Water Down Under - The Great Artesian Basin Story
Produced by Anvil Media on behalf of the Great Artesian Basin Coordinating Committee (GABCC), 2008
About the video
Stretching from Cape York in the north, down to Dubbo and across to Coober Pedy, the Great Artesian Basin covers almost a quarter of the Australian continent, and contains enough water to cover the world over. Much remains to be known about this valuable resource that has enabled life in inland Australian to develop over thousands of years.
Water Down Under is the vast and rich story of the Basin, told by the people who live on the Basin itself, and presented by National Geographic's Hayden Turner.
For further information on the Great Artesian Basin (GAB) or to order a free copy of the video on DVD, please visit the Great Artesian Basin Coordinating Committee (GABCC) website
For thousands of years, the Great Artesian Basin has held the Dreaming stories of the Indigenous nations that live on it and from it.
In one story, the hunter Kakakutanha followed the trail of the rainbow serpent all the way to Bidalinha in South Australia, where at last he caught and killed the great snake.
Hayden Turner: "Water in the desert. Imagine what that meant to the early inhabitants of inland Australia, in one of the harshest and most arid places on the planet, for them to know that they had permanent access to fresh water and wetlands. No wonder Australia's natural spring systems became so sacred for so many.
"But when the lakes turn to saltpans and the rivers are sucked dry, where does the water come from? Okay, get your head around this: about two million years ago it rained on the Great Dividing Range in Queensland. Today, that same water bubbles up in South Australia. Think about it. The last time this water saw the light of day, giant hippopotamus-sized diprotodons were grazing on the coast, the Tasmanian Tiger was alive and hunting, and Australia was the home of a lion called the thylacoleo that had the strongest bite of any mammal in history, living or extinct.
"So this water has been travelling at a painfully slow pace through porous rocks deep underground. Sometimes it bubbles and soaks its way to the surface through natural springs. At other times, we've found ways to dig down and find it. Either way, it is the key to life to about a quarter of the continent. We call it the Great Artesian Basin.
"To explain how the Great Artesian Basin works, you need to know how it came to exist in the first place. So here it is, the past 250 million years in a nutshell.
"Back in the Triassic age, Australia was joined together with the other southern continents, including Antarctica, South America, Africa and New Zealand, in a land mass called Gondwana. Now, have a look at the top right quarter of Australia. Can you see how it kind of forms a natural dip? That's the area that will eventually become the Great Artesian Basin. Over the next 140 million years, huge events like ice ages in Europe and tectonic plate movements caused the ocean level to rise and fall. When the ocean levels rose, water became trapped in that natural dip and formed a sea. But when the ocean levels fell, the whole area became land again.
"When the seas drained away they left clay and silt deposits behind, which hardened into impermeable stone. Remember this.
"So now we're back to dry land again, but it's not desert yet, and there are rivers crossing it. The rivers carried sand and gravel with them, which later joined together to form sandstone. And that sandstone is the key to how the Basin works. Okay, let's get onto the fun stuff.
"Siltstones and mudstones are what scientists call impermeable. There's no way water can get through them. They're like plugs. Check this out. Okay, we've got our impermeable rock, and we've got our sandstone. Okay. That ain't going through. Soaking it up. Now we wait.
"Okay. Imagine our layers of impermeable and permeable stone, deep underground. I'll demonstrate. This sponge is our sandstone, our permeable layer, and if you see the water, it goes straight through it. But if we put an impermeable layer – this Frisbee – underneath, the water has nowhere to go except forward or to the sides. When that happens, the layer of sandstone is called an aquifer.
"So that whole basin area we saw earlier now has aquifers running all the way through it, and has become the Great Artesian Basin. It's a massive area. It stretches from Cape York to Dubbo, and Coober Pedy to the southeast corner of the Northern Territory. That's almost a quarter of Australia. When it rains on what we call the recharge bed areas of the Basin, the water seeps down and collects in the aquifers. Scientists estimate that there's around 65,000 million megalitres of water in the Basin right now. A megalitre is a million litres. Sixty five thousand million of them would be enough to cover all the land on the planet in almost half a metre of water.
"What's the point of all the water in the Great Artesian Basin if it's buried underground? Well, the point is it doesn't stay underground. For thousands and thousands of years artesian water has been bubbling up to the surface in spring systems that appear all over the Basin area.
"These spring systems bring life to parts of Australia that would otherwise be barren desert. They are home to a host of native plant and animal species that have evolved in these unique ecosystems. Many of these can't be found anywhere else in the world. What's more, water from the basin springs around the recharge zones often seeps into natural creek and river systems, helping to keep them flowing when the rains don't come".
Travis Gotch – Great Artesian Basin Springs Project Officer: "The species themselves are typically locally very abundant in where they are, but their habitat is threatened. If you lose water pressure from the Basin, then you've got no more free water and those species will go extinct. There's also organisms within that live on the springs, microstromatolites which are a really ancient form of life form. There are other species where the entire home ranges is a puddle of water about a metre in diameter, and that's the extent of where that species may be found."
Hayden Turner: "The Indigenous tribes that lived on the Great Artesian Basin were the first to make use of that water source. In fact, it was critical to their survival. The springs not only gave them fresh water, they also were a valuable food source. Birds, mammals reptiles, crustaceans and insects all lived at the springs, creating an abundant hunting ground for local tribes. And the plants and trees around the artesian springs were used for food, medicine, materials and shelter.
"And the Indigenous tribes were smart about using the Basin. That way, when drought and hard times hit, the wetlands would be full of food and water. Indigenous people should be good at using the Basin. After all, they've been living on it for thousands of years."
Alan Holt – Queensland Murri: "I've been privileged where people have shown me certain springs, and you can always find some sort of occupation or usage of Aboriginal people pre-1788, and right up till constant contemporary today, yeah."
Hayden Turner: "Archaeologists have found sites on the Basin in Queensland where Indigenous tribes have lived consistently for 20,000 years.
"Water in the desert feels like a pretty powerful magic, and the spring wetland areas became spiritual centres for the Indigenous people. They were places for the songs, stories, ceremonies and Dreaming tracks of our country's ancestors. And once settlers and explorers began to push their way inland, they discovered the spring systems too. But they didn't always know what to make of them.
"John Oxley was the first white explorer to cross part of the Great Artesian Basin in 1818. But his team was defeated at the Macquarie Marshes by one of the recharge beds without anyone even knowing what it was."
John Oxley – Explorer: "June 28. We proceeded nine or ten miles when the morasses almost assumed the appearance of lakes. The country was a barren scrub, and in places very soft, the horses falling repeatedly during the day. Circular pools or hollows covered the whole plain, and seemed to be formed by whirlpools of water, having a deep hole in the bottom through which the water appeared to have gradually drained off. We seemed indeed the sole living creatures in those vast marshes.
"July 8. Tomorrow morning we will set out on our return eastward. Everyone feels no little pleasure at quitting a region which has presented nothing to our exertions but disappointment and desolation."
Hayden Turner: "And in the years that followed, many other explorers uncovered clues that began to point to the Basin's existence. Charles Sturt got further than Oxley ten years later, and found springs along the bed of the Darling River. Other explorers soon discovered more springs, salt mounds and wetlands. These are all pretty good indications of underground water."
Charles Sturt – Explorer: "Droving stock in Australia is tough work, but we keep on pushing inland. And at last we've found a way to conquer these harsh plains. The freshwater springs are the key to the desert for us stockmen. It's the only way man and beast can have a drink and keep on going. And don't think we're out of touch. The springs are been used as sites for telegraph repeater stations across the arid centre.
"Australia's overland telegraph stretched 2000 miles from north to south, putting an end to isolation by connecting Australia with the rest of the world.
"Completed in 1872 and using artesian springs to support the repeater stations, it was one of the greatest civil engineering feats in the nation's history.
Hayden Turner: "But the thing is, the early settlers still didn't think the Great Artesian Basin existed. Sturt had this theory that hidden in the middle of Australia somewhere was this vast and mysterious inland sea, and a lot of people believed him. They were half right. The water was there, but it was hidden deep underground.
"And then in 1878 a shallow ball was drilled on Kallara Station near Burke, and it produced fresh and flowing water, and nothing was ever the same.
"A hundred years ago, drilling for artesian water wasn't an easy job. The old bore drillers were as tough as nails. They used to work through 50 degree heat and freezing cold conditions in the winter."
Bill Bode – Bore Driller, Plains, Queensland: "Well, when Mum and Dad started off, they would have three offsiders for the driller. There would have been two drillers; there would have been a cook. That's just for the drilling rig. Then for carting water there would have been two people carting water because there was no truck or centrifugal pump in those days. There was only tent accommodation at best. When my mother went out when they first got married, it was all camp oven cooking. She had to make her own yeast out of potato peels and things like that.
"Now, this was an old … this was the steam engine that used to drive the drilling rig which is in front of us here. And when they were using it, they would have had to … very often had to keep throwing wood about this size into it, and then shutting it up to keep the power … steam power up. To transfer action from the steam engine to the actual drilling action, you just have a wooden conrod coming down into the crank here. This crank turns all the time the engine's turning. And it goes onto that big walking beam above here, and that gets the up and down movement."
Hayden Turner: "They faced real danger of dying from dehydration, starvation, exhaustion, heatstroke and accidents. But when they did reach water, and if that water was good, imagine how they'd celebrate. It must have blown them away."
Male Speaker: "The water poured out to such an extent, the engineer tried to turn it off. But it was no use. I tell you that all that water shooting up into the air couldn't be wiped out. And you wouldn't wanna – it was glorious. There's so much water now we have a lagoon, and the cattle wade in it up to their bellies. The bore's putting our town on the map. People have travelled hundreds of miles just to have a look."
Hayden Turner: "And not much has changed. While today's bore driller might find life a little easier, the thrill of still finding fresh water in a parched land is enough to give you goosebumps."
Banjo Paterson – Song of the Artesian Water (December 1896):
Now the stock have started dying, for the Lord has sent a drought
But we're sick of prayers and Providence – we're going to do without
With the derricks up above us and the solid earth below
We are waiting at the lever for the word to let her go.
Sinking down, deeper down,
Oh, we'll sink it deeper down.
As the drill is plugging downward at a thousand feet of level
If the Lord won't send us water, oh, well, we'll get it from the devil
Yes we'll get it from the devil deeper down.
Hayden Turner: "Bore drillers came to Australia from all over the world to make money from this new industry. To keep the water flowing, teams of horses and bullocks dragged heavy delvers through thousands of kilometres of open channels, clearing away dirt and debris."
Ron Mobbs – Grazier & Retired Bore Delver, Bollon, Queensland: "We used what we called a one-man plough to plough a furrow to loosen the ground up. And then we'd hook onto these machines and drag them through the loose dirt, and it would make a v-drain."
Hayden Turner: "Once people started drilling into the Great Artesian Basin, life in inland Australia changed for good. They called this The Artesian Age, and everyone felt invincible, as if they could finally conquer the outback. Industries that had struggled now thrived. The early settlers used bore water to run steam trains, finally making it possible to travel through the desert in relative speed and safety. Farmers sunk bores on their properties to help fight drought and make life on the stock routes easier.
"Bore water was used to clean wool before it was sold overseas. This boosted the value of fleece, and saved money on transport since farmers were no longer paying to ship dirt.
"A lot of inland towns relied on bore water for their everyday needs. Since the 60's, bore water has been used to mine copper, gold, lead, zinc, uranium and silver, as well as oil and gas, and tourists travel from all over the world to explore the incredible landscapes of the Great Artesian Basin."
Adriana Jacobs – William Creek Hotel, South Australia: "I'll meet you out there and do the … do you want to do it first, or did you want a drink first?"
Male Speaker: "No, just put it through."
Adriana Jacobs – William Creek Hotel, South Australia: "You'll do the fuel? Okay. Let's go.
"Yeah, most of the people that come through here, you meet a lot of nice, interesting people. Yeah, it's pretty good, actually, yeah. Yeah, no, it's a good little hotel, and it's a … it's nice to see people coming through and taking that plunge by actually coming out here in the outback and enjoying it. And it is an experience, and if you love space, this is the place to come to."
Hayden Turner: "And let's not forget about the Basin's role in health and relaxation. People come from all over the planet to soak in these hot mineral baths. It's like a liquid multivitamin you don't have to swallow."
Male Speaker, 60's Voiceover: "The town of Moree in north-west New South Wales is another town like Alice where they shrug off the lack of a sea breeze in the Olympic pool. But it's the artesian baths which have been a major tourist attraction since 1895. The warm bore water is claimed to have great therapeutic value. Moree is one inland centre of Australia where a little help from nature puts a warming brake on the winter freeze. The bubbling waters from the Moree bore are always at 110 degrees.
"If you're on the other side of 50, the mineral waters give you the urge to throw away those walking aids for good. And as any local birdwatcher will confirm, there's something about Moree that really buoys you up."
Mike Montgomery – Former Mayor (1996-2001), Moree Plains Shire Council: "The artesian pools in Moree, the baths, bring a lot of people to our town. They … and they bring a variety of people as well, you know. We get a lot … a lot of those visitors who come are from eastern European backgrounds. You can sit in the pools in Moree and hear a variety of languages that… you know, very strange for someone from an Anglo-Celtic background. But the vibrancy that comes from that multicultural experience is something that you can't buy."
Female Tourist: "Molto buono (Fantastic!)"
Female Tourist 2: "(Refreshing!)"
Female Tourist 3: "(I'm in heaven!)"
Hayden Turner: "This story is not just history. The Great Artesian Basin is key to life to about a quarter of the country, but it also impacts Australians from coast to coast. So much so that if it was to dry up, Australia would be a very different place.
"For starters, the 70 towns that still rely on the Basin for their water would disappear overnight. Our beef, wool and sheep industries would lose about $1B a year, and a lot of us would go hungry. A lot of mines would have to close down, leaving the country short another three billion bucks each year. Not to mention, a lot of people out of work.
"And then there's the tourism industry. Obviously the baths'd have to close. But there's lots of other tourism activities as well, like camel treks, Indigenous heritage sights and the Ghan railway. None of these would survive without the Great Artesian Basin."
Ken Murchinson – Grazier, Bollon, Queensland: "With the Artesian Basin, to just … to take on … to attack an unknown resource, not knowing what was there, you know, and to bang these holes down. And the number of holes from … I just can't remember what … when it was. From about 1892 there were only … no, it must have been after that. 1898, there were only, like, 35 bores. And then in the next 10 years there were over 400 or something."
Ron Mobbs – Grazier & Retired Bore Delver, Bollon, Queensland: "Well, we drank rainwater, because we were always used to drinking rainwater, and got rainwater tanks. But if we ran out of rainwater we could just drink the bore water and hardly notice the difference. Whereas some bore water's pretty hard to drink."
Ken Murchinson: "Some … yeah, some is very …"
Ron Mobbs: "But this here is very good."
Ken Murchinson: "Makes sheeps' teeth fall out. Too much fluoride, all that sort of stuff."
Ron Mobbs: "That might've been what happened to me."
Hayden Turner: "With such a vast expanse of water under our feet, it's easy to get complacent about conserving the Basin. That was the case when settlers first discovered they could drill into the Basin for water. They got a little bit overexcited and didn't really think too much about the future. Let me explain."
"Let's say this hose is the Great Artesian Basin, and the sprinkler at the end is a natural spring. What would happen if I was to poke a hole in the hose? I'd have water over here, and I wouldn't have to go all the way over there. But what if I also wanted some water over here? Now, I've got holes everywhere, but I haven't got the pressure to get the water I need. This is exactly what's happening in the Basin."
Alan Holt – Queensland Murri: "Well, I travel with Aboriginal people a lot, and one of the great things about it is they can recall certain areas that used to be abundant with not only water but I think the term people use is crawbobs, which are used in tail for bait for, you know, another source of food, which is the yellowbelly and cod. And also they've noticed the decline in animal bush tucker such as the echidna and the goanna, because the water sources are no longer there."
Ranald Warby – Grazier, Mungindi, New South Wales: "Not only just around us, but in … within the whole of the Basin there were bores that were drying up, and if the amount of wastage of water kept going on that was being wasted.
I could see that the Basin would get to a stage where the level of water, or the level of pressure in the Basin, would not be bringing the water to the surface, and a lot more bores would be drying up."
Hayden Turner: "It's so bad that a lot of bores and natural springs have simply stopped flowing, and hundreds of bores that do flow are out of control. They can't be turned off, and they're wasting millions of litres of water every day. A lot of bore water flows into shallow channels dug into the dirt, which encourage noxious weeds and feral animals, and it's kind of pointless because the open channels or drains mean around 95 per cent of the water evaporates or seeps away before it can even be used. Meanwhile, to make matters worse, a lot of old bores were poorly made, or the casings underground are corroding so the water is escaping to the wrong places and damaging the environment. But there are things we can do.
"These days, there's a strategy in place to fix up the old bores so they can be used in a sustainable way, and the water can be distributed more responsibly. This process involves what we call capping and piping. Put simply, capping is just like putting a lid on the bores. Through a complex tap system, farmers can turn the bores on and off and only use the water when it's needed. Piping involves replacing the old open channels or drains with pipes. Now, the water goes straight to the tanks and troughs without being wasted through evaporation, and it doesn't ruin the native landscape by encouraging weeds and feral animals."
Lynn Brake – GAB Coordinating Committee, South Australia: "Well, the thing that makes water available now that hasn't been in the past is that capping and piping the bores are … really restores the pressure in the Basin, and helps restore the health of the basin hydrological processes, but it also allows us to make some decisions about how part of that water might be used to provide benefits for the community, and to provide industry … provide opportunities for local areas and local people to develop new products and new things that we can all use."
Hayden Turner: Of course, capping and piping has to be managed carefully so that the water now reaching a naturally dry environment doesn't upset the delicate ecosystems.
Tony Williams – Grazier, Mount Barry, South Australia: "Now we started a program of capping the bores, and that meant that we had to get the water flowing into tanks and troughs. And we call them a closed system, so that the stock can actually drink out of the troughs and we're not wasting any water."
Diane Mesner – Grazier, Bollon, Queensland: "Before we capped and piped it was all flowing bore drains, open bore drains. In the summertime we often ran out of water in the bottom paddocks, and two of our creek paddocks on the western side had no water at all. So they had dams in them, and if it was dry you had no water whatsoever. And the stock losses in the bore drains were just … yeah, horrendous. We did two runs a day, up and down the bore drain in the drought, just pulling stock out all day … you know … yeah, 150 k's minimum a day. So, yes, just pulling out stock. So we love the piping for that reason. Lovely clean water. Clean water for the cattle, clean water for the house. So … no, it's really great.
Hayden Turner: "It costs quite a bit to cap and pipe all those bores, but the expense is being shared by both landowners and the State and Federal Governments."
Peter Fisher – Grazier, Charleville, Queensland: "It's not only graziers that are affected by bore water. It's towns, it's mines. And I think it's proving that water is a scarce commodity. The more we can do to save it, the better, and if the pressure in our Basin's going to rise through a government-subsidised scheme, I cannot see any reason why people shouldn't want to be involved in it."
Hayden Turner: "And so far, the overwhelming majority of landowners are saying that capping and piping their bores has saved them money, and in many cases helped them make more money."
John Chandler – Grazier, Barcaldine, Queensland: "Tractor repairs are way down because delving drains is hard work, you know. It's hard on the axles, hard on the tyres. The tractor's in the mud all day. Wages have … people sitting on tractors delving and getting bogged, and walking home, or, you know, someone having to go and pull them out. And the pressure in this bore will keep the tanks full under its own pressure, so there's a … you don't have as much electricity pumping water. You can pump hot water straight into the house and do away with a hot water system. You can pump water straight into the garden sprinklers, once you've cooled it down. Also you can get a cool, clean drink yourself when you're mustering. Come to a tap, there's a drink. On top of that, it's just the fact that you feel so much better about not wasting such a great resource."
Cameron Kennedy – Grazier, Winton, Queensland: "Cattle'd just destroy the bore drains – like, they'd cave them in. And over the years the drains … the sides were eroding off them, and they have more … a lot more maintenance on them, and the trees are growing a lot thicker along the drains, and it increases the maintenance. And just for the pure saving of water too. I can water a lot more country with pipes rather than the drains, yeah."
Hayden Turner: "The government has committed millions of dollars over several years to help protect the Great Artesian Basin, and the States are all starting to cooperate. And let's face it: they have to. Each State has different laws and legislations, but water isn't going to respect State boundaries. It just keeps on flowing. So any plans to protect the Great Artesian Basin need to reach across the whole basin."
Mike Montgomery – Former Mayor (1996-2001), Moree Plains Shire Council: "There's water now that we can use for development. Over a lot of area the only opportunity we have for development is the Great Artesian Basin, and that means that some industries that are just starting to emerge, like the hot rocks generating power, and some new mining ventures, have some water, but also investors we haven't even thought about yet."
Travis Gotch – Great Artesian Basin Springs Project Officer: "If you don't have water, you pretty much don't have life.
"And in this area, being such a dry area, the local communities are absolutely dependent on the GAB and on the water discharging out. And that's from a human perspective. Our industry, and the industries of the State and for a lot of Australia are dependent on the water to actually enable them to continue on and to grow. One of the main reasons why this area can support the fauna that it supports, support the people and support the infrastructure that is does is because of the presence of this groundwater, and if it's taken away and it's gone, then, you know, you've lost that."
John Chandler – Grazier, Barcaldine, Queensland: "The families that still live and earn their living in the bush just wouldn't be here without the Artesian Basin. Yeah."
Hayden Turner: "Committees and sustainability initiatives now focus on getting everyone involved – farmers, local businesses, State and Federal Governments, and other stakeholders. It's great to know that people recognise how important the Great Artesian Basin is to Australia.
"If you'd like to know more about the Basin, check out the website. And me, I'm off to sneak back into those baths.
"For more information about the Great Artesian Basin go to The Great Artesian Basin Coordinating Committee website: www.gabcc.com.au.