Narrative needs to change with resources

Peter Cook from Flinders University

“We don’t have a water shortage problem. The issue is that the water’s never where we want it to be when we need it.” The narrative needs to change with resources, said Professor Peter Cook.

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Peter Cook is Director, National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT) College of Science & Engineering at Flinders University in Adelaide. Situated in one of the driest states on the driest inhabited continent on the planet, Cook knows a thing or two about water – especially groundwater, which is his specialty.

 When it comes to water use, reuse and conservation, Cook has spent the past 20 years studying groundwater and its role in Australia’s 

“It was frustrating that in the middle of the Millennium drought a few years ago, people had signs on their front fences saying, ‘bore water in use’,” he says. “We know watering your garden with the reticulated water supply was banned, except under certain severe conditions. But the implicit assumption of this signage was, ‘don’t come knocking on our door. We can water whenever we like because we’re using underground bore water.’ Well, bore water is still a resource we should be conserving. That gave the wrong impression about the availability of underground water.” 

Then there is the issue of contamination with people not realising that even a small chemical spill can have long-term ramifications. Or, when water is taken from an underground aquifer, a sudden downpour won’t replenish it immediately. 

“We need to be careful with our underground aquifers and how we manage groundwater. It’s usually replenished very slowly,” he said. “If we contaminate the groundwater, it will be there a long time. Groundwater typically moves only at a few metres per year. If we spill chemicals in a river, they’re probably flushed out the bottom, and sometimes the river can recover in a few years. Groundwater systems don’t work like that – the chemicals can stay there for a very long time. 

“We’ve got to be smart because they’re resources that have been there for a long time. And if we use them carefully and sustainably, they’re a great resource, right?” 

Narrative needs to change with resources around the Great Artesian Basin

And this needs to be reinforced due to the recent past with post-colonisation Australia not looking after the resources as well as it could have, mainly due to ignorance. The Great Artesian Basin – the 1.7 million sq km underground reservoir of water that encompasses three states and the Northern Territory – is integral to the country’s water future. 

“The water in there is thousands or millions of years old. If we were to overuse it, it would be long before it was full again,” he said. “The Great Artesian Basin is an example of where our management has improved the future outlook. In the past, one of the problems of that basin was that the early pastoralist put bores in the ground to water their stock. The groundwater would flow naturally out of the bores without being pumped. Occasionally, rivers and lakes formed around these bores, which were left flowing naturally. That caused a big loss of pressure in some of those aquifers. 

“The government and industry got together and spent a lot of money putting taps on those bores. That certainly has improved the outlook for the basin.” 

Unsurprisingly the biggest industrial use for groundwater is irrigation. By Cook’s estimate, agriculture and related fields use about two-thirds of all groundwater. And in his current hometown of Adelaide, groundwater is used to irrigate school ovals, and some industries take advantage of the underground supplies. 

The general manufacturing industry is a big user of water in Australia. Because of the large demand for groundwater, reuse is now becoming more of the narrative, even with some of it happening unintentionally.

“There’s a lot of recycling that happens by accident,” he said. “For example, the Murray River ends in Adelaide at the end of its journey. As it winds towards the city, some water would have been pumped out of the river and applied for irrigation. Now some of that would seep into the groundwater and find its way back into the river. Some of that water will have been used more than once, so there’s reuse that occurs.” 

Narrative needs to change with resources around wastewater treatment and recycling

While that is natural reuse, there will be a time when treating wastewater and reintroducing it as fresh water will be the norm for some parts of the country. He cites Namibia in southwest Africa, which has an extremely dry climate. For the past 50 years, the government has been treating its wastewater and putting it back into the pipe to go to peoples’ houses. 

 “I don’t know exactly how many places in the world are doing that now, but for a very long time, they were the only place doing it,” said Cook. “For most of us, that’s a bridge too far. 

“But if you put it back in the river and then 50 kilometres down the river, you take it out again. We’re a little bit happier with that because there’s another level of mixing and dilution processes. We should have two pipes going to our houses. 

“Currently, we clean the water up to drinking water standards and then flush it down the toilet, put it on our lawns, etc. This doesn’t make sense. You might give them two pipes if you’re starting cities from scratch. One for drinking water and one for other uses like watering your lawn.”

Narrative needs to change with resources around sustainability

How does Cook see the future of water in terms of sustainability and being there for everybody to utilise to its potential without wasting it? 

“The future of water will have lots of solutions – there’s not one solution to the water problem,” he said. “There is desalination; it will be the best option in some areas. While expensive to build and maintain at the moment, improved technologies are happening so we can get better and cheaper desalination. 

“In some areas, there needs to be more managed aquifer recharge, essentially using the underground system as a dam. You pump water into the ground when water is available. You store it underground and pump it out later. That’s an area with huge potential for improvement and industry involvement.” 

Cook also said that in some of the wine areas south of Adelaide, the effluent from some of the treatment plants gets some primary treatment and then gets injected underground as storage. It is then delivered to vineyards for irrigation. 

Going back to the education aspect, Cook believes if we get that right, then the rest will follow regarding how the supply is managed. 

“In some areas, we need to use water smarter. This isn’t in the groundwater space but everywhere. We need more information and a better understanding of the water scarcity,” he said. “There is still a belief in some areas that underground water is this infinite supply. You put a pipe in, and you can take and take. That isn’t the case. This is a finite resource.” 

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