Home' InDaily : December 16th 2010 Contents 9
Climate change and long periods of drought have Australians
thinking about water like never before.
For James McCallum, it’s been a subject of deep interest ever
since he studied environmental sciences at Flinders University,
graduating with honours in 2005.
The water he finds most fascinating, however, is out of sight
and, to a large extent, little understood.
Mr McCallum has built a career out of researching groundwater,
a vital water resource that accounts for more than 30 per cent of
Australia’s total water consumption.
As drought and increasing demand places greater pressure
on current water supplies, expanding our knowledge of
groundwater has taken on a new level of urgency.
Mr McCallum is keen to take up the challenge and recently
returned to Flinders University, which is home to the National
Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT).
With funding of nearly $60 million, NCGRT has become an
important focal point for international collaboration involving
nearly 200 scientists and subject experts. It is a hotbed of
multidisciplinary research aimed at unlocking the secrets of
Australia’s subsurface water systems.
Research teams are examining new hydrogeological methods
to investigate pressing questions relating to aquifers and
aquitards, water flows in complex subterranean systems,
and the largely unexplored link between surface water and
It’s a research environment Mr McCallum was eager to enter.
He has won a place as a PhD researcher examining the
effectiveness of current hydrogeological tools used to measure
the movement of groundwater, the volumes and the rates at
which it is replenished.
This is vital information that Australia needs to help develop
an integrated and comprehensive water management plan for
Mr McCallum’s research is focusing on two measurement tools
– age tracers which establish how long the water has been
underground and hydraulics, which examines features of the
aquifer such as gradients.
He is working under the supervision of three of Australia’s
most distinguished groundwater researchers – NCGRT Director
Professor Craig Simmons, Deputy Director Professor Peter Cook
and senior lecturer Associate Professor Adrian Werner.
Before the NCGRT opened last year, Mr McCallum found
opportunities for serious groundwater research hard to come by.
“There were pockets of expertise with some highly respected
senior researchers, but not too many people at the lower end
of the research spectrum,” he said. “This centre at Flinders has
made it far more attractive for hydrologists to come back and do
research rather than go out into the private sector.
“Water will be an important issue for Australia for many years to
come, but until now groundwater has been the missing link in
our knowledge base.”
After graduating from Flinders University in 2005, Mr McCallum
walked straight into a job as an environmental scientist with a
But he hankered after a career in academia.
His enthusiasm for research was triggered while doing his
honours when he studied how contaminants move through
structures in rocks. He provided rigorous testing of two models
using data from field work, and discovered that the simpler of
the models was not as accurate.
“This gave me a real interest in research and I soon came to the
conclusion that being a consultant in the private sector was
not my ideal career choice,” he said. “Fortunately I was lucky
enough to secure a research position with the CSIRO, despite
not having a PhD.”
Based at the Waite Campus of the University of Adelaide, Mr
McCallum worked on a project examining the interaction
between surface water and groundwater.
He spent many hours in the field measuring groundwater
inflows into 10 rivers in New South Wales and Queensland.
“The challenge was to provide measurements that would be
useful on a practical scale – in 20-40 kilometre lengths – that
could be used in managing the rivers.
“This is very important in times of drought when people start
extracting groundwater from the catchments.”
Mr McCallum hopes to have some answers to his current
research project within three years.
After nearly a decade of drought,
changing the country’s attitude to,
and appetite for, water was always
going to be contentious. With major
cuts mooted to irrigators’ allocations,
the debate over water reform became
bitter and polarised following the
publication of the Murray-Darling Basin
Authority’s reform ‘guide’ in October.
Small business owners in river towns joined a chorus of
opposition from farmers, irrigators, community leaders and
local politicians. Anger spilled out of town hall meetings and
people started burning the Authority’s report in the streets,
and the police became precautionary fixtures at so-called
community ‘consultations’. At that point, the prospects for
the calm, rational debate that was vital to the reform of water
policy appeared to be slipping away.
However, Flinders’ social scientist, Professor Chris Miller, was
undeterred. A co-author of a major report on water reform
published by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists
earlier in the year, Professor Miller went into the river towns and
onto the airwaves with a different message. Put simply, most
river communities could survive, and even prosper, if the Federal
Government made the investment required in human capital,
new ideas and infrastructure.
Professor Miller argued that Federal funds and local knowledge
should be combined to give river communities a sustainable
future in the face of reduced water allocations and employment
losses in traditional industries.
Divining a new course for water
“Research in which I have been involved with the Wentworth
Group of Concerned Scientists indicates the $5 billion
that the Federal Government has allocated to upgrading
irrigation infrastructure could be more usefully invested
in supporting new business opportunities and social
development in towns throughout the Murray-Darling
Basin,” Professor Miller told Encounter.
“In the discussions I have had and in public meetings,
irrigators in South Australia and interstate are making the
strong and valid point that they have already invested in new,
efficient irrigation systems which have made significant water
savings,” he said.
“As it stands all those irrigators who have already invested
their own funds in efficiency measures will not be able to
access the Federal funds. We need to see this money as the
vehicle by which to bring about economic restructuring for
the whole community.
“What is required now is a commitment to supporting a
diversification of these regional economies to produce new
products and services that will create jobs to offset the
adjustments occurring elsewhere.”
Professor Miller draws on experiences elsewhere to support
his view that change, and a sustainable future, is possible
with the appropriate planning and investment.
“Since 1995, in British Columbia in Canada, 34 regional
programs had created 45,000 jobs with an investment of
$C330 million which was used to generate a further $C600
million,” Professor Miller said.
“The Canadians invested less than $C1 billion and generated
45,000 jobs. Imagine the potential job creation that could
be possible with the $5 billion that the Federal Government
already has on the table,” he said.
“However, it is essential that a reform plan supported by
the $5 billion in the irrigation infrastructure fund taps
the knowledge, creativity and expertise in individual
communities. My sense is a lot of people in the Murray-
Darling Basin feel that their knowledge has been undervalued
and not recognised or respected.”
Professor Miller, who attended a number of community
meetings, called for the discussion on water to incorporate
analysis and consideration of the ways in which river
communities might grow in new directions. He said Flinders
University’s Thriving Communities model would provide a
useful approach for this work.
“The model is based on an inclusive social and economic
development approach. Communities know better than
anyone the history, issues and previous interventions in
their particular areas: what has been tried before, what has
worked, and what has not,” Professor Miller said.
The heat in the public debate over water will subside
over 2011 as the Authority’s consultations and several
Parliamentary enquiries offer opportunities for all
stakeholders to put their views on the record. Professor Chris
Miller will join them in making a significant contribution to
an important national policy over one of the nation’s most
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