The federal government's National Groundwater Action Plan, run by the National Water Commission, is winding up - and with proposed changes to groundwater rules in the latest version of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) plan, water scientists Professor Craig Simmons and Professor Peter Cook say much needs to be done to secure groundwater resources for the future.
Resolving issues over conflicting use of resources including the impact of coal seam gas (CSG), geothermal, mining and farming activity on groundwater resources, better understanding of the links between ground and surface waters, and resolving legal and technical questions over the storage of surplus water in underground aquifers were among challenges.
"Some of the biggest challenges concern public trust and confidence issues regarding groundwater," Professor Simmons said.
"Most Australians are simply not aware that the vast bulk of our fresh water is underground, out of sight, out of mind.
"They do not realise it supplies much of the water we see in our surface rivers and wetlands, and hence much of our drinking water."
There was a dire need, he said, for public education and "myth-busting" about groundwater – especially the widely-held view that it represented an unlimited resource for the future.
The skills shortage extended to water management, with Australia facing an acute scarcity of talent.
"You can’t run the mining industry without geologists or agriculture without farmers. Water is a resource vital to both and to every other facet of Australian life – and needs to be equally well-planned, managed and allocated," Professor Simmons said.
The pair advocated storing more surface water underground, by recharging suitable aquifers, but say many of the legal, social and public acceptance issues around this needed to be resolved
High-level national resource management needed to be linked to the interests of local communities, industries and other users, in a way that makes for rational decisions and sound resource use, Professor Simmons said.
"When industries, communities and the environment are competing for the same water resource – as is bound to happen increasingly from now on – we need better ways for allocating the water that meet social, economic and environmental needs.
"The National Water Initiative provides a good basis – but it is important it is fully adopted," he said.
The researchers called for a group of top-level water managers, government departments and water scientists to develop a draft for a National Groundwater Strategic Plan which addresses all these issues, and more.
"(Although) it has rained across much of Australia and drought issues have receded from the headlines, this does not mean we can afford to be complacent," Professor Simmons said.
"We are still on track to more than double our water use by mid-century – and there are no big, new water resources to be found, so we have to address the situation by being far more clever in how we manage what we’ve got."