Water underground needs as much love as the wet stuff you can see

Voice of Real Australia: Water underground needs as much love as the wet stuff you can see


There's very little surface water in the Territory.

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Katherine Gorge, Northern Territory. Photo: Shutterstock

Katherine Gorge, Northern Territory. Photo: Shutterstock

Most people would think there's a lot of water in the Northern Territory.

This is where Australia sticks out into the tropics and wet season rain totals can be measured in metres.

Home of the famous barramundi rivers, the outdoorsy tourist campaigns which highlight wetlands, rock pools and waterfalls.

Most people are surprised to learn there's actually very little surface water in the Territory.

Australia's greatest explorer John McDouall Stuart discovered this to his party's peril when they slogged it out to finally make the south-north crossing of the continent in 1862.

Most Territorians - including their stock, their crops - owe their continued survival to groundwater.

Groundwater accounts for 90 per cent of all of the NT's "consumptive water supplies".

There is a much greater reliance on groundwater in the Territory than any other state or territory.

Most folk who live in rural areas rely on rainwater tanks for drinking and bore water for everything else.

Although we can't see it, the experts assure us there's a lot water deep down but no-one really knows how much.

The wet season recharges these groundwater "aquifers" just like a power point recharges your phone.

A run of poor wet seasons like the Top End has suffered recently means the home bores run dry and have to be dug deeper.

Fortunately this year the rains returned courtesy of La Nina and Territorians avoided any crisis.

There have been moves over the years to dam some of these famous rivers like the Roper, Adelaide or even Katherine.

Far northern Australia has one of the world's highest concentrations of undammed rivers.

A small dam would provide security for continued human settlement, a bigger dam could help realise long-term dreams about the northern foodbowl.

The foodbowl dream is, put simply, if most of Australia's rain falls in the north, use it to grow more food to feed countries just to the north.

It hasn't worked out too well just yet despite plenty of trying. Google Fogg Dam for one.

The CSIRO is looking into the possibility of NT's dams, thanks to some Federal government funding.

But not far away in Western Australia (in the way people in the north speak of distances) is the Ord scheme, Australia's biggest irrigation scheme, which was supposed to have done that already and hasn't.

Recent dry years have given Territorians a new appreciation of what an aquifer actually is, the last few years gave them a fright.

The disaster of Katherine is a case lesson.

The Defence Department has two water plants working day and night using the best science available trying to "clean" water from this town's aquifer.

It is poisoned with the toxic chemical PFAS, courtesy of fire fighting training at the nearby Tindal RAAF Base.

The PFAS-laden foams travelled into the soil and through the aquifer directly under this town of about 10,000 residents to discharge into the Katherine River.

In the past few weeks and after legal action, Defence has paid most property owners in Katherine, about 4000 people at last count, a one-off compensation payment for lost property values.

The citizens there have still not been told if their health is impacted despite the biggest community blood testing program ever undertaken in this country back in 2019.

A water treatment plant is being built for the town, again paid for by the taxpayer.

Hopefully this will give them the cleanest water of any town in Australia.

No scientist has been willing to guess how long it will take those pumps to clean the aquifer.

Or if in fact it can ever be done.

We've only just begun to learn how to treat our groundwater.

The first lesson is that you need to treat the stuff you can't see as carefully as the wet stuff you can see.

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