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By Tim Connell 22 October 2019 4 min read

In April, for the first time in 90 years, it became possible to see the ribs of a ship that caught fire and sank in New South Wales about a nine-hour drive from the sea.

The drought in NSW has peeled back the Barwon River at Brewarrina to reveal the wreck of the Wandering Jew. For those who live in these parts, the emergence of one of the paddle steamers that once chugged between ports such as Wilcannia and Goolwa is a vivid symbol of the river system’s silted decline. In the state’s roaring age of paddle steaming, there were 218 such ships.

But Australia’s rivers, in the times when they teem with birds and when they bake in silence, when they wash out roads and bridges and when they vacate their beds and leave millions of fish to suffocate belly-up, depend on more than rain.

Relief flows in vast quantities beneath the continent, often slowly and out of sight, in the form of groundwater. But back on the surface, a measure of how Australians value the water beneath them, and what they will accept being done to it and by whom, is illuminated by the concept of social licence.

Throughout October Dr Justine Lacey, principal research scientist and director of CSIRO’s Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform, has criss-crossed the country to explore how societal expectations shape the way we develop, use and manage natural resources in Australia, including groundwater. The series Social License to Operate: a critical issue in Australia and around the world, especially with mining and coal seam gas developments is the focus of the 2019 Distinguished Lecture Series for the International Association of Hydrogeologists and the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training.

That term ‘social licence’ is often used to describe contentious hinterlands where industrial development of natural resources butts up against the interests of communities and the environment. Based on a decade of empirical social licence research conducted by the CSIRO, Dr Lacey says, it’s necessary to grasp two ideas to really understand how social licence works in practice.

One is understanding how people weigh up the benefits and costs associated with development of a resource. This could be how people balance the potential jobs and economic prosperity with potential environmental or community costs.

This forms an ‘impact narrative’ which is, Dr Lacey says, “one of the biggest predictors of whether a community or society is willing to accept an activity or not.”

Secondly, the relationships between parties affected by an activity, and those responsible are key, as this requires trust. For example, an industry’s track record, and how it is regulated and managed can influence how willing people are to trust it.

“You actually need both an understanding of impacts and relationships to better shape the way we develop, use and manage our groundwater resources.”

That groundwater has joined a suite of Australian hot button social licence issues, such as the live export trade and the future of the Great Barrier Reef, is an indication that it is cherished.

It is a resource upon which Australians depend. This reliance has crept up for decades; between 1983 and 1996, according to Geoscience Australia, humans’ use of groundwater nearly doubled.

It is not just personal use – indeed, about half the groundwater used in Australia is soaked up by irrigation, and large quantities go into farming and mining. Regional councils and homeowners have tapped into bore water for generations, shelves across the country are stocked with water bottled from natural springs, and Australian beverage companies pump it into soft drinks and beer.

But groundwater doesn’t exist in finite quantities like coal or oil. Its movement over millennia has nurtured Australian ecosystems and allowed communities to exist and grow. Groundwater replenishes or “recharges” through rainfall that flows by gravitational increment, eventually, to points of “discharge” in rivers, lakes, springs, wetlands and the ocean.

Dr Olga Barron is the leader of the CSIRO’s groundwater team. The focus of her research includes the impact of climate change on groundwater resources, and on the ecosystems that depend on them.

As cities and industries grow thirstier in a country that climate change is making more vulnerable to drought, Dr Barron says, some of the management of groundwater is coming up short.

Regulators often consider groundwater allocation as a single solid figure, not dependent on climatic processes. On the contrary, groundwater replenishment is climate-dependent, and even more so in cases where its recharge is quick, where the groundwater is shallow or recharge depends on streamflow.

“Slow recharge” groundwater use is commonly related to groundwater mining which, Dr Barron says, is never sustainable.

“The issue cannot be solely addressed by the pure biophysical science but requires bringing a social and economic aspect into it,” Dr Barron said.

“How can we involve people in groundwater management, often based on groundwater modelling in a way they can see how their actions affect neighbours, and how can they affect groundwater-dependent parts of the environment?”

Many Australians aren’t aware, Dr Barron says, that groundwater feeds rivers. If a perennial river exists at all it typically lies within an aquifer or downstream from a series of springs. This “baseflow”, supplied by groundwater, might be all that maintains it in a drought.

Following a decline of local reservoirs and investment like most state capitals in desalination infrastructure, Perth, where Dr Barron is based, now looks underground for much of its water. Groundwater now supplies about two-thirds of Western Australia’s requirements.

In that state, and the whole country, when changes in climate or land use affect the rate of groundwater recharge, the depths of water tables and rates of groundwater discharge must also change to find a new balance.

It is a discussion rooted in biophysical realities and human interaction that seems destined to grow louder even as its source remains, for most people, out of sight.

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