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Who's watching the water?

Article by ABC 

Director of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training based at Flinders University, Professor Craig Simmons, is concerned that the national network for monitoring groundwater is falling into disrepair.

"If we don't monitor groundwater systems — their pressure, the water levels in our aquifers — we really have very little way of telling what is happening underground.

"This is … a bit like going along to the doctor who doesn't have a stethoscope or a thermometer or a way of checking your blood pressure."

A 2012 report commissioned by the now-defunct National Water Commission audited the 23,000-strong bore monitoring network.

The report cites problems with many bores that were installed 30 to 60 years ago.

They are now reaching the end of their designed lifespan and so are starting to fail.

The director of the Connected Waters Initiative Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, Associate Professor Martin Andersen, said there was little or no response to the report seven years ago, and the problem was only getting worse.

The report suggests that at least a quarter of the older bores are in need of repair or replacement.

He said each state and territory managed its own monitoring bores, but it was unlikely enough money was being budgeted overall to fix the problem.

"I think there are two reasons for that: one is that groundwater is a resource that's hidden, so out of sight, out of mind. The other reason is there's a perception that we largely know what needs to be known about groundwater and that we already have plenty of data to use for management."

'Massive, expensive sleeping giant'

The National Water Commission report said the agencies responsible for the nation's monitoring bores did not have the resources or capacity to deal with the problem.

Professor Simmons said he was also worried that the report did not attract any action when it was released in 2012.

"I'm not aware of any direct uptake of the report's findings … certainly at a national level," he said.

And he said that if the issue was not properly addressed it was only going to cost more as time went on and more bores fell apart.

"So this is a massive, expensive sleeping giant and it needs a great deal of thought. We desperately need a strategy for how to replace and fund the dying bore network before it is too late."

Meanwhile, there was a dearth of information about the way in which climate change affected groundwater aquifers, and this made proper monitoring more important than ever, Associate Professor Andersen said.

"We actually need to keep monitoring to understand how climate change is going to affect our groundwater resource, how agriculture and how mining is going to impact our resource in the future," he said.

Associate Professor Andersen and Professor Simmons have called on state and territory governments to address the issue of deteriorating groundwater-monitoring infrastructure.

They said it was crucial to ensure informed management and make sure the ongoing crisis affecting the Murray-Darling river system was not repeated underground, and elsewhere in the country.

"With increasing pressure in terms of a growing population — the need to supply food, export food — we need to be very clever about how we use our water resources," Associate Professor Andersen said.

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