[ASC-media] Media Release: Australia’s leafy drinking problem

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Mon Nov 18 14:11:13 PST 2013

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Australia’s leafy drinking problem 

November 19, 2013 – for immediate release

Australia’s vital underground water reserves could be given a boost by strategically planting trees, according to the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT).

New research in Victoria’s mid-west since 2009 showed a drop of up to 3 metres in the water table underneath a tree plantation - compared with a 1 metre rise in the water table under a neighbouring area of open pasture.

“In general, trees can use more water than the available rainfall and will draw up water from other accessible sources, meaning they can be a drain on valuable underground water resources,” says Joshua Dean, author of the study and PhD researcher at NCGRT and La Trobe University.

“The presence of trees or other vegetation can alter the flow of rainfall as it moves downhill, even channelling it to areas where recharge of groundwater is most effective. In the case of a tree plantation, the orientation of the planted rows is critical in either slowing runoff or funnelling it elsewhere.

“By strategically placing trees in areas where recharge is low – typically higher up in the catchment in drier areas – we can minimise groundwater loss, and potentially even arrange plantations to promote recharge at key spots downhill.”

Mr Dean says his approach could apply across large parts of south-eastern Australia, especially in hilly areas and more arid regions where trees rely to a substantial extent on groundwater.  However, he points out that the overall management of catchments needs to be based on the long-term goals for the area in question.

“The productivity of tree plantations will be reduced where access to water is limited, meaning there’s a trade-off between how much water we want to devote to forestry compared to groundwater recharge.

“The key issue however is not how many trees we plant - but where and how we plant them.

“Apart from siting plantations higher up on the slopes we might also plant rows of trees down the slope that will promote run-off into recharge hotspots, such as dry creeks,” he says. 

“Dry creeks are stream beds that act as natural sinks for water flowing downhill, and can be key areas for maximising the replenishment of groundwater from rainfall entering the catchment.

“With careful planning to minimise erosion, such as by planting some stabilising vegetation along the banks of the creek, we should be able to sustainably concentrate significant amounts of water to these key sites.”

Mr Dean’s work is part of a wider investigation by the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training into the effects of vegetation and climate on underground water resources.

“Our research is continues to show that vegetation is a major factor in determining rates of groundwater recharge and needs to be considered alongside physical characteristics of catchment areas, such as dry creeks,” says Associate Professor John Webb, Mr Dean’s supervisor.

“Land use has changed significantly across Australia since European settlement and provides us with an important opportunity to plan ahead to meet Australia’s future water needs in terms of agriculture, mining and domestic use.

“This research shows there may be excellent opportunities to replenish our critical groundwater resources.”

The National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training is an Australian Government initiative, supported by the Australian Research Council and the National Water Commission.

More information:
Joshua Dean, NCGRT and La Trobe, 0450 339 773 or 03 9925 1963 or 
jf3dean at students.latrobe.edu.au  
Wayne Barbour, media contact NCGRT, 08 8201 5660 or 0407 379 587 or wayne.barbour at groundwater.com.au


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