the Alice Springs area has not been an area of our focused research.”
All this, of course, is of little help for the Central Australian community which, given that half of the landmass is Aboriginal owned, is increasingly seeing employment in agriculture – obviously needing water – as vital to diminish Indigenous disadvantage and strife.
The NWC has no regulatory powers and is merely an advisory body. The bi-annual assessment in 2011 for COAG of the NWC and its National Water Initiative (NWI) says they still have a long way to go. One can’t help wondering whether Tuesday’s federal Budget will take a different view.
The NWI is “a commitment by all state and territory governments [for] managing surface water and groundwater resources for rural and urban use that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes”.
That is not reflected in anything the NWC nor the NCGT can contribute, by way of advice or research, to Central Australia, resolving “overallocation and overuse, clear assignment of the risks associated with changes in future water availability, effective water accounting, open water markets”.
The assessment says in the Northern Territory, under the Water Act 1992, “mining activity is exempt from all water licence and permit provisions, except for the requirement for a licence to dispose of waste underground by means of a bore outside the mining site.
“Mining is thus effectively outside the water entitlement and water planning frameworks.” That still needs to change, says the assessment.
Further, it seems to open a Pandora’s Box by urging involvement of traditional owners in the water planning. It says: “There has been increased recognition of the cultural values of water resources and advances in the engagement of Indigenous Australians in water management.
“Most jurisdictions have established consultative mechanisms intended to engage Indigenous people in water planning. For our own part, the Commission has established the First Peoples’ Water Engagement Council.
“Nevertheless, the full intent of the NWI parties’ commitments on Indigenous interests in water has not yet been achieved.
“Many water plans do not consider Indigenous cultural values and economic development, leaving the cultural and economic expectations of Indigenous Australians as an unmet demand on the water system.”
The point where the disagreeing parties are as one is that much better knowledge of the resource is the key. And that means spending money on drilling holes – hundreds of them – and replacing guess work with facts about what lies underneath.
Says Mr Morris: “I’m not sure there is a complete understanding of the groundwater resources and what they can sustain in terms of mining and agricultural development going forward.
“My understanding is there is still much to be learned about groundwater resources in Central Australia.
“The legal way of dealing with the uncertainty of the science is to apply the long-standing internationally accepted precautionary principle: You behave in a conservative manner in the absence of complete scientific data.”
UPDATE May 20, 2014:
As predicted in this report, the National Water Commission and the National Center for Groundwater Research and Training were axed in the Federal Budget. The commission will cease operating at the end of the year, and the center, at the end of June.