Going to ground

22 Nov 2011

Author: Carolyn Boyd

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As the driest continent in the world, Australia suffers prolonged periods of drought. But a team of leading researchers are discovering how to squeeze more out of Australia’s resources by studying the extensive pools of water hidden from view under the soil.
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Groundwater has been used for thousands of years around the world. Despite this, it remains a poorly understood resource. Across Australia groundwater makes up for more than 30 per cent of total water consumption.


“Groundwater is often called the forgotten resource,” says Kay Brown, General Manager of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training. “We simply do not know enough about this vital water resource, and how to manage it.


Two years ago, Australia’s driest state capital city, Adelaide, became home to the leading groundwater research centre, which is a collaboration of 20 partners including 12 universities and key government bodies such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.


Researchers are pooling their expertise across five flagship studies to unlock the secrets of Australia’s sub-surface water system. The centre’s research streams include modelling of complex groundwater systems, and understanding the interaction between surface water and groundwater.


The centre is already attracting international visitors and has forged informal collaborative relationships with experts overseas. It is also seeking PhD candidates from around the globe.


Until now, Brown says, there has been a dearth of good-quality data.


“There has been a massive gap in Australian groundwater data sets and that was one of the key reasons for creating this centre,” says Brown.  “The world has finite resources and groundwater plays a vital role in maintaining healthy eco-systems, and sustainable production systems. We need to be able to understand it and manage it in a sustainable way.”


Although the centre will investigate groundwater in the Australian context, Brown believes its insights will be relevant throughout the globe. “We’re not alone in facing the challenges in terms of how we actually manage and protect this resource and allocate it to the most efficient and productive uses,” she says.


Brown says there’s a strong driver to “make sure that our research travels from the lab and our desktops into the wider world”. The centre has an industry training arm that will help transfer its knowledge into the professional context.


“We already have a number of international visitors, and international participants in our industry training program,” says Brown. “Over the next few years we intend to take our industry training programs to a global audience.”