Queensland risks running the well dry by gifting water to coal

Queensland’s cuts to water red tape could leave outback bores high and dry. kdliss/Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday, Queensland’s parliament passed water reform legislation that will make it easier to take and use water, particularly for large mining and agriculture projects.

The state government also recently announced it will support infrastructure in the Galilee Basin, particularly the development of the Carmichael coal mine proposed by Indian coal company Adani.

True to its word, the Newman government is cutting red tape, but it’s questionable whether these water reforms involve the kind of red tape the community can afford to lose.

The reforms have been criticised by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for their possible impact on the reef, while the move also brings other problems far closer to the mines and the massive underground aquifer that sits beneath them.

Water disasters

Australia is the most arid continent that humans call home. Anglo-European Australians have already presided over an impressive catalogue of water-management disasters, mainly because we never really appreciated just how arid the place is, nor how to live here in a sustainable manner.

The most recent and well-known is the over-allocation of the Murray-Darling Basin, and this was most obvious during the Millenium Drought, when several towns in New South Wales saw their dams literally run dry.

Since then, water accountancy in the Murray-Darling has tightened considerably: to pump even 0.1 megalitres in New South Wales, irrigators need to give three days’ notice. Pumping without a licence and an allocation? No chance.

What do Queensland’s changes mean?

Among other things, the changes will make it easier for users to access Great Artesian Basin water to support development opportunities — a move that seems squarely aimed at encouraging the massive coal developments planned for the Galilee Basin.

Much of Australia’s eastern interior is sustained by the massive underground aquifer, the Great Artesian Basin, shown here in blue. By Tentowo via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Offering financial support to the infrastructure requirements seems similarly motivated: the government wants those big coal mines, and will do whatever it takes to get them.

But there are several potential knock-on effects of giving mining projects easier access to water. First – and this is something coastal people may not immediately realise – communities in western Queensland rely on groundwater, and this is because the surface water in the area – rivers and creeks – is the most variable in the world.

Without groundwater, the towns, properties and communities in the state’s west will run dangerously dry, just as the NSW town of Goulburn did in 2005. Without proper management, water resources dwindle, so groundwater in the west has to be managed in a responsible way.

The second problem is that our detailed knowledge of the Great Artesian Basin is poor. This is mostly because it’s a great big aquifer that’s a long way down.

Even those of us who know a bit about the Great Artesian Basin don’t know that much: we honestly don’t know how much water can be extracted in one place without having a negative effect in others.

But under the new legislation, we’re likely to know even less about how much water is removed, from where and by whom. In a worst-case scenario this could mean that the integrity of the Great Artesian Basin is quietly eroded and that we won’t realise it until bores run dry, graziers end up with unsellable properties, and towns empty of people – the very essence of “rural decline”.

Endangered wildlife

The third problem is that some of the most endangered and precious ecosystems in Australia’s arid interior are, like the region’s human communities, sustained by the Great Artesian Basin.

In most cases these are shallow springs – watery islands that are inhabited by a unique assemblage of plants and animals. Everything that lives in the springs is listed as endangered under federal legislation, but extinction risk is likely to go through the roof for these critters if an unknown amount of water is extracted and aquifers are drawn down.

The Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative – in which free-flowing bores have been piped and capped – has been one of the big success stories of Australia’s recent environmental policy history.

A lot of water that used to hit the arid ground and evaporate was redirected to troughs and tanks – while the rest stayed underground. Cockies were happy and so were governments.

Everybody realises – especially in Australia’s interior - that water is our most important commodity, and that water management is crucial to the sustainability of communities.

The new legislation seems to disregard these concerns and fails to heed the lessons from the past. Collectively, and more than ever, we must measure twice and cut once when planning and managing our most precious resource: water in an arid environment.