Water Journal : Water Journal April 2012
feature article water APRIL 2012 69 A centrepiece of this was the $50 million National Groundwater Assessment Initiative to explore knowledge gaps in our groundwater systems through hydrogeological investigations. National Water Commission CEO, James Cameron, said the plan has been responsible for nearly 90 projects. Many are complete and the rest will be finalised by June this year. A key focus has been a strategic assessment of groundwater resources and connectivity across Australia, focusing on priority areas identified by state and territory authorities. While the challenges are considerable, Mr Cameron said the National Groundwater Action Plan is delivering the tools and mechanisms to effectively manage groundwater and pursue exciting opportunities in areas such as aquifer recharge. Groundwater Research and Training A second major initiative of the National Groundwater Action Plan has been a $30 million joint venture with the Australian Research Council to establish the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training. This funding has since been supplemented, with $15 million coming from the Australian Government's Super Science Initiative and $10 million from collaborating universities, industry partners and government departments across Australia. Within two years the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training has established itself as a world-class centre for groundwater research and training with rapid growth of faculty and staff. Professor Simmons says the centre represented by far the most significant single development in groundwater research and capacity building in Australia's history. "Since being established we've been involved in massive capacity building, training and up-skilling on an unprecedented scale," he says. "The NCGRT is a huge opportunity for Australian researchers from multiple disciplines and a major focus is industry and field-based projects that deliver research in support of current management and policy needs." The centre is addressing a major national skills shortage in groundwater expertise through some serious capacity building and links with international researchers. It is currently training about 60 PhD students and 45 postdoctoral fellows, plus about 100 honours students. Using the latest technology and infrastructure, the researchers of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training are responsible for world-leading science that will help us to gain a greater understanding of our groundwater resources. Technical research focuses on investigating: • Characteristics of aquifers and aquitards; • Groundwater-dependent ecosystems and the potential impact of climate change; • Simulation of groundwater in complex subterranean systems; • The links between surface water and groundwater. In addition, the centre has legal and policy experts examining the highly complex but equally critical area of socio-economics, policy-making and management. These researchers work within a dedicated program that interacts closely with government, industry and the centre's technical programs. Impacts of Coal Seam Gas Mining on Groundwater Among the many research priorities for Australia is the impact on groundwater from Australia's coal seam gas (CSG) industry. Three major CSG projects have been approved in Queensland to mine vast stores of methane gas locked up for millions of years in coal seams. Energy companies drill wells several hundred metres to kilometres deep to release the gas, along with large quantities of underground water. This raises potential issues such as safe disposal and the risk of contamination of other water bodies with salt or chemicals. The Queensland Government estimates that 25,000 to 35,000 of these wells will be drilled in future decades under collective management rules set down by state and Commonwealth governments. A technique called fraccing [sometimes spelt fracking], or hydraulic fracturing, is also used in some of the CSG wells to increase the flow of gas. It involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into the coal seams at high pressure to widen the gaps and allow more gas to escape. The Queensland Government reports that approximately 8% of CSG wells drilled in Queensland have been fracced, but this could rise to between 10% and 40% of wells in future. It also says the risk of groundwater contamination is minimal because of the strict safety regimes. In a position statement the National Water Commission says the CSG industry offers substantial economic and other benefits to Australia. But it also has this caveat: "At the same time, if not adequately managed and regulated, it risks having NCGRT research assistant Stephanie Villeneuve sampling groundwater at the Willunga Basin.
Water Journal May 2012
Water Journal December 2011