By analysing environmental tracers in groundwater and surface water we strengthen Australia's capacity for making confident management and investment decisions.

The challenge

Maintaining sustainable use of groundwater resources

Groundwater provides 25 to 30 per cent of Australia's annual water consumption, of which 50 per cent is used for irrigated agriculture.

The Millennium Drought 2001–2009 in south east Australia has further highlighted the value of groundwater resources.

 ©Mat Gilfedder

Consistent and objective information on groundwater resources is pivotal for water planning, operational management, and policy on issues related to water such as food security, energy, industry development and biodiversity.

Communities, industries and governments need greater confidence that developments and management actions will avoid undue ecosystem disruption and sustain existing industries that have developed around groundwater resources.

Our response

Environmental tracers as a key tool for studying groundwater

Environmental tracers have improved understanding of the mixing of surface and groundwater, providing more accurate assessments of available consumptive pools for both systems and avoiding 'double accounting' of water in each of these systems.

Our environmental tracer based research played a key role in improving water managers' understanding of the connectivity and interrelationship of surface water and groundwater resources in key New South Wales catchments, some of the most stressed in the Murray–Darling Basin and in catchments in northern Australia (e.g. Fitzroy).

In southern Australia our multi-tracer isotope capability has also been instrumental in improving the understanding of interactions between groundwater from the Limestone Aquifer and coastal environments.

We have also demonstrated how to use tracer profiles in aquitards to derive the degree of connectivity between overlying and underlying aquifers. The robust technique can be used in many aquitards across Australia, for instance to assess the vulnerability of shallow aquifers in case of major disruptions (physical and or chemical) occurring in deeper aquifers separated by an aquitard from the shallow one.

The results

Management decisions underpinned by robust scientific evidence

The engagement

CSIRO engaged closely with State and Federal Governments and industry to deliver robust science that would lead to better water planning and more informed decision making on resource developments.

Working with the MDBA on dryland salinity management has culminated with the development of major management initiatives, such as the Basin Salinity Management Strategy 2030.

The GISERA-funded tracer study in the Hutton Sandstone, Surat Basin (Queensland) quantified for the first time regional scale recharge to the deep flow system. By improving the quantification of groundwater recharge of the Hutton Sandstone using tracers, uncertainty about the water balance has decreased providing greater confidence about the impact modelling of dewatering.

The impact

Improved groundwater research underpinned by Environmental Tracers improves levels of confidence by investors, government and communities about groundwater availability to support mineral extraction, reduces upfront investment costs by providing access to world-class pre-competitive hydrogeological information, and demonstrates whether impact of groundwater and coal seam gas extraction on other water resources and dependent ecosystems and economies is negligible.

Our tracer methods for estimating groundwater flow to streams are now being widely applied by the Queensland and South Australian Governments, and by researchers across Australia and overseas.

CSIRO's environmental tracer research underpins the effective implementation of national water policy, especially the National Water Initiative, by:

  • providing clarity around the assignment of risk arising from future changes in the availability of water for the consumptive pool
  • underpinning a reliable and defendable water accounting system
  • minimising the need for future adjustment issues that may impact on water users and communities by ensuring that consumptive pools are established with high quality information
  • providing greater clarity about the degrees of connectivity between surface and groundwater resources so that connected systems can be more effectively managed as a single resource.

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