Hydrogeology running dry
An industry body says there is a national shortage of groundwater experts.
Australia’s future growth is closely aligned to good resources management, and water is top of the list. However, a growing shortage of groundwater scientists and engineers could put that at risk.
The National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT) has reported a recent spike in organisations across Australia raising difficulties in recruiting groundwater scientists and engineers.
This skills shortage for hydrogeologists is also identified in the Australian Government’s June 2021 Skills Priority List, and concerningly, comes at the same time as an apparent drop in students studying this subject.
Australia’s reserves of groundwater contribute an estimated $34 billion per year to the Australian economy by supporting industries including agriculture and mining.
As demand increases, the increase in competition for water could threaten economic development unless groundwater supplies are carefully managed.
There is already competition for water between upper and lower catchments, between surface water and groundwater users, competition between urban water needs and agriculture and mining, and competition between people and the environment.
Water issues in the Murray Darling Basin are well known, but the demand for groundwater resources is occurring in all States and Territories.
On top of this, climate change will mean less surface water available over much of Australia, and hence an increase in groundwater demand.
The job of a hydrogeologist is to determine how much groundwater is available to support irrigation and town water supplies; to predict and monitor impacts of groundwater pumping on rivers and vegetation; to identify potential sources of groundwater contamination before it is too late; and to locate groundwater supplies for mining developments in remote areas.
“Hydrogeology combines sophisticated computer modelling and field data collection to predict future changes in water supplies,” says Dr Sarah Bourke of the University of Western Australia.
“To understand and manage our groundwater resources, we need people with backgrounds in chemistry, physics, maths, engineering, ecology, biology and geology, as well as traditional groundwater training,” Dr Harald Hofmann, Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences at the University of Queensland explains.
“We are currently not able to meet the country’s need for hydrogeologists to understand and manage our groundwater resources sustainably,” says Associate Professor Matt Currell of RMIT University.
“Many of the current postgraduate students are already in the workplace. They are looking to increase their skill levels, and this is greatly needed. But they are not new people, and so will not address the shortage.”