13 January 2008

Mining water

It's not uncommon to see lush gardens around the inner Adelaide suburbs with signs on their fences claiming, as if this were something to be proud of, that bore water is used to achieve and maintain their lushness.

But everything is not rosy in this particular metaphorical garden, as The
Advertiser/ Adelaide Now reports:

Professor Mike Young, from the Wentworth Group of Scientists, says State Government policy allowing unlimited access to bore water, amid the toughest restrictions on record, is unfair.

"We're in a situation where the very affluent can escape regulation, but the regular mums and dads of Adelaide are being denied the opportunity to buy their way out of water restrictions," said Professor Young, who is also Adelaide University's research chair of water economics and management.

"It draws a clear line between those who are affluent and those who are needy. It's actually creating water wars in Adelaide when it's unnecessary."

Latest figures reveal that many of the top 10 suburbs to sink bores are high-income areas, including Unley Park, St Peters, Toorak Gardens and Malvern.

Unley Park, in which 35 well permits were issued in the 14 months to November, has a median weekly household income of $1637. Suburbs such as Findon and Gepps Cross, which have median weekly household incomes of around $700, secured only one permit each.

Last month, the Government announced a temporary ban on new backyard bores to stem the explosion in numbers which is ravaging underground water supplies.

At the time, Environment Minister Gail Gago said restricting the water those households with bores could extract from the aquifer was not necessary, as there were no signs of abuse.

Professor Young says a fair scheme requires the regulation of bore water and the introduction of a water-trading scheme.

"I think it's time for the Government to be introducing a pricing regime that enables more people to be able to access this water rather than the very, very affluent," he said.

"We really need a market in Adelaide which enables people, who decide willingly to go without water, to sell it to those willing to pay for it, then all people benefit." Some of the suburbs featuring in the top 10 which might be considered more mortgage belt – North Haven, Largs North and Largs Bay on the LeFevre Peninsula – have access to shallow groundwater.


While bores can cost up to $20,000, drillers can hit water in Unley Park at about 20m. That costs around $6000. Uniting Care Wesley spokesman Mark Henley also called for the regulation of bore water.

"It's essential that we have fairness in water so that we don't have the water rich and the water poor," he said.

"The notion of unlimited access to bores is not fair, it's not reasonable and it's inequitable."

The Government, however, remains firm on its policy to allow unlimited access to water from bores.

Acting Environment Minister Jay Weatherill said in an emailed statement: "The State Government has already imposed a temporary moratorium on the drilling of new domestic bores in Adelaide to ensure that groundwater levels in the shallow aquifer don't deplete significantly during the current drought.

"This will be reviewed next spring before anticipated summer demand but there are no plans to apply domestic water restrictions."

He ruled out a water trading scheme for Adelaide saying the bureaucracy and administration would be cost prohibitive.

The simple fact is that, as Professor Young and said in September last year , removing water from an aquifer is very similar to mining:

Official figures show the water table below Adelaide has sunk to its lowest level since citywide records were kept.

In some areas, the water table's depth has fallen from 5m to 11m below the surface since 2005, during which time the number of new bores across Adelaide has increased from 85 in 2005 to a record number of 216 so far this year.

Water scientists yesterday warned the underground aquifer would eventually run dry if bore use was not cut during the drought.

Wentworth Group of Scientists member Professor Mike Young said groundwater was not "a mine" and its use needed to be limited as quickly as possible.


Department for Water, Land and Biodiversity figures show groundwater levels have decreased sharply since December, 2004.

A State Government review of groundwater use announced in December, which is considering capping bore numbers, is yet to be completed.

CSIRO land and water groundwater hydrology research group leader Peter Cook said uncontrolled use of groundwater did not make sense.

"The groundwater enters the system from rainfall in the Adelaide Hills and moves down beneath Adelaide over thousands of years and discharges to the coast," he said.

"If you take out great amounts, you can reverse the flow and start seeing the seawater draw back underneath the land."

In the past 12 years, 700 bores have been drilled in the metropolitan area.

So far this year, 216 bores permits have been approved.

So, there's a moratorium on new bore drillings fo the time being. Good, but what about all the existing bores? This is a tough one for the government, and not one for which the ersatz solutions of the type which Mr Rann and his government like so much are available.

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