Australia needs a plan to protect the Outback's precious water

Jenny Davis, University of Canberra

The Australian Outback is an iconic place. It is the nation’s great outdoors and represents a concept of wilderness that many Australians hold dear, and the Red Centre is at the top of many international tourists’ must-see lists. While it covers more than 70% of the continent, this vast area is home to less than 5% of the population, and the Pew Trust describes it as one of the last extensive natural regions left on Earth. It is a landscape of great contrasts: it can be green, lush and bountiful but also dry, dusty, harsh and inhospitable.

Above all, the Outback is defined by water scarcity across all but its most northern areas. As with most rare commodities, Outback water, especially groundwater, is extremely valuable. It is critical to the persistence of natural ecosystems and sustains human settlements.

It seems bizarre, then, that there is no unified national plan to manage the water resources of the Outback, and that such a project does not feature in the National Environmental Research Program unveiled earlier this year. If we want to safeguard Outback water from the threat of overuse posed by fracking and other pressures, a proper Outback water security plan is urgently needed.

What would the plan look like?

Similar to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, an Outback water plan must be based on a comprehensive understanding of the size, condition and variability of water resources – both surface water and groundwater – and of how they are connected together. It should be a single plan covering Australian rangelands and deserts, and should take account of all the environmental, social, cultural and economic uses that these scarce water resources support.

More specifically, the plan should involve:

  • determining the location and extent of aquifers and catchments that support key biodiversity and cultural sites, particularly in areas near proposed mines and other developments

  • working to understand how biodiversity hotspots and wildlife refugia depend on specific water resources

  • providing knowledge, training and logistics for indigenous and local communities to manage and restore important water sites in arid and semi-arid zones

  • ensuring that Environmental Impact Statements contain the information needed to assess the impacts of proposed developments on important water sites.

Relatively dry areas such as the Northern Territory’s Finke River can be transformed by flooding rains.
Jenny Davis, Author provided

An unpredictable landscape

Rainfall is low and unpredictable across inland Australia, but the rain events that do occur are often very large. They create the floods that flow through normally dry river networks to fill large inland lakes and wetlands, such as Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre) in South Australia and the Fortescue Marshes in Western Australia.

When the floods come, the newly filled waterbodies become sites of immense but temporary productivity. These large episodic rainfall events, followed by long dry periods, drive the boom-and-bust environments to which many Outback species are well adapted.

But it is not just rainstorms and floods that sustain inland ecosystems. Groundwater is the hidden resource that has ensured the persistence of some species over millennia and supported most Outback human endeavours. This underground water, being out of sight and potentially out of mind, is extremely vulnerable to over-extraction and pollution.

The recent announcement that the Queensland government will support unconventional gas exploration in the Cooper Basin suggests that we still have a very poor understanding of the importance of water, particularly groundwater, across the region. Fracking (the extraction of unconventional gas) involves removing large volumes of groundwater and the disposal of water with high concentrations of various impurities. Fracking can result in pollution and depletion of groundwater resources far beyond recharge rates.

Meanwhile, the progress that has been made in mapping and understanding the extent of groundwater resources across the continent has been greatly reduced by the closure of the National Water Commission and reduction in support for the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training.

Any port in a storm: water resources are vital to life in the dusty Outback.
Jenny Davis, Author provided

Safe refuges for millennia

As my previous research has shown, water resources are vital refuges in dry landscapes. Some subterranean aquifers and mound springs supported by the underground waters of the Great Artesian Basin are “evolutionary refugia”, supporting species that have persisted for up to a million years and which live nowhere else on earth. Springs in the Central Ranges support relict populations of aquatic insect species, such as mayflies, caddisflies and waterpennies, that were once more widespread but became isolated as the continent became increasingly dry.

Groundwater-fed springs across the Outback are likely to be important refuges in the future because they are mostly decoupled from regional rainfall. However, if springs are polluted or allowed to dry completely, extinctions will occur because the specialised species they support cannot easily disperse to live somewhere else.

Much of Australia’s unique wildlife diversity is made up of Outback plants and animals that have taken refuge at these groundwater sites during dry periods, thus allowing them to survive the boom and bust of the continent’s history. Although Australia is globally recognised as a “megadiverse” country, we cannot take this status for granted. We know that multiple and interacting threats are altering the processes that support Outback species. Introduced invasive species and altered fire regimes are already of major concern. If we add activities that change water quality and quantity, such as fracking, to the pressures that already exist, we could be at a tipping point in the decline of biodiversity across inland Australia.

The efforts to halt biodiversity decline – including the appointment of a Threatened Species Commissioner and a federally funded threatened species program – will amount to little if we ignore the fundamental issue of maintaining good-quality water resources. Water is a critical resource in the Outback, and we need to know where it is, how much there is, how old it is and what depends on it, before it is allocated or polluted by new developments.

The need to provide greater surety of water for extractive industries and intensive food production must be balanced against the environmental and cultural values long associated with perennial springs and rockholes, desert river networks and episodic lakes. Coal seam gas and mining have the ability to change and potentially destroy natural systems, on timescales far beyond our generation. We need a water security plan for the Outback that recognises the fundamental importance of water to everything we value – environmental, social and cultural, as well as economic.

The Conversation

Jenny Davis is Research Professor in Wetland Ecology at University of Canberra.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Australia: Outback Asteroid Impact

The link below is to an article reporting on a suspected asteroid impact site in outback Australia.

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Budgies: Huge Flocks in the Aussie Outback

The link below is to an article reporting on the huge flocks of budgerigars currently being found throughout the Australian Outback. However, this is not all good news, as it signals the end of the good times.

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Broken Hill: Bird Boom

The link below is to an article reporting on the booming bird population in Outback Australia.

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Australia: Red Kangaroos

The link below is to an article that reports on the resurgence of the Red Kangaroo in the Australian Outback.

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2010 Red Centre Holiday: Destination Videos

I have come across a few videos on YouTube of some of the places I’ll be going to during my upcoming holiday and thought I’d post them here. These include videos of Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park (Ayers Rock and The Olgas), Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon), the West MacDonnell Ranges, Alice Springs and Cooper Pedy.










Holiday: Time to Start Planning Again

It is time to start planning for my next holiday, which I am hoping to take sometime towards the end of June 2010. I’m not too sure just where I’ll be heading at this stage, but I am beginning to think that it might be good to head out west again (either to the Broken Hill area or to Uluru region) or to head north to the Daintree region.

So, in the next week or so I need to settle on both a date and a destination.

NSW Road Trip 2010: Packing & Getting Ready

It is now the day prior to the NSW Road trip 2010. I have begun packing and getting ready for the journey that lies ahead. I don’t expect to be taking a lot of gear, as I won’t be doing a lot of cooking, washing, etc, on this trip.

I have learnt that it is important to not assume that you have everything you need and then find out the day before that you may not – I already knew this of course, but having recently moved, I no longer have everything that I once did. For example, I do not presently have a sleeping bag. I got rid of the last one because it was old and smelly, and I planned to buy another. But a lot has happened since mid 2007 when I packed to move – including a near fatal car accident that put my purchasing plans well and truly on hold, and they then slipped into the area of my mind that ‘forgets.’

So now I have no sleeping bag – but that isn’t too important as I don’t believe I really need one this time round. It is a road trip, with several cabin stops along the way and only caravan parks with powered sites for the rest. I will take a couple of blankets should I need them (which I don’t believe I will – it will be quite hot in the outback this time of year).

Of course it is not just the sleeping bag that is missing. I am also missing a fly cover for the tent, but thankfully I had two tents so I’m OK there. There are a number of other items missing also, but I don’t really need them this time round. Thankfully I have spotted all this now, which means I can plan to purchase what I need for future adventures, back pack camping, etc. I had of course planned to buy these items, but with the passing of time I forgot.

Anyhow, the packing is under way and I just hope I don’t forget something I wish I had packed when I am on the journey. I’m relatively sure I haven’t – which isn’t to say That I have forgotten something.

What I’d like to remember – and tomorrow I’ll know for sure if I have – is how I packed the car, so that everything was easily accessible. I was fairly well organised for this sort of thing when I was doing it fairly regularly several years ago – but it has been a while. Minimal gear wisely packed, without leaving anything necessary behind – that’s the key for this type of journey and vacation.

This will be the first time however, that I have a bag dedicated to my online activities – laptop, digital camera, web cam, flash drives, etc. I hope to keep an accurate and useful journal online at the website, with photos, comments, route map, etc. So this is a ‘new’ bag that I need to organise in the overall scheme of things.

Anyhow, packing is now underway and coming to a conclusion. The journey will soon kick off.

Holiday Planning: NSW Road Trip 2010

The planning for my holiday is now well and truly underway, with the holiday now being referred to as my ‘NSW Road Trip 2010.’ There is also a website address for viewing my itinerary and for following my progress. It has been a rushed process in the end, organising this road trip, so there will yet be some changes to the itinerary.

I am expecting changes in far western NSW due to road conditions, especially given recent weather conditions out that way, including the widespread rain and flooding that has taken place. Given I have only got a small rental for this trip, I am not really prepared to take the car onto certain roads (which I believe will be part of the rental agreement anyway).

At this stage I am expecting to miss Ivanhoe and head for Mildura instead. I also expect to miss Tibooburra in the far northwest corner of the state, as the Silver City Highway is largely dirt. With these probable changes to the itinerary, I will also miss driving through the Menindee Lakes area, which really was something I was hoping to see – another time perhaps.

On another ‘track,’ I found our that the hottest February temperature experienced in Ivanhoe was around 48 degrees Celsius. No, not the reason I am thinking of bypassing Ivanhoe – most centres out west have similar temperatures in February anyway.

The website: