Groundwater: out of sight, not out of mind: @molessarah reports

Water: Photo by Sarah Moles

Water: always on the move, the constant cycling of water maintains life on Earth. (Photo by Sarah Moles)

By Sarah Moles

Very wise people have said some crucially important things about water.

For me, Leonardo Da Vinci summed it up best with:

“Water is the driving force of all nature”. 

W.H. Auden comes a close second:

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”


Photo by Sarah Moles

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” Loran Eisley, The Immense Journey, 1957 (Photo by Sarah Moles)

Given its essential place in supporting life, it ought to follow that protection of water quality, water sources – indeed the entire water cycle – would be an over-arching principle underpinning responsible and sustainable water management.

But it’s not. Somehow, here on the driest inhabited continent, policy apparently trumps principle.

It is a policy objective of several of our governments that there will be an unconventional gas industry – and an expanded coal export industry – in Australia. Representatives of the CSG industry are on the public record stating that there will be negative impacts from this industry. The only unknowns are questions about how serious these negative impacts will be and what can be done to mitigate them.

In their enthusiasm for export dollars, both Labor and Coalition governments are will accept the risks.

Australia has a pretty sad and sorry water history. Chronic mismanagement and over-allocation is not so surprising when one considers that English legislation was part of the baggage that arrived with the First Fleet. Settler Australians imposed their water laws on  river systems that operate on totally different principles to the one they’d left behind.

A few years ago Australians narrowly avoided a social and ecological disaster in the Murray Darling Basin, a huge surface water system where  the damage caused by our human-centred, Euro-centric ways of managing waters were clearly visible.

Groundwater is out of sight and, for most of us, out of mind. This makes groundwater much more difficult to monitor, manage and study than systems we can easily observe.

We don’t fully understand the nature and extent of connectivity between surface and groundwater systems. This is critical to understanding how much groundwater can be extracted without harming surface water systems, or impacting on adjoining aquifers. We also need a deeper understanding of the environmental water needs of all species that depend on groundwater, so that these needs can be met, biodiversity preserved and ecosystem processes we all depend upon for our survival can continue to sustain us.

I remember being horrified and appalled a few years ago as I sat in a CSG water forum at Dalby, in Queensland, listening to a senior gas company executive talk about fracking chemicals. He casually mentioned the mix generally included ‘biocides’ – because ‘there’s all sorts of bugs down there’.

Based on conversations I’ve had with ecologists, I knew that the importance of stygofauna, the tiny, eyeless creatures that live in caves and aquifers, had been recognised. They are a remarkably diverse group of animals and provide us with very important, very valuable ecosystem services.

We destroy them at our peril.


A major artery at the top of the Murray Darling Basin, the Balonne River at St George, Queensland (Photo by Sarah Moles)

The quality of water in rivers and underground has deteriorated, due to pollution by waste and contaminants from cities, industry and agriculture. Ecosystems are being destroyed, sometimes permanently.”

World Bank Institute , Water Policy Reform Program – November 1999 .

In Queensland, CSG companies worked with Government experts to produce the Surat Basin Cumulative Management Area Underground Water Impact Reportfinalised in July 2012. This document estimated the impacts on landholders’ bores within the defined Cumulative Managment Area over the next three years. A little more than 12 months on, bores outside that area have been affected negatively from CSG mining. Although one of the companies concerned has agreed to ‘make good’ and replace the now defunct bore, it won’t happen for two years.

When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” 

Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1746 .

The impacts on water from coal mining can be equally devastating. 

A few weeks ago, two important groundwater reports were released. The first found that the impact of two existing coal mines on a Central Queensland wheat farmer’s groundwater supply were five times worse than modelling by the mining companies had predicted.

The second, the Draining the Lifeblood report, found that some 1354 billion litres of water would be taken from regional aquifers if several proposed ‘mega-mines’ were built in Central Queensland’s Galilee Basin. These aquifers border the Great Artesian Basin and there is great uncertainty as to the potential impact of these mines on this nationally significant groundwater resource.

The cumulative impacts of these mines have not yet been modelled or assessed .

Yet approval processes continue.

“[…] high quality water, in the right quantity at the right place at the right time, is essential to health, recreation, and economic growth […] no force is greater than the hydrologic cycle.” Richard Bangs and Christian Kallen, ‘Rivergods’, 1985.

Water quality is as important as quantity.

Whether it is open cut or underground, coal mining interferes with aquifers, severing or diminishing supplies of groundwater to users downstream. And current mining practices are highly – and increasingly – polluting, as deeper deposits are exploited.

During several massive floods in recent years, particularly in Central Queensland,  billions of litres of filthy, contaminated water gushed from flooded mines. These flows were loaded with heavy metals and other toxic substances, and poured across floodplains into our rivers and estuaries and the Great Barrier Reef lagoon.

Filthy water cannot be washed.” 

West African Proverb.

Our National Water Initiative is almost 10 years old and has been the subject of a number of reviews. The 2009 Biennial Assessment found there had been little integration of the gas and mining industries into state water planning processes. The ‘special circumstances facing the minerals and petroleum sectors’ still mean that not all water users are treated equally under water – or indeed, other – legislation.

The Lock the Gate movement has arisen because growing numbers of Australians reject the notion that massive new coal and CSG developments are acceptable when they are approved at any price.

The integrity of our water resources is far too high a price to pay.

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  1. Katherine Marchment says

    Thank you Sarah Moles “Water is our most important resource, without it we’re doomed” – farmer LTG

  2. The most amazing phenomena on earth is pure clean water descending from the clouds. To some it is an inconvenience, but always the most necessary thing for life. Contamination is part of western culture and the consumerist way. Natural GAS . What a misnomer. If mining activity had the over riding requirement to do NO damage we would think differently about it. If the cost of the damage is not taken into account we are stealing it. Leaving the repair bill to someone else and taking a short term profit.

  3. intelligent and excellently written , and true “Water is the driving force of all nature”.

  4. Sarah

    I’m a geologist familiar with CSG. I read your link to the story of the Wambo Couple. The story doesn’t mention how far they are from an active field and if they are when that field commenced production. I’m not saying that CSG isn’t the issue but there might also be other reasons.

    Geologists are familiar with the hydrology of the Surat and other basins primarily because we have been drilling into it for conventional gas for the last 50 years. Each well is usually logged which means that a series of probes are run down the hole, The probes collect data on sonic, electric and other geophysical properties. This data is used to elicit characteristics of gas or oil. It also provides a detailed record of the rock properties encountered in the well. This detail allows the determination of the relevant formations such as the Walloons or the Evergreen or the Precipice. It also provides data on localised variations in these formations.

    This data is then used to compile fairly comprehensive regional maps that show the presence of:


    We also know from all the waterbore drilling that has happened in the last 50 years where and how water flows and your assertions to the contrary are generally incorrect. I say generally incorrect because the data doesn’t go down to a scale of say 1X1km grids.

    I cant speak for coalmines in the gallilee becuase I’m not familiar with that territory but I can speak about the Walloons and other reservoirs in the Surat. We do have a reasonable grasp of what the water drawdown effects are because we have now been producing out of them for about 7 years and the draw downs are being monitored by over 300 monitoring bores.

    The total amount of water is still significantly far less than that being used in agriculture (and uses a different source) and in proportion to total ground water flow is very minor.

    In my opinion the only legitimate charge is that on water co production it shouldn’t be stored in large evaporation ponds. and since 2006? there has been a requirement under the beneficial use policy that it has to be treated to a certain level or reinjected.

    There is nothing wrong in exploring this issue. In fact for many years when asked what I did and I said that I worked in oil and gas exploration, people looked blankly at me.I welcome the opportunity to explain the geology and processes involved as well as responding to some of the wilder allegations (like gas bubbling in the condamine which it has for aeons), but if you want to have a scientific discussion you should lesson the adjectives. I find they get in the way of rational analysis

    • Hi Pete, thanks for taking the time to write such a comprehensive response to Sarah’s article.

      Just a small point of clarification, at No Fibs we distinguish between feature articles and opinion pieces – Sarah’s piece is filed as an opinion, hence her licence to choose her adjectives.

      I’m taking the opportunity to point this out to all our readers, as No Fibs prides itself on high standards of both coverage and comment, and Sarah’s article falls well within our guidelines.

      Look forward to hearing from you again – and if you’d like to write an article for us, either feature or opinion, we’d love to have your ideas and insights on board.

      CSG editor
      No Fibs

      • Stephanie thanks. My education has resulted in writing that compares unfavorably to the mindnumbing instructions coming with a chinese manufactured computer motherboard. Your website would soon shrivel and die. I’m happy to comment from the granular spaces of some long buried sedimentary rock.

      • A Water Shade of Pale says


        The Surat Basin, which is part of and linked to the whole of the Great Artesian Basin, including the North West of NSW is under threat from the massive drillings,many thousand upon thousand, that are planned by the australian-foreign joint venture coal seam gas mining companies and the Governments both Australian and foreign who support them.

        The aus- foreign joint venture mining companies chief role is to make money for their shareholders, be that the foreign sovereign government who own the joint venture companies or investors in the companies.
        The role of the Great Artesian Basin is to provide clean potable water to sustain people, stock and agriculture in Australia, for all time.

        When the massive unrestricted (as to how many wells are drilled) drilling into the Great Artesian Basin really commences and its only in its early infancy now, the damage will be irrepairable or does your knowledge stretch to
        how a ruined potable shallow aquifer is repaired by government?

        The whole of the NW NSW region of the Surat Basin does not have adequate mapping of the aquatards,aquifers as yet. Nor are you not taking into account the lack of data re the natural occuring fissures already insitu that will be opened up perpetually by the thousand upon thousand of drilled wells , allowing the potable water to drain away from the aquifer and to be lost forever.

        The only reliable source of water for these people, stock and the food they produce, is now and for the generations to come, being placed at risk for the sake of a commodity that can be supplied from elsewhere in Australia.

    • Re the “wild allegations” of the bubbling Condamine – I’ve heard public talks by two hydrologists, both connected to the gas industry. Both have explained how the depressurization process has actually created the problem. No long term locals have ever seen this event before and to claim it is a “wild allegation” is….a wild allegation. But I do appreciate that you are only a geologist and hydrology is not your field of expertise.


    This is an unforgettable image, from National Geographic, about how methane and drinking water don’t mix. This Pennsylvanian woman can set her tap water on fire.

  6. If the Current Carbon Tax is repealed and replaced with the Coalitions current Direct Action Scheme, Australia is effectively telling the rest of the world that we will not do our bit to remedy a problem that effects us all. Instead we will pay (taxpayer) funds to the big polluters who contribute to the problem.
    This stance would surely put Australia behind the rest of the world and dramatically damage our international relations. This, as well as, the result of accelerating Australia’s share of contribution to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) severely compromises Australia’s security in the future.

    Keep our carbon price

  7. Catherine Pye says

    In reply to Pete, I would like to refer you to the Healthy Headwaters Coal Seam gas water feasibility study completed in between 2010 and 2012 I understand that this was initiated to investigate the nature of CSG water, Hydrogeology and impact on surface and ground waters mainly in Surat and Bowen Basins in Qld. It raises many unanwered questioned and highlights the need for further investigation of the interconnections between aquifers, waterflow, drawdown effects etc.
    Bores in the area are not always deep enough or in the right place to take the needed measurements to say that we know all we need to know.
    We do know is that csg water is highly saline and contains toxic chemicals, metals and other particles that are detrimental to our health and our environment.
    There is connection between the Springbok aquifer and the Walloon coal measure and there has been contamination of this
    I am not sure that the bubbling in the Condamine river is natural, but unless there were measurements of the methane here prior to mining, it may be hard to prove that it is natural or due to mining.
    I feel it is misleading and irrelevant to compare agriculture with mining in its amount of water use. Agriculture requires a water license does mining?

    • Mining does require a water licence. So does CSG, but it doesn’t require a water allocation under the Water Act as other users do. Under the Petroleum and Gas Act, the CSG industry can take as much water as it wants / needs. The water is considered a waste product.

      • Catherine
        In regards to the WP report, its pretty extensive. If there is a specific issue in there that you want to enquire about about I’m happy to take the question. In regards to the ABC link story about the Springbok/Walloons link I would need to find out further specific information. This would include the wellsite details, the logs and details on the frac job. This records of the frac job will tell you what the extent of penetration of the frac is. This information should be available from well completion reports.
        Normally if you are fraccing and the frac penetrates a different formation you should get a change in the injection pressure that is being monitored at the surface. If you penetrated a different formation that would generally mean that either:
        1) the formation is harder (which then means you cannot deliver the necessary amount of frac sand which means you cannot establish a sufficient area from which to draw the gas) or
        2 ) the formation is softer and the frac sand/fluid might go in too easily which than means that the injected sand is not going to stay together and maintain an internal connection back to the well (ie the rock between the gaps created by the sand/fluid mix closes back in.) The net result is the same.
        Stepping back a bit, the idea of fraccing is to create permeability. It means that you are dealing with a low permeability rock in the first place; This means that water(and gas) does not pass easily through the pore spaces. That means it is unlikely to be an aquifer. Generally fraccing occurs in rocks with permeabilities of less than 10 millidarcies. In the US where they frac shale the permeability can be as little as 0.0001 millidarcies. A good aquifer by contrast (such as the Cadna Owie) has permeabilities that can be thousands of times greater (ie measuring the 1000’s). That means in terms of water flow you are not doing anything other than drawing out essentially connate water that falls within the dimension of the furthest boundary of the frac ie you are not somehow pillaging some hitherto unknown subterranean water system.
        If you did by bad planning or chance frac into an aquifer (as the article suggests) than you would get an influx of water from the aquifer to the well which means you wouldn’t get any gas. You would instead have a water well, not a gas well and your superiors would not be that impressed. If that happened the technical solution is very easy (although costly and by then you might be employed elsewhere). Its called a squeeze job. This involves injecting cement down the hole and into the perforations where the frac was undertaken. The cement in liquid form moves through the channels created by the frac and then sets, blocking any further movement of water.

        Just so there is no confusion CSG is a type of gas reservoir whereas fraccing is a method of extracting gas from that reservoir. Generally in CSG in eastern Australia my guess is that about 20-40% are fracced whereas the rest are not. In the wells that are not either they use other methods (such as horizontal drilling) or the reservoirs have a higher permeability which means that they just need to remove an amount of water sufficient to reduce the reservoir pressure to a point that frees up the gas. That does not mean that because the reservoir has a higher permeability it is an aquifer, but it does lead to an interesting debate which I would be happy to describe another time…

        Sarah – water is a byproduct not a waste product. All producers are now required to treat water for beneficial use. Some farmers in the Chinchilla/roma area are now beginning to use this for cropping.

      • Hi Pete,

        I enjoy reading your comments. Explanations of fracing for the layman are hard to come by. By the way, since you’re in the industry you maybe interested in this positive case for fossil fuels.

  8. Ruth L Innisfail says

    Thanks Sarah.
    My major concern with water is slighty different—I live where I see the Coral Sea,the surface pollution is increasing almost daily and while not being drunk as is groundwater,it is surely affecting our seafood supplies.

  9. Katherine Marchment says
  10. Stuart Khan says

    I agree with most of the quotes presented in this article. But not “Filthy water cannot be washed”. That’s simply not true (indeed, its a fib).

    And its purported to be “West African Proverb”. I’m in West Africa (Namibia) as I type this. The clean drinking water in my tap was sewage just two days ago. It was “filthy”, and now its clean, healthy and delicious. Filthy water can indeed be washed.

  11. Catherine Pye says

    Stuart – that is indeed amazing
    I am concerned about the predicted amount of water extraction from our groundwater resources due to coal seam gas mining. The National Water Initiative update 2009 – which Sarah provided– predicts this will be a significant amount of “coproduced” water 300ML a year in Australia. This figure includes 125GL a year from the Surat Basin alone!
    If mining does not require a water allocation how is this equitable? I don’t think it is fair that mining is not under the same rules as farmers when it comes to water. If there is not enough water and farmers have their water restrictions cut, then mining should also take a water cut!
    I don’t know what can be done with this amount of low quality and contaminated coproduced water from the coal seams – I think reverse osmosis only removes the salt and not the chemicals? Many of these chemicals, metals, and radioactive particles are toxic if air or water borne and can accumulate in our environment leading to health problems and cancer.

    I am doubtful about how much of this water can be made suitable for beneficial use? I am really concerned about aquifer injection – I would like to see the science that shows this is safe. I am concerned about the tonnes of waste salt we will need to dispose of.

    I am therefore very concerned about water contamination and also what I see as failure of regulation to protect my health and water. I need reassurance that any contamination incidents/spills/overflow of holding ponds/discharges into rivers/aquifer interconnections and damage during drilling or fracking will be notified to those affected ASAP.
    I would like these incidents, their locations, the company involved and the outcome of any investigation to be made publicly available on a national government website. I am asking for greater transparency.
    I also strongly believe that baseline measurements of water quality and quantity and air quality needs to be performed prior to any exploration and mining and this must include methane, metals and other toxic chemicals that are contained in coal seams – especially potential carcinogens like VOCs, BTEX, PAH, Radioactive particles etc. This way if there is methane bubbling in water wells and benzene levels are high then we have baseline measurements to compare with and base action on.

    I would also like to know if an unplanned connection between a coal seam and an aquifer can be repaired and how? How do you repair dropping bore levels, land subsidence and changes in surface water flows etc?
    Re Fracking
    I understand that the Cooper Basin in SA is to be explored for shale gas and that this shale layer is 400m under the Great Artesian Basin. I understand from reading the companies EIS that it is planned for horizontal drilling into this shale layer and then vertical fracturing (hydraulic fracking) to occur up to 15 times per well. How can I be reassured that these fracture lines will not extend 400m vertically and enter the Great Artesian Basin? What percentage of fracture lines extend this far and are we prepared to accept this level of risk? Is it possible to stop a frack from extending once it is started?

    And then there is the chemical cocktail that is used in fracking (along with water and sand) that will be pumped underground and remain there and potentially contaminate our Great Artesian Basin.
    Out of sight out of mind indeed!

    Where is the proof that shows that this industry will not harm our current and future water and health?

  12. The best practice right now would simply be leaving gas/coal/oil where it is. We would not even need to be discussing the impacts on our aquifers, leached pollution, destabilising soil or the ruination of arable farming.

    Of course, leaving fossil fuels where they are is not something that is being considered by the current Federal government, nor from the opposition – fossil fuel lobbyists still hold far more power than mere scientists, farmers or simple members of the public concerned they may now need to “wash water”.

  13. I am really grateful for the plastic pipes made from gas that separate my sewerage water from my drinking water. I am really grateful for the coal powered pump that provides me with water under a constant pressure. And I am really grateful for the oil and coal that goes into making my water filter so I can drink purified water.

    I think you need to look at the big picture when it comes to fossil fuels.