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Saturday, March 04, 2006

The (first) public meeting about the Kangaloon Aquifer

I have deliberately entitled this story the "first" public meeting about the Kangaloon Aquifer, as I believe we are in this one for the long haul.

A very well attended meeting (about 200 people) gave their full (and polite) attention to a panel of speakers about the NSW Government's proposal to drain the Kangaloon Aquifer. The meeting was well run by Peta Seaton MLA, Member for the Southern Highlands. Peta gave a very thorough history of the proposal and also outlined what information she had been given by the Sydney Catchment Authority (SCA). She then introduced a panel of speakers, including Jonathan Bell, a Glen Quarry resident and representative of the NSW Farmers Association, followed by Matt Brown, MLA, Member for Kiama.

Matt handed out an information sheet which had been prepared by the SCA. He talked about the various steps which the Government is taking with regard to water management. As Mr Brown had to leave early, he fielded a number of questions, mostly about wastage of water. Ford Kristo asked an interesting question about Sydney having exceeded its "optimal size" and so, was the Government considering decentralisation? Mr Brown's answer completely missed the point, for although he spoke about various "Growth Centres" which had been designated by the Government, they were all within the same conurbation, and specifically (as far as this audience was concerned) within the same water catchment.

How is that going to help this issue, Mr Brown?

Then Clr Larry Whipper, from Robertson spoke about the Wingecarribee Shire Council's involvement in lobbying the NSW Government about this proposal, and specifically, the disinformation which Council had been given previously by the SCA. Next to speak was Dr. John Skidmore, from Kangaroo Valley, representing the campaigners against the raising the wall of the Tallawa Dam. Then Joanna Gash, MHR, Federal Member for Gilmore spoke. The deputy Mayor, Clr Campbell-Jones and Clr Jim Mauger were also present.

Peta Seaton then invited general questions and statements from the people at the meeting. Questions ranged from possible legal remedies to this situation, to what measures are being taken to reduce wastage of water in Sydney, and specifically by industry.

Clearly, the meeting was entirely unconvinced by assurances from the "authorities" that the ground water to be tapped was different from the springs of the local hillsides and the ground water and currently being tapped by bores. A geological chart which Ms Seaton had been given by the Sydney Catchment Authority showed the Robertson Basalt overlaying the Wianamatta Shale and in due turn, the underlying sandstone. That is basically correct. However, the claim was made by the SCA to Ms Seaton, (who relayed it to the meeting) that the Shale layer was impervious to water, and so the water in the Basalt hills was "above" and separate from the aquifer in the sandstone. Farmers and other people with bores spoke about their experiences with deep bores going well into the sandstone, and even, in one case, through the underlying "coal measures" (which surprised me). The point was made over and over, that nobody really knows where the water begins or ends, but we do not believe what the Government is telling us about our springs and the bore water being separate from the so-called deep water aquifer. The point was made that the Audit of the Sydney Drinking Water Catchment (December 2005) called on the authorities to establish the precise relationship between ground water and surface water in the catchment. That Audit report appears to have been ignored.

With regard to the geological chart from the SCA which Peta Seaton showed us, it is my understanding that the Basalt of the local area is a volcanic extrusion up through the sandstone plateau and the overlying Shale, and so the supposedly "impermeable" shale layer was ruptured in many places, when the volcanic activity underneath forced the basalt to the surface (about 30 million years ago). That is how water, which falls as rain on the Robertson basalt caps enters the aquifer below. As such I feel it is simplistic nonsense for the SCA to tell us that our springs are "safe" as they come from the basalt caps above the aquifer, when geologists tell us that the lower strata of rock have been ruptured, and so do not form an impervious layer at all. That allows a potential 2-way flow of water to and from the aquifer below. So, in my understanding all the local groundwater is part of the one system.

Ms Seaton concluded the meeting with a summary of the "mood of the room" (which was abundantly obvious), and undertook to lobby the Government accordingly, and to circulate information to the people who attended the meeting, and to convene any community group which might be formed (perhaps in conjunction with the Council) to consider the aquifer proposal further.

As one of the speakers from the floor said: "Lets keep the Green Heart of the Highlands green".

I could not agree more.


Jonathan Bell said...

Robertson School of Arts
12.30pm, 4th March 2006

Address by Jonathan Bell,
New South Wales Farmers' Association Sydney Water Catchment Taskforce

My name is Jonathan Bell.

We breed and fatten Angus cattle at Glenquarry. Very close to here. Our property, originally a dairy farm, is fundamentally, and has always traditionally been, dependant on the aquifer that keeps our springs flowing.

The wonderful creeks in our area, many of them carrying the highest environmental classification under the Environment Protection Act, the 'S' classification, are spring fed. That is to say, they are dependant on the aquifer that keeps our springs flowing.

We have had two bores drilled by the Sydney Catchment Authority in very close proximity to our land ~ one less than 100 meters away. The other some 150 meters away.

We have been very concerned by this bore drilling activity in this general area for some time and have been in correspondence with Mr Tony Collins, Program Director, Metropolitan Water Plan for the Sydney Catchment Authority. We have been seeking a formal covenant or agreement with the NSW government ~ an agreement that will run with the title to our land ~ that, in the event that the proposed use of the deep aquifers to provide Sydney with water deleteriously affects our traditional water supplies, that we will be granted access to surface water supplies controlled by the government in the immediate vicinity of our property.

Not an unreasonable request you might say.

The government is not coming to the party. I am told that my worries are ill founded and premature.

Well, if our worries are ill founded, why has not the government said to us that they will sign such a covenant? The government would have nothing to lose. But no such offer is being made. This is all very alarming indeed.

As some of you know, I have a long history of involvement with the New South Wales Farmers' Association. I have continuously held elected office in that Association for the past 32 years.

I am currently the President of the Moss Vale Branch of the Association.

I also currently serve (and have done so for a number of years) as an elected member of the Executive Council of the Association.

I am also the Chairman of the NSWFA Sydney Water Catchment Task Force which was set up by the then President of the Association, Mal Peters, following upon the 1998 Sydney water quality scare. It is for this reason that Peta Seaton invited me to speak to the meeting today.

I congratulate the initiative of Peta Seaton in calling this meeting today. Peta is doing a great job in representing all members of her constituency no matter on which side of the political fence they stand. She is a good listener and a hard and effective worker who empathises very closely with the vital concerns of those whom she represents in our NSW state parliament. Well done Peta ~ we are very lucky to have you.

My involvement with the NSWFA Sydney Water Catchment Taskforce arose out of the following saga of events which most of you will recall very clearly:

· On 21st July 1998 Sydney Water informed the NSW Health Dept that Cryptosporodium and Giardia were present in the Sydney Drinking Water Supply in quantities large enough to cause concern for human health.

· On 26th July 1998 the government issued a “boiled water alert” and indicated that Sydney's Drinking Water posed a risk to health and in the case of immuno-suppressed individuals the possibility of death. Citizens were informed to boil all drinking water prior to ingestion. This alert continued until 4th August 1998.

· A second “contamination” occurred on 24th August 1998 which instigated second boil water alert. This was followed by a third on the 5th September 1998, when a two-week boil water alert was put in place.

· On 11 September, Cryptosporodium and Giardia were reported at six water treatment plants as at high levels although no boiled water alert was issued. The reason given was that the laboratories had misidentified the organisms. Their methods, were deficient, quality assurance failed, erroneous data was generated and misinterpreted.

All the above assertions are substantiated by the McClelland QC Enquiry and are on the public record. It is also a matter of record that no person in Sydney became ill as the result of drinking water during the crisis.

As is known, the public were terrified by the alleged “crisis”. It was in this atmosphere that the government made a knee jerk reaction to the McClelland QC Enquiry that identified the failures in laboratory work etc… but failed to criticize the NSW government's response to the “crisis”. The unedifying result of all of this was that the government's attempt to appease the population resulted in splitting Sydney Water in two, leading to the formation of the Sydney Catchment Authority.

It was in this environment that the government proposed to saddle the vast Sydney Water Catchment with the draconian Regional Environmental Plan Mk I. It was to represent the interests of farmers within that vast catchment in dealing with this piece of draconian beaureucratic nonsense that Mal Peters set up our Taskforce.

The work of the Taskforce over a long period has seen two re-drafts of the Draft Regional Environmental Plan with a third soon to be released.

I think it fair to say that we are very hopeful that Mk III of the Plan will deliver a document that we can all live and work with. Our Taskforce stands by to see that this is so.

Then on Wednesday, February 8th February 2006 came the bombshell for this Southern Highlands region.

On that day, Premier Iemma announced that the deeply unpopular $500 million desalination plant had been shelved indefinitely following the discovery of two deep groundwater sources in Sydney's west and down here in this very area where we are meeting today.

The announcement stated that the sources found underneath the Nepean River catchment are extensive enough to provide up to 30 billion litres of water a year for the next three to four years.

That is to say it will provide almost the same amount of water on a daily basis as the desalination plant.

It is the serious public alarm and concern that this announcement has caused that has brought us here today. These concerns are not idly held. I raised my own concerns and some specific questions with an eminent scientist who had this to say to me:

Some aquifers are comprised of geological water and once they are pumped out, the water is gone and that is that. Others are replenished rapidly and provided the pumping rate does not exceed the replenishment rate, they can be a supply of water indefinitely. Of course, with our variable rainfall, the replenishment rate will vary over time and so they are just like a dam in that respect - except that the water is underground and it is harder to estimate the amount of water left. I know of one bore (which had been fitted with a windmill) on an aquifer on a property near Walcha where the replenishment rate was very fast. In 1990 when we had had very heavy winter rain for the past three winters, it was so full that the water was squirting out the top of the pipe even when the mill was turned off!

Hydrologists can estimate the rate of replenishment of an aquifer by estimating the age of the water. This is done by isotope studies. I have forgotten the details but I know it can be done. If the water being pumped out of an aquifer is very "young" - in other words, it fell as rain recently - then the replenishment is rapid. If it has been there for a very long time, then the replenishment rate is slow and it may even be geological water and is not being replenished at all.

It seems to me that if you get water from a bore 100 m from your boundary, you need to find out the age of that water. If it is "young" water, then there is less concern than if it is "old" water.

Therefore, my advice would be to find an independent consultant hydrologist who can age the water for you and give some estimate of the rate of replenishment. You will also need to find out how to collect suitable samples for ageing. With this knowledge, you would be in a better position to tackle Sydney Water if it becomes necessary. It may cost an arm and a leg to get samples aged, but it would be worth it in the long run.
Now to have a go at your specific questions:
Will the aquifers replenish?
It depends entirely on the geology of the area and how long the present water has been in the aquifer.
If so, where will the water come from to replenish these aquifers?
Again, this depends on the geology of the area. Sometimes it comes from local rain as in coastal sand mass aquifers or in ones near the top of the divide as in the one near Walcha that I described above. The intake beds for the Great Artesian basin for the bores near Moree are near Warialda.
For those farming in the areas close to the bore heads will their aquifers be disturbed?
Assuming that the local farmers depend on the aquifers for either stock water or irrigation, then it depends entirely on the rate of pumping in relation to the rate of replenishment. If the replenishment is slower than the rate of pumping, then the water level in the aquifer will fall.
What science is there to say just where the water will come from to replenish these deep aquifers? Just how big is the area in which farmers' aquifers will be affected by Sydney plundering water from them?
Again, I can't answer these questions but have suggested how you might go about finding out the basic information to present the government with a good case for what you want. Over a larger area, it would mean dating the water from a number of different bores to find out how many different aquifers are involved and something about the different (if they are different) replenishment rates.
A brief case study might help you:
Coffs Harbour has a water problem in that it is not on a major river and most of the area behind it is on a large coastal sand lens with fresh water underneath. Some years ago, consulting engineers for the local council estimated the volume of water and found that there was plenty there and so the council decided to build a big pumping plant to enable them to use this water. However, it was all new water and, because there were no rivers running into the area, the conclusion was that it was entirely replenished by local rain.
A couple our botanists were engaged by the council to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement concerning any effects the proposal might have on the local vegetation. A quick, back of an envelope calculation showed that with the proposed pumping rate and the estimated annual input from the average rainfall over the area, the aquifer would run dry in a very few years. The final result was that the council eventually abandoned the scheme.
I hope all this helps. The key is to find some independent hydrologic consultants with the expertise and facilities (or contacts) to age the water and estimate the replenishment rates of the aquifer(s) involved. Some NSW Farmers Association members must have engaged consulting hydrologists in the past and so must have a better idea than I do about who to talk to.
The NSWFA has pledged to play a full part with all the citizens of this community to have this very dangerous and ill thought out proposal by the Iemma Government reversed.

Our current President of NSWFA, Jock Laurie, has extended the terms of reference of our NSWFA Task Force so that we can effectively fight this issue. We are now preparing a detailed brief, addressing the scientific issues raised, and pledge here today to work with this entire community to see that common sense and 'a fair go' prevail on this issue.

NSWFA believes the strategy announced by Premier Iemma on February 8th 2006 is deeply floored in that it puts the cart before the horse in a most worrying and irrational manner.

The 2004 Metropolitan Water Plan (Meeting the challenges. Securing Sydney's water future) states that, "It is a balancing act between having enough water in the short term and ensuring we manage our water resources sustainably in the longer term."

NSWFA does not agree with this. We say that it makes more sense in today's context to manage our waters sustainably in the short term so as to ensure enough water in the longer term.

We say that, instead of encouraging the population of Sydney to believe they can use as much water as they want, the government would be better advised to concentrate an intensive public education program to encourage households to use no more drinking water than they need to sustain household health, to encourage industries to use recycled water to sustain the health of their industries, and to discharge the recycled surplus back into the rivers to sustain the health of the rivers and estuaries.

The issue of recycling is the big sleeper in all of this. Many other major cities in Australia and throughout the western world, with the assistance of state of the art recycling and purification plants have adopted this option to secure their water needs.

NSWFA sees it as the major challenge to successfully advocate this recycling option to those who occupy the Treasury Benches in Macquarie Street.

So where do we start and how can we all, as individuals play, a part:

· Form Local Groups:
I hear that a local Kangaloon residents group may be formed. This can only do good in bringing the community together to keep informed and to share knowledge and opinions as to how best to meet the challenge of wheeling the government on this vital issue.

· Encourage Wingecarribee Shire Council to take a leading role in coordinating the bringing together all groups and individuals in our community by setting up Community Aquifer Advisory Council.
Our area is rich in talent and expertise of many different kinds. I would love to see our Council foster and encourage these rich talents to come together for the good of the whole community on the important aquifer issue. The benefits of combined wisdom can never be over-estimated in my opinion.

On behalf of our NSWFA President, Jock Laurie, I have been requested to say to all present here today that NSWFA will not be found wanting when the whips are cracking on this issue. We regard it as a vitally important issue confronting this community. We will be vitally involved with you on this one and would be very happy to serve on any Community Advisory Group that may be set up, if invited to do so.

Anonymous said...

Here is a link to the report of the Audit of the Sydney Drinking Water Catchment, December 2005. One of the speakers from the floor mentioned this Report. Clearly the Government has been advised that it needs to do more work, but it is choosing to ignore that advice.

The report itself makes interesting reading, but it is hard work.

Extracted below are some pages from the introduction and from Chapter 3 on Managing Water Resources, sub-section "Groundwater extraction". These extracts are attached as 2 Word Docs, which are a lot easier to manage than the huge Adobe Acrobat Reader files (.pdf files) which are up on the web. I have added emphasis marks, just to highlight key points (for my own benefit) as I was reading it.

I would particularly draw your attention to the second page of the extract from the "introduction" (pages 10 and 11 from the report).

P11 states: "estimates of sustainable yield (from groundwater extraction) have been refined for the Wingecarribee Shire, resulting in the DNR issuing an embargo in April 2004 on new groundwater access licences for commercial purposes in specified areas of the Southern Highlands."

Comment: The authorities were sufficiently worried about private (rural) bores to limit ban any further ones. Now they say it is safe to hook Sydney up to the same system?

Further it states: "The DNR is also currently preparing a Macro Groundwater Plan for porous rocks in NSW. This plan will include areas in the Catchment such as Sydney Basin sandstone. The plan will provide rules for groundwater extraction and management for a ten-year period from July 2006."

Where is that Plan? Why is the Government rushing ahead with this proposal?

Further the Report states: Firstly, the DNR has a joint research project with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and the SCA to date groundwater in the Southern Highlands and in the Nattai River sub-catchment. This will provide an improved understanding of the interaction between surface and groundwater.

Why is the Government rushing ahead with this proposal, before these results are available?

Anonymous said...

This book chapter appears in the March 10, 2006 issue of Executive Intelligence Review.
World's Water Wells Are Drying Up!
by Professor Lance Endersbee AO

Emeritus Professor Lance Endersbee is former Dean of Engineering and former Pro-Vice Chancellor of Melbourne, Australia's Monasy University, and a world authority on rock behavior and tunnelling. He reviews the disastrous state of world groundwater, and shows why it is not replenished by rainfall, contrary to the textbook models.[1]

Around the world, groundwater from deep wells is the main source of drinking water [for over three billion people. In addition, a large proportion of the food supply in many poor countries is based on irrigation from wells. However, almost all of the world's wells have falling water levels, and declining yield, and already, many have run dry.

These deep water wells cannot be replenished from rainfall. The source of the groundwater that supports these three billion people lies in the interior of the Earth. There is a continuing release of water from the interior towards the surface of the Earth, and we see that in the steam of volcanoes, and the water gushing from deep ocean vents. Over geological time, some of the rising water was trapped in the path towards the surface of the Earth, and accumulated as underground reservoirs of water.

There are resources of groundwater underlying most of the flat lands of the world. From early times, men dug wells by hand, and lifted water in buckets for their needs. Many civilizations were established where groundwater was available at oases or in shallow wells. The ancient Romans built aqueducts to bring springs of groundwater to their many cities around the shores of the Mediterranean. Vitruvius, a Roman engineer and architect, describes in his book, written in the First Century B.C., the methods the Romans used to find and test underground sources of water. He tells of the adverse properties of some spring waters. There are cautionary tales about a little well at Susa, the capital of Persia, where those who drink of the water lose their teeth, and a well in the Alps where those who drink the water immediately fall lifeless. There are also wells with healing properties, such as the acid springs in Campania that have the power to break up stones in the bladder. Vitruvius advises on the tests for good water: The first test is to look at the physique of the people who dwell in the vicinity!

Today, in the United States, groundwater provides drinking water for over one half of the population. The same applies in much of Europe, India, China, and many other countries.

The pattern of dependence on groundwater that had continued for centuries began to change from about 1950. The population of the world was continuing to increase, there was growth of cities and expansion of city water supplies based on the use of groundwater, and in rural areas there was the introduction of mechanical pumps and commercial agriculture based on groundwater. As a consequence, there was a simultaneous and rapid growth in the use of groundwater all around the world. In countries like India and China, in North Africa and the Middle East, the use of shallow hand-dug wells, and hand lifting of water, was replaced by drilled bores and mechanical pumps. The use of fertilizers enabled a very great increase in yield, but that required much more water. There was a vast increase in the areas under irrigation from groundwater.

There was a rush to exploit the limited groundwater resources. The groundwater was freely available at the cost of a bore and a pump. There was competition to use more and more groundwater. Water tables dropped, and farmers drilled deeper bores, and installed more powerful pumps. Almost simultaneously, all around the world, the wells began to run dry, and governments were quite unable to control the extraction of groundwater, or protect the resources.

Most governments did not know where the wells were, or the depth of the wells. Governments did not record water levels, but were certainly informed when farmers complained when their wells ran dry. Farmers, governments, and their professional advisors, had all believed that the wells would flow forever.

The groundwater rush was like a gold rush; it was a great uncontrolled bonanza. The International Water Management Institute has estimated that the total global withdrawal of groundwater is now about 1,000 cubic kilometers each year, but it is quite unsustainable. This great global rush to exploit available groundwater resources in our time is a one-off extraction of a limited natural resource.

Groundwater has been, and in many areas still continues to be, the best and only readily available source of clean drinking water. This is because the groundwater may be just directly below the place of use, for agriculture, cities, factories, and mines. In most cases the groundwater is available at no cost, except for the cost of the well, and the pump.

The groundwater in these underground reservoirs has accumulated in geological time. The resource can be considered as a great reservoir of water that has been captured in open joints and fissures in the rock, and in pores in porous rocks. In the natural state, prior to intervention to exploit the resource, the underground reservoir was filled to the brim, and overflowed naturally at springs, and into lakes and streams.

Prior to 1950, most of the world's groundwater basins were in a condition close to a state where the rate of use of the groundwater was compatible with the sustainability of the resource. After over half a century of massive exploitation, far greater than any possible rate of recovery, most of the groundwater basins of the world are now close to the limits of the resource.

The consequences are now evident in many countries. In essence, the world has been exploiting the reserve bank of groundwater at a rate far greater than the rate of natural replacement, and the water bank is becoming insolvent. This excess use of water is a deficit that can never be repaid in our time.

The deficit in the groundwater bank is also being matched by a deficit in the food it provided. Thus the present prosperity in much of the world is based on borrowing from the bank of water, which is also, in essence, the borrowing of food from the food bank, neither of which can be repaid. As a consequence there has been an artificial stimulus of food production in many countries where groundwater enabled food production to be raised well above sustainable levels.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization even suggested that the rapid exploitation of groundwater has saved the world from a food crisis. But if countries have been borrowing water on credit, and effectively, borrowing food on credit, it means that the world is facing the prospect of an even more serious food crisis. This prospect is already highly evident in some countries as they try to rapidly expand food production from resources of surface waters, especially in China, and India.

China's Water Crisis
China is heavily dependent on groundwater. Most of the flat areas of China overlay groundwater basins, and the groundwater is being extracted for water supply for cities, industries, and agriculture. The northern agricultural areas of China are virtually drying out: The major rivers have ceased to flow in the dry season. The water table under the North China Plain, which produces half of China's wheat, and a third of the corn, is falling at an alarming rate. Under Hebei Province, in the heart of the North China Plain, the water level in the deep aquifer is falling at a rate of 3 meters each year.

The decline of the water table has led to wells drying up, and to deeper wells being drilled. The consequent increase in pumping costs has forced some farmers off their land, while the demand for groundwater for cities and industries has continued to grow. In Beijing, the new wells for the city water supply now have to reach 1,000 meters to tap fresh water.

The pumping of groundwater in the North China Plain has resulted in the entire area subsiding, with many funnels and sinks appearing on the ground surface. Cities are reporting substantial subsidence, complicated by the consolidation of the ground under the new high-rise buildings.

Shanghai started pumping groundwater for the city water supply in 1860. The old city of Shanghai sank almost 2 meters in the period 1921-65. Subsidence is continuing, and the authorities are now trying to correct it by injecting water into the aquifers.

Such ground subsidence in densely populated cities has caused great economic losses, as well as presenting a hazard to buildings and people. It is reported that Shanghai has suffered economic losses estimated at $35 billion in the past 40 years due to destructive flooding and tidal effects caused by subsidence, probably mostly caused by groundwater extraction.

In the Pudong New Area of Shanghai there are a large number of new skyscrapers. Settlement of the new urban area is being recorded at about 3 centimeters a year. The foundation of the tallest building, at 420 meters high, sank by 6.3 centimeters in 2002. Most of that settlement is probably due to the great weight of the building, but extraction of groundwater would have contributed. It may be unfair of me to mention that during construction of a tower in Pisa in Italy, from the year 1173, it began to tilt in 1178, due to extraction of groundwater nearby. Construction continued intermittently in the tilted position until 1350. It became famous as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I am pleased to note that the buildings in Shanghai appear to be subsiding without tilting.

The urgency of the need to control the use of groundwater, and to provide other sources of water and food, has been recognized by the Chinese government. They are planning to build several new water projects, including two very large projects, one in China, and one in South East Asia to provide a food bowl for China.

In November 2002, the Chinese Government authorized the construction of a hugely ambitious water diversion plan to take waters from the Yangtze River system to the Yellow River.

The aim of the project is to divert water from the south of the country, where the rivers flow from the Tibetan plateau, to the areas of water shortage in the North China Plain, and to Beijing and other industrial cities in the north. There are three separate diversion systems. Construction of the first diversion system began in 2002, and is estimated to cost $19 billion, and will divert 13.4 billion cubic meters per year to north China. There are two more similar diversions in the total project.

The population of China is about 1.3 billion, and still growing at about 0.8% each year. That means an increasing demand for food. Even with the proposed water projects in China, there will still be a need to import food.

One prospective source of food for export to China is the Mekong Basin in South East Asia. The Basin begins where the Mekong River leaves the mountains at the Thailand-Myanmar border, and comprises the flood plain of the Mekong River in parts of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

In 1956, a Mekong Committee, comprising representatives of the four riparian countries, was established with a secretariat provided by the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE), in Bangkok. They studied conceptual plans that had been developed by the riparian countries with significant input from expert engineers from U.S. Government agencies (Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and Tennessee Valley Authority).

The conceptual plan was a vast scheme involving a cascade of seven dams on the Mekong River, associated hydro power, river navigation for 1,000 kilometers inland from the sea, the diversion of waters for extensive irrigation development throughout the Basin, the construction of many dams on tributary rivers, and water supply to cities and towns, and flood control.

In 1964, I became interested and involved in the Mekong Project when I went to Thailand as a UN advisor on dam design and hydropower. At the time, there was great enthusiasm to get on with the Mekong project, and wonderful international co-operation. Some excellent and extensive investigatory studies had been made on many aspects of the project by experts from friendly nations, all under the umbrella of the United Nations—for example: U.S.A, Japan, Israel, Australia, France, and other countries were active in programs of assistance in planning and evaluation. In addition, there were offers of support from many countries for participation in the construction of the project. Overall, it was a wonderful example of international co-operation in action. For my part, I was delighted to share in the work with my Thai colleagues, and to collaborate with experts from so many countries.

At the beginning of 1965, it all seemed to stop. The war in Vietnam halted any prospect of the project continuing, even on-site investigations on the main river dam sites. Shots were sometimes fired at the operators of drill rigs in the middle of the river, lessening enthusiasm for international cooperation. The World Bank was quite firm in refusing to fund any part of the project while hostilities continued.

Later, the terrible civil hostilities in Cambodia, especially the genocide, and the laying of a vast number of land mines, did not encourage any construction activity in that country for the foreseeable future. The effect was to stop all work on the key parts of the project—for 40 years.

Recently, the Chinese government announced an interest in funding and building the entire project, and sought the cooperation of the riparian countries. The Chinese were quite clear that they wanted to create a new food bowl for the world, and especially for China.

The Chinese government indicated that there would be no need for funding from international sources such as the World Bank, or the Asian Development Bank. The Chinese were prepared to fund the project and to undertake the design and supervision of construction of all the major dams and hydro power plants. The total cost of all those parts of the Mekong Project in the four riparian countries will probably be much more than $100 billion dollars. The offer of such large funds is a strong incentive to the riparian countries to accept the Chinese proposals. Of course the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank would also welcome the Chinese proposal, as it frees bank funds for other purposes.

Far upstream on the Mekong River, in China, near Tibet, the Chinese government is now constructing a 290 meter-high concrete arch dam project, which includes a large hydro-electric power plant. It will be the highest dam in the world. The project is likely to be followed by a cascade of hydropower dams down the river towards the Mekong Basin.

These two great projects to be funded by the Chinese Government, the south-north river diversions in China, and the Mekong Project, illustrate the urgent concern about future food supplies for China, and the magnitude of the extraordinary problems that have been created by the exploitation of the Chinese groundwater resources towards extinction.

India - 'Where Has All the Water Gone?'
In India, there has been an enormous increase in irrigation from deep groundwater over the past 50 years. India is mining aquifer waters in virtually all states, and water tables are steadily falling, in some cases by 1 meter each year.

The population of India is well over one billion people, and increasing. There were 1 million wells with pumps in 1960. Now there are 21 to 26 million groundwater wells, with 55-60% of the population dependent on groundwater. The total use of groundwater is 200 cubic kilometers each year.

The Indian agricultural economy prospered from the benefits of this abundant, free, and clean groundwater. Groundwater irrigation expanded to create more agricultural wealth than any other irrigation source.

Irrigation from groundwater had many advantages. The farmers could use the groundwater when and where they needed it. The improved prosperity enabled them to use higher yielding crops, fertilizers, and pest control, making the use of groundwater far more productive, and thereby causing increasing dependence on groundwater. As a consequence, a great groundwater economy was created in India over the past 50 years. It has now reached its maximum level of development, and is starting to decline, rapidly in many cases.

The over-exploitation of groundwater has led to declining water levels, drying of shallow aquifers, and saline water intrusion. The deeper groundwater wells are highly mineralized, and in some parts of India, the population is now suffering fluoride poisoning and arsenic poisoning.

It is evident that India faces a terrible calamity as the groundwater economy limps to a standstill. Half of the country's traditional hand-dug wells have already run dry, as have millions of bored wells. Many farmers have borrowed money to spend on new wells, only to find that they did not flow. Because of the risks involved, the money had to be borrowed at high interest rates. The consequent inability to repay borrowings has led to suicides of farmers.

Urgent action is now planned by the Indian Government. They have approved a plan to use waters from the rivers flowing from the Himalayas for diversion south to replenish 17 southern rivers, and to be distributed over much of the Indian Peninsula. The project is based on using the waters of 14 tributaries of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers.

The scheme involves some 300 reservoirs, 12,000 kilometers of canals, and will divert a total flow of 1,500 cubic meters/second. The estimated cost is from $70-200 billion. The proposed project has already caused tensions with Bangladesh, because it involves diverting rivers which flow through Bangladesh.

The Indian Government has formed a Task Force to implement the project, with a completion date of 2016. It will be an enormous task to complete the project in that time. On the other hand, the provision of a secure supply of water to the people of India is now a matter of crucial human and economic importance to the nation, and to the world.

Bangladesh—Arsenic Poisoning From Groundwater
Bangladesh has a population of 141 million, as of July 2004, and has the highest population density in the world, other than the city-states such as Hong Kong and Singapore. Yet Bangladesh is a rural economy with most of the people working in the agricultural sector. It is a low-lying country on the delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. About one-third of the country floods annually during the monsoon season.

Bangladesh came into existence originally as Bengali East Pakistan after the partition of India in 1950. It became a separate country in 1971, when it seceded from its union with West Pakistan. As an ethnic group the people are almost entirely Bengali, and 83% of the population is Moslem. Almost the entire land border is with India, and relations between the two countries are tense.

It is an extremely poor country. Until the 1970s, the people in the countryside were largely dependent for their water supply on surface water ponds and rivers. With increasing population, the surface ponds became highly polluted. Sewage bacteria unleashed water-borne diseases, which killed a quarter of a million children each year. The United Nations became concerned about this dreadful calamity, and the Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) sought to solve the problem by installing a great number of water wells in order to replace dangerous surface waters with clean groundwater.

The economic impact of the mass introduction of groundwater wells was quite dramatic. The contribution of groundwater to the total irrigated area increased from 4% in 1971 to 70% in 1999. Some 12 million wells were installed. Employment and output in agriculture increased, and poverty was reduced. The United Nations had saved the children.

The health problem seemed to be solved, but by 1985 the people were beginning to be diagnosed with arsenic poisoning. Arsenic is a slow killer, and the signs of poisoning are blisters on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, which eventually become gangrenous and cancerous. Almost all the wells had traces of arsenic.... This means that virtually the entire population is now exposed to some degree to arsenic poisoning; almost every one of the 68,000 villages in Bangladesh is at risk.

Corrective action is slow. The population has now been alerted to the problem, and the authorities are trying to identify the most contaminated wells. But there are about 12 million wells, and testing all of these may take decades.

But the situation is actually much worse. Further testing has shown that arsenic is not the only toxic metal in the groundwater—it is just that arsenic poisoning was the first to be revealed in patients. There are also unsafe levels of manganese, lead, nickel, and chromium. And now it has been discovered that a proportion of wells also exceed World Health Organization limits for uranium.... An entire population of over 140 million is slowly being poisoned in Bangladesh, and it is time for effective action.

In June, 2004, the Board of the World Bank provided a grant of US $40 million to the Government of Bangladesh to expand the provision of safe drinking water to some rural areas by promotion of piped water supply, but that is a small amount for the task when there are about 100 million rural people at risk.

I recall that in the early days of the United Nations, there was a wonderful spirit of goodwill between nations, and nations were prepared to give generously to support worthy projects. The gifts were often support in kind, such as construction, plant, and equipment, or sending a team of experts, or making donations of food to regions stricken with famine.

Bangladesh is in desperate need of international assistance if the problem of arsenic poisoning is to be corrected quickly. At present there is a tendency for the international community to stand back, and to fund studies of the problems, rather than intervening directly and solving the problems....

U.S.A.: Groundwater and Market Forces
In the United States, the state governments retain residual responsibilities for such matters as land and water. All states maintain their own legislation on water. In the case of groundwater, the property owner has an absolute right of capture of the groundwater under his property. This means that the land owner may pump as much water as he wishes, without incurring any responsibility, if his actions are found to be detrimental to his neighbors or the community as a whole.

Under state environmental laws, a state may establish controls to maintain groundwater quality, and that may influence well spacing and disposal of waste into the groundwater. But overall, throughout the United States, the state legislatures treat groundwater as a basic property right, and there is no control over groundwater withdrawal. Because of problems of depletion of groundwater in some basins, many states have established local district conservancy boards, which are self-governing bodies of users of groundwater. The boards are charged with responsibility to deal with all property owners in the management of the water resources. It is hoped that the problems will be solved by mutual agreement. Nevertheless, in any dispute, the legislatures and the courts continue to treat groundwater as a basic property right.

Even with the conservancy boards, the consequence has been a disastrous emptying of the nation's groundwater basins. In cases of dispute, the right of unlimited private use of groundwater is defended by the law!

Groundwater is the source of drinking water for about one-half of the U.S. population, including nearly all of the rural population. The pumps deliver in total about 50 billion U.S. gallons per day, or about 70 cubic kilometers per year. The problem is made worse by a continued quaint view in the groundwater profession that the aquifers are being recharged from surface rainfall. They use dubious mathematical models of groundwater flow to show farmers and cities where to drill more and deeper wells, but inevitably the new wells cause the water table to drop, while the wells decline in flow.

The reality is that the United States is coming to the end of the cowboy era of groundwater exploitation, and it is to be expected that the flow in all basins will gradually decline towards extinction. The evidence is clear.

There are reduced flows of water to springs, lakes, and streams. In the natural state, the small residual flow of groundwater came to the surface as springs, and as flow to streams, lakes, and wetlands. With the lowering of groundwater levels, the associated springs and streams cease to flow.

There is serious subsidence of land in many parts of the United States due to pumping of groundwater. In the area of Houston, Texas, groundwater pumping has led to subsidence at the surface of about 3 meters, together with a lowering of the groundwater level by about 120 meters.

In the desert state of Arizona, there have been water level declines of between 100 and 200 meters over much of the area, and associated subsidence of the ground of 5 meters and more. Unequal subsidence and deep land fissures are a serious problem. (The following internet reference is informative,

In 1952 I became familiar with problems being caused by land subsidence in the San Joaquin valley in California. I was with the Bureau of Reclamation in Denver, and the engineers in the Bureau were designing a canal system for the area to distribute surface water for irrigation. They had a problem with land subsidence that was being caused by extraction of groundwater. The land was subsiding at the rate of about 1 meter in three years, presenting major difficulties in the design of irrigation canals, which follow very flat grades. The subsidence continued for decades after, as the accompanying photo shows.

In Kansas, groundwater accounts for 90% of the total water supply. It is the principal source for 600 public water supply systems, and most rural-domestic supply. Most of the groundwater is used for irrigation. Groundwater levels have dropped substantially, in some areas by over 200 feet. There are many similar examples in other states.

Virtually all of the drinking water in Florida is supplied from groundwater. The Florida aquifer system extends across the entire state of Florida, southern Georgia, and adjoining parts of Alabama and South Carolina. A major concern is the increasing contamination of the aquifer system as the water levels decline. There is intrusion of seawater into the aquifers along the east coast, and on the south coast along the Gulf of Mexico.

In Texas and Arizona, there are proposals to privatize the groundwater aquifers. This would absolve governments from the responsibilities for management of groundwater, and leave the matter to the private sector and the people to sort out. This seems a dangerous proposal in a country where citizens may own guns.

Subsidence of lands due to groundwater extraction is a serious problem in several states of the United States. Differential settlement, sometimes with cracking of the ground surface, and sinkholes, can cause serious damage in built-up areas.

Throughout the United States, the common law right of capture of groundwater is firmly entrenched in the minds of the people, and in legislation. Landowners protect their claim to capture by pumping the water. Consequently, there has been a race to the pumphouse. The race is now ending. From now on, water supply will become a far more important issue for farms, cities, and states. Water supply for cities will become more expensive, and there will be pressures for transfer of water across state boundaries.

The rapid decline of groundwater resources in China and India has led to the governments of those countries moving to construct huge projects for the transfer of water to their cities and farms. Similar actions may be needed in the United States.

Libya—The Man-Made river
In the 1960s, during the exploration for oil in the desert in Libya, vast deep reservoirs of groundwater were discovered. Four major underground basins have subsequently been identified, and estimated to contain over 35,000 cubic kilometers of water, a truly huge volume of groundwater, if the estimates turn out to be close. The groundwater is recognized to be fossil groundwater, and there will be no effective recharge as the resource is exploited.

In 1983, the Libyan Government created an Authority to plan and build a great project to take waters from the aquifers in the desert in the south to the coastal plain, along the Mediterranean Sea, for irrigation and public water supply. The project involves 270 deep wells, and 4,000 kilometers of large diameter pipe, over 4 meters in diameter, all buried under the desert sand.

The entire project will cost about $27 billion, funded entirely by the Libyan Government from its oil revenues. The project is described as the Great Man-Made River Project. By 1996, a key stage of the project was reached when water was delivered to Tripoli, the capital of Libya.

Libya covers a large area, but the population is little more than 5 million. The construction of this project, funded entirely without overseas borrowing, is a most remarkable achievement. It is one of the largest construction projects ever undertaken. It was intended that the project would make Libya self-sufficient in food. Libya imports about 75% of its food. Irrigated farmlands are now being developed along the coast towards this purpose of self-sufficiency. But self-sufficiency in most foods may not be the most efficient and economical way for Libya to use these abundant new resources of groundwater. For example, it may be a great waste of water for Libya to grow cereals such as wheat, barley, and rice. These crops have high water demands, and are best grown in areas of sufficient natural rainfall.

There may be far higher financial returns, and far more employment, if Libya uses its lands, sunshine, and high-value water to grow higher-value foods for export to world markets, such as fruit and vegetables, and to support new industries based on these new crops.

A Brief Review of Other Nations
Yemen is a rocky barren country, with very little arable land, and a population of 20 million people. Groundwater was developed in the last few decades to provide water for urban areas, and for limited agriculture. The water table is now falling at 2 meters each year in the agricultural areas. The capital is Sanaa, and its groundwater level has been falling at 6 meters each year. This presents a very serious problem as there are no other supplies of groundwater, and virtually no supplies of fresh surface water.

Iran is a rocky country with limited areas of soils suitable for agriculture, and a population of 69 million. Iran is facing an acute shortage of water. In eastern Iran, villagers are leaving the region as wells run dry. It has been reported that in the fertile plain in the northeast, the water table has been falling by 2 to 3 meters a year.

Mexico. There are serious problems of water supply in some states and several cities, as aquifers are pumped dry. Mexico has a population of 105 million people, growing by about 2 million each year. The agricultural lands are deteriorating, and there is a drift of people to the cities, but the cities also have serious water and pollution problems. The government considers that lack of clean water is a national security issue. There have been serious problems of land subsidence in Mexico City for a long time, simply due to the weight of monumental buildings on the underlying clays. The subsidence is aggravated by groundwater extraction.

The World Groundwater Deficit: How Did It Happen?
The great magnitude of the problems caused by the depletion of the world's groundwater resources is abundantly clear. Yet except for China and India, there has been very little action by governments. In Australia, the government has recently issued a report recommending the use of groundwater to supplement surface irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin, a vast flat area that is the food-bowl of the nation. The decision seems to have been made with no consideration whatever of the prospect of very serious damage of irrigation areas, due to land subsidence caused by groundwater extraction, or increased salinity in low areas, or earth fissures as in Arizona, and a firm conviction that recharge from surface rainfall would maintain water levels.

I believe that one reason for this inability of most governments to comprehend the situation lies in the nature of the professional advice they receive. I note that in the scientific and professional journals of the world, there is never any mention of world groundwater problems. The professional groups most concerned with water resources and groundwater are all strangely silent about the worldwide decline of groundwater resources. The textbooks on groundwater hydrology appear to be part of the problem: They all show mathematical models of groundwater flow based on the key assumption that the groundwater is recharged from surface rainfall. As a consequence, the related computer models of groundwater flow are very seriously misleading.

These days it is so easy for professionals to share ideas with colleagues all around the world, and one would expect that the serious matter of the worldwide decline of groundwater resources would command attention. But it does not. It is apparent that the main cause of the silence is that the present understanding of the origin of groundwater by the professions involved, is not all consistent with what is actually happening. The theory is not working out in practice. There is a global disaster, and the key experts are silent.

There is clearly a need for a new understanding of the origin of deep groundwater. It is hoped that this book may be a step in that direction.


[1] This article is adapted from the first chapter of the author's book, A Voyage of Discovery: A History of Ideas About the Earth, With a New Understanding of the Global Resources of Water and Petroleum, and the Problems of Climate Change, Frankston, Victoria, Australia: Lance Endersbee, 2005. The book is available from the Monash University Bookshop.

Anonymous said...

Sydney Water Catchment Taskforce

Deep Water Aquifers
Progress Report:

I report that the Taskforce continues to encourage Local Government Councils, in areas affected by the proposal to plunder the aquifers to provide Sydney with domestic and industrial water, to support Wingecarribee Shire Council and NSW Farmers Association in seeking to establish a broad based community alliance in the form of an Independent Aquifer Advisory Committee (IAAC) for the purposes of:

Obtaining a financial grant from the NSW government to enable the IAAC to retain an experienced and appropriately qualified independent hydrologist (and other like experts as may be properly required) to confirm: the extent and capacity of the aquifer/s; the source/s of the water that replenishes the aquifer/s; the ability of the aquifers to meet the demands that the Iemma government is proposing to place upon them; the possible and probable effects likely to be caused to the aquifer/s and the traditional users of water extracted there from; the possible and probable effects likely to be caused to the ecology of the region generally if the Iemma government's proposal is allowed to go ahead.

Independently running the ruler over the workings of Minister Debus' Community Reference Groups (CRG's) currently being constituted by him to participate in a community consultative process proposed by the government. NOTE: It is proposed by Minister Debus to constitute a CRG for the Leonay area and another CRG for the Southern Highlands area. NSW Farmers Association has been promised a seat on both these proposed CRG's. At present, subject to the views of the Taskforce, it is proposed that Ed Biel will represent the Association on the Leonay CRG and that I will represent the Association on the Southern Highlands CRG.

In the event that the expert scientific advice is to the effect that the aforesaid proposal by the Iemma government is not soundly based, to make a submission to government to reverse the decision proposed.

As you know, on 10th May 2006 President of NSW Farmers Association, Jock Laurie, met with Mayor Gordon Lewis, Mayor of Wingecarribee Shire Council, in Moss Vale when Mayor Lewis agreed to seek his Council's support for the calling of a meeting of representatives of all Local Government Councils affected by the aquifer proposal for the purposes of discussing, and if thought fit, forming the IAAC. I note that Wingecarribee Shire Council has now agreed to support the initiative

On 17th May 2006 I met in Goulburn with Mayor Paul Stephenson, Mayor of Goulburn Mulwaree Shire Council, to seek his Council's support for the forming of the IAAC for the purposes abovementioned. Mayor Stephenson assured me that his Council is very concerned by the aquifer proposal and will give full support to the IAAC initiative.

On 25th May 2006 Ed Biel and I met in Picton with Mayor Philip Costa, Mayor of Wollondilly Shire Council, for the same purpose and again have been promised very strong support. Indeed Mayor Costa, as matter of some urgency, arranged for me to address a meeting of the Local Government Advisory Group (LGAG) on the issue. LGAG were to meet in Windsor the following day. NOTE: As you may be aware, the Hawkesbury Nepean Catchment Management Authority (CMA) is the relevant CMA for the Sydney Water Catchment. As mentioned previously, it shares this responsibility with the Sydney Catchment Authority (SCA).

The CMA has constituted a sub-group, namely, LGAG. LGAG comprises representatives of all the elected Local Government Councils within the CMA's vast catchment area and is, as you can imagine, a very representative, powerful, and well informed group.

For obvious reasons, to have the opportunity to address LGAG was an occasion not to be missed.

Accordingly, Ed Biel and I travelled together to Windsor on 26th May 2006. The Chairman of LGAG Cr. Robert Bell (no relation to me), the former Mayor of Gosford City Council, welcomed us to the meeting most cordially and secured the consent of the meeting to bring our agenda item forward to enable me to address the meeting as a matter of priority.

We received a most attentive hearing and from the lengthy discussion and numerous questions that followed, it appears that all Council's will strongly support Mayor Lewis' initiative of calling a meeting of representatives of Local Government Councils affected by the aquifer proposal for the purposes of setting up IAAC. Further, LGAG unanimously passed a resolution to the effect that, at the meeting to be called by Mayor Lewis, it be proposed, inter alia, that the IAAC be formed (for the purposes aforesaid) as a special sub-committee of LGAG with NSW Farmers Association to be represented thereon. LGAG is of the view that the necessary funding to retain the services of the necessary expert advisors will be more readily obtained if the CMA is involved.

Invitations will shortly be sent out by Mayor Lewis to the Mayors of all the Councils affected by the proposal, inviting them to attend a meeting to consider and agree, if thought fit, to forthwith constitute the IAAC for the abovementioned purposes.

Jonathan Bell, Taskforce Chairman.

30th May 2006.