Researchers say ‘invisible’ groundwater makes an annual contribution to GDP of more than $6.8 billion a year. 

From the Murray-Darling system to Great Artesian Basin, ‘invisible’ underground groundwater is often the only water supply available across the vast majority of Australia. 

However, overuse of groundwater during droughts and aquifer depletion has led to water crises, including in Australia’s ‘food bowl’ the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB), California and Cape Town in South Africa.

Experts at Flinders University say more depletion is likely to follow as groundwater management is largely reactive and unlikely to avert more crises as climate change and population pressures grow.

“Groundwater makes up almost all of the available freshwater on our planet: 97 per cent of fresh water on earth lies in the ground beneath our feet,” says Flinders University Distinguished Professor of Hydrogeology Craig Simmons.

Groundwater supplies half of the world’s drinking water and 43 per cent of the water used to grow good, and is widely used by mining and industry too.

Professor Simmons says examples of commercial interests such as irrigators working collaboratively with local communities on groundwater management and protection are necessary to protect valuable groundwater resources.

The new research article, ‘Coming together: Insights from an Australian example of collective action to co-manage groundwater,’ considers the collective local economic, social, and environmental decisions that have helped create a valuable example of groundwater management for others around the world, Professor Simmons says.

“By working together with the government department, the local committee has developed and implemented innovative water management policies which led to reduction of groundwater extractions by 80 per cent, promoted artificial recharge from excess surface water, changed crops for increase profitability, and decreased water consumptions, and constructed pipelines accessing surface-water sources,” the study concludes.

While central government regulation and funding is important, this case study highlights the benefits of regulators giving local users some autonomy to devise their own rules and build trust between key stakeholders.