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Underground storage could end Australia's boo -

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ELEANOR HALL: The National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training is proposing a plan which it says could help put an end to arguments over the Murray Darling Basin.

The plan is a collaboration between several university and industry groups and suggests that excess rainwater could be stored underground.

Researcher Andrew Ross explained the proposal to Simon Lauder.

ANDREW ROSS: There is an extremely big potential because we have so much aqua for storage space. The amount of storage space is really massive compared to the dams and reservoirs and lakes we've got for storage on the surface. The Great Artesian Basin is our biggest aqua for storage space which holds 65 million gigalitres or 118,000 Sydney Harbours and in contrast with that is that in some of the catchments which I work in in New South Wales the surface water storages only hold about 7,000 gigalitres and there the local aquifers hold about 225,000.

SIMON LAUDER: There's been a lot of argument lately about what should happen to all the water in the Murray Darling Basin, how much should go to the environment and how much should go to irrigation. Do you think this is a solution to that type of problem?

ANDREW ROSS: Well, it is only one solution. It is a question of thinking a bit more about managing water through time. Now the Murray Darling Basin plan thinks mainly about how you can divide up a pot of water between different uses but what I'm talking about is during water planning periods, which is typically about 10 years, trying to deliberately manage surface water and ground water use.

So we use a bit more ground water in dry times and use a bit more surface water in wet times and also try to top up our aquifers in the wet times so we've got water in there for the dry times.

SIMON LAUDER: And how do you harvest the water, store the water and retrieve the water? Do we have the expertise and the technology already?

ANDREW ROSS: Yes, we do have the technologies. Basically there's natural recharger aquifers all the time so the water comes in and it goes down through the base of rivers or just the countryside generally. What I'm talking about is enhancing that recharge by using deliberately constructed basins that might be sand or gravel or if sometimes it's difficult to get the water down into an aquifer because you've got clay layers and in that case you have to drill through that confining layer so that the water can be injected into the aquifer.

SIMON LAUDER: It sounds quite expensive. Couldn't it end up being more expensive than building dams?

ANDREW ROSS: Dams take a lot of land. They also have quite a lot of environmental impact on the surface. Most of the experts seem to think that we haven't got too many other places to build dams now. So if we really want to enhance our storage we need to look for other options.

SIMON LAUDER: The skies have really opened up over Melbourne this morning and a lot of that rainwater will be just running into the Yarra River. Would this solution work in cities such as Melbourne or Adelaide, Perth?

ANDREW ROSS: Yes, for urban areas we've got the chance to recycle water and there some very interesting stories from around the world and now in Adelaide in fact, of recycling storm water. You mentioned, you know, big rainfall events in cities where a hell of a lot of water runs off rooves and down roads and what not and goes into our storm water and there is a chance to collect some of that and use that for topping up aquifers and equally with waste water plants you can do some treatments and get water to a sufficient condition where again we could use it to restore or to recharge the aquifers.

SIMON LAUDER: Did you think this is an inevitable future for Australia's water management?

ANDREW ROSS: When I look at the figures during the last drought we ran our surface water storages down pretty close to dry. Across the Murray Darling we were down to about 10, 15 per cent I think and we had to have emergency provisions that overrode the Murray Darling Basin provisions.

You can't count on that not happening again. The Murray Darling Basin plan does have provisions though for variation if we have extreme events. In those extreme events, in the northern part of the basin, ground water is going to be supplying anywhere between 50 and 80 per cent of the total water supply, then ground water is really going to become the most important water resource.

If that's the case, we want to be looking after our aquifer storage.

ELEANOR HALL: That's Andrew Ross from the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training, speaking to Simon Lauder.