The Great Artesian Basin is one of the world’s largest underground water reservoirs. It is the only source of water for towns and farms across almost a quarter of Australia, from far north Queensland to northern South Australia.
On November 7, the NSW Great Artesian Basin Advisory Group received a scientific report commissioned by the Artesian Bore Water Users Association (ABWUA). The report found that the reservoir’s recharge area is about a third as large as previously thought — covering less than 10% of the basin’s 1.7 million square kilometres.
These recharge zones provide the pressure head that is required to drive the water to the surface. Without them pumps would have to be installed which would cost billions of dollars.
Just 0.2% of the basin provides recharge water in excess of 30mm a year, and almost all of this is in the Pilliga in the north-west of NSW. The water supply for the village of Pilliga comes from artesian bores that were constructed in 1902.
The Pilliga also happens to be the place where the energy company Santos has been granted five petroleum titles that allow it to conduct exploratory drilling for coal seam gas (CSG) in the face of community opposition.
Two of these titles, including the largest one covering 265 square kilometres, were granted by Ian Macdonald when he was NSW Minister for Mineral Resources. Macdonald has been found by the Independent Commission Against Corruption to have engaged in corrupt conduct.
The author of this latest report, soil scientist Robert Banks from Queensland University, said that removal of the pressure in the basin through water extraction associated with CSG exploration and mining risks “removing the driving force of many of the free-flowing artesian bores and springs.”
Seventy-nine per cent of the basin’s most critical recharging area is covered by gas, petroleum or CSG leases. The president of the ABWUA, Anne Kennedy, said that the report provides sufficient solid evidence for CSG operations to be halted until further studies are carried out. As she pointed out, “we have no other water out here”.
The report came after UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, called for a shift from a coal and fossil fuel-based economy to renewable energy, following the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) latest report.
At the same time, another report from Australian think tank, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, called for the creation of regional plans for land and water use that manage the cumulative impacts of development, together with a commitment to conserve native plants, animals and ecosystems.
But Maurice Newman, the climate change denier who chairs the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Committee, dismissed the IPCC report saying: “Whatever the dreamers say, economic theory will drive this debate, not climate theory.”
According to the Wentworth Group, whose members include environmentalist Tim Flannery, healthy landscapes improve agricultural production, reduce costs, protect land and water resources and improve the country’s international competitiveness.
So it is not economics that is driving this debate, it is the notion that nature exists for the sole purpose of exploitation for short-term profit.
In the NSW state election in March 2015, the Socialist Alliance will be standing candidates in the Upper House and Susan Price will contest the seat of Summer Hill in Sydney. The policy platform includes a prohibition on all CSG mining until the science shows it is safe for our water, land and health.
There can be no possibility of a sustainable future until we put people before profits.