Five things we’ve learnt about water in the Pilbara


Home to some of the most stunning Australian landscapes, the Pilbara region and its inhabitants can only survive this extreme environment by understanding the scarce water supply.

Last week the world watched on as NASA announced the discovery of flowing water on Mars. This week we’re analysing water on a patch of red dirt a little closer to home.

The Pilbara – a 500,000 square kilometre stretch of land that’s home to 50,000 people in northern Western Australia. It’s hot, dusty… and full of minerals. The region’s high-grade iron ore deposits, significant deposits of gold, manganese, copper and uranium, not to mention the offshore gas reserves, make it one of the world’s most important resource regions.

It’s also a region that is rich in environmental and cultural values, and has significant areas of grazing land. Whether it’s the vast reserves of iron ore, the spectacular diversity of plants and animals, or some of the oldest living Indigenous cultures in the world, there’s one resource they all depend on — water.

Front-Hamesley Ranges

The Hamersley Range stretches across the Pilbara region and includes some of the world’s oldest rock formations.

That’s why we joined forces with the Government of Western Australia and BHP Billiton to conduct the biggest study into the water resources of the Pilbara, ever – it even has a catchy name: the Pilbara Water Resource Assessment.

It took three years and dozens of researchers, but we now have a body of knowledge that will help guide water planning and management for the Pilbara into the future.

Here are some of the interesting things we’ve learnt:

1. Ten times more water can evaporate in the Pilbara than falls as rain

Because of the blistering extreme heat in the Pilbara, surface water doesn’t last long. The Assessment found that the potential evaporation exceeds annual rainfall by 6 to 14 times, depending on the location within the Pilbara. Despite this, fresh water sources are quite common throughout the region.

2. Groundwater is the most important water source

This is a bit of a no brainer when you consider the first point. Groundwater is currently the main water resource used by towns and industry. This groundwater is not only vital to communities, but it also supports a range of ecosystems, usually near river pools and springs. These ecosystem include species of Acacia found nowhere else, one of the richest assemblages of reptiles in the world, and some of Australia’s iconic mammals – such as the northern quoll and greater bilby.

The greatest variety of ecosystems which depend on groundwater were found in the Hamersley Range.

Ecosystems are supported where groundwater is discharged to river pools and springs

It might be picturesque, but for the ecosystems of the Pilbara the groundwater discharged by these river pools and springs is absolutely vital for survival.

3. We know what it takes to make a stream flow

Between 8 and 30 mm of rain is required for runoff to occur in most Pilbara catchments, which makes the streams and rivers flow. This is important because runoff is the main way the region’s aquifers will be recharged with water. The runoff leaks through streambeds into shallow aquifers just under the surface and from there is able to replenish deeper aquifers, which can store large quantities of water within inland areas.

4. The Pilbara is almost certainly getting hotter

Despite the uncertainty inherent in predicting future climate, there’s one thing that all the Global Climate Models used in this study agree on – the Pilbara is getting hotter. The assessment team used the same modelling tools used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to determine what the future climate might look like in the Pilbara. The models project temperatures will be about 1°C warmer by 2030 and 2°C warmer by 2050, compared with 1980s temperatures.

5. It is getting dryer… and wetter

The team assessed the rainfall trends for the area and found that between 1961 and 2012 the east of the Pilbara had become wetter and the west of the area had become drier. They also used the climate models to predict future rainfall for the Pilbara and the models were split on whether the future would be warmer and drier, or warmer and wetter.

Rainfall in the Pilbara results from both tropical weather processes from the north and temperate weather processes from the south. This makes it difficult to predict future rainfall trends for the region because the modelling suggests these processes will respond differently to any increases in greenhouse gases into the future.

On balance, the climate projections carried out by the Assessment team indicate the Pilbara may become slightly drier by 2030 and 2050. But they’re not ruling out the potential for a wetter future either — they modelled a range of wet and dry future scenarios so water managers can be prepared.

If this makes you thirsty for more information about the Pilbara’s water check out the Assessment’s final reports. You can also enjoy a selection of images from this stunning region in the gallery below.

The Pilbara Water Resource Assessment was funded by CSIRO, the Government of Western Australia and BHP Billiton. The project was led by CSIRO and overseen by officers from the Department of Water, BHP Billiton, the Pilbara Development Commission and the Water Corporation.

Media contact:

Chris McKay | +61 7 3833 5728 | +61 455 085 247 |

How we’re using science to turn wastewater into wine

It's a grape day for wine

It’s a ‘grape’ day for turning wastewater into wine.

Bill Gates caused a stir recently by drinking a glass of water that had, only five minutes earlier, been human waste.

No, Billionaire Bill hadn’t lost a dare. He was actually showcasing his faith in the latest wastewater processing technology – technology that could, if utilised properly, go a long way towards solving the global issue of access to clean drinking water.

Though, it’s not just drinking water that’s in the picture. Imagine, that instead of sipping from a glass of water, Bill was instead quaffing a Barossa Valley red, produced from a vineyard that uses wastewater to irrigate vineyards. It’s an entirely possible scenario (although we’re not sure how often Bill visits Tanunda).

For many, reconditioned wastewater is taboo for consumption, but as Bill so prominently demonstrated, wastewater processing technology is a viable way of both hydrating our planet AND reducing waste.

When affluence meets effluence. Photo credit: Screenshot via thegatesnotes

When affluence meets effluence. Photo credit: Screenshot via thegatesnotes

Which is why we’ve been working with some of Australia’s leading wineries to prove that wastewater can play an important role in wine production.

In a recently released report – Sustainable recycled winery water irrigation – we demonstrate how wineries could reuse their wastewater to safely irrigate their crops. Not only would the reuse of wastewater result in cost savings and better environmental practices, but it could even improve the quality and yield of the crops themselves.

The (Adelaide) hills are alive with sound of wine growing. Photo credit: CSIRO

The (Adelaide) hills are alive with sound of wine growing.

Our lead scientist on the report, Dr Anu Kumar, and her team developed the guidelines after rigorous field, laboratory and glass house trials with participating wineries in the Barossa Valley, Riverina and McLaren Vale regions.

Anu and her team looked at the options for the reuse of wastewater on the vineyards – irrigation, evaporation and disposal – and found that, on the whole, irrigation was the most sustainable.

The study found that wastewater containing less than 60 mg per litre of sodium, 1250 mg per litre of potassium and 625+1084 mg per litre of sodium plus potassium (in combination) was safe for application on grapevines. Of particular interest, the nutrients and organic matter in winery wastewater can even enhance soil productivity, increasing crop growth and yield.

In fact, some of the participating wineries were so satisfied with the results that they have begun implementing our guidelines themselves.

But Anu and her team have been upfront in explaining this isn’t a one size fits all solution. For instance, wastewater can also increase soil salinity, which is bad news for healthy soil.

“It really isn’t a one-approach method,” said Anu. “Individual wineries need to discuss how they use wastewater with experts to ensure that guidelines are being adhered too, as well as the strict regulatory conditions.”

When it comes to waste water, there is much to consider. Photo Credit:

When it comes to wastewater, there is much to consider.

Dr. Kumar and her research team will continue to work with their partners at the University of Adelaide and the Australian Grape and Wine Authority (AGWA) to share these findings with other wineries around Australia.

In a country like Australia that is so susceptible to drought conditions and water shortages, it’s important that we find more efficient and sustainable ways to use what can be such a scarce resource.

Now, to get Bill down to the Barossa for that glass of red…

In conjunction with Dr Kumar and her team, the Australian Grape and Wine Authority has published a useful resource kit which includes more information about winery wastewater management and recycling.

Water: we need it to live, and so does our wildlife

Australia’s Biodiversity series – Part 10: Inland waters

Even though it is one of the world’s most arid continents, Australia’s inland waters support a rich diversity of life.

Rivers, streams, wetlands, floodplains, lakes, underground aquifers—we’ve got them all and they all support native species.

A large brown and yellow frog

The New Holland water-holding frog. 94% of our frog species are found only in certain ecosystems – the highest rate of endemism among Australia’s vertebrate species. Image: Danial Stratford.

Biodiversity is enhanced by the wide variation in rainfall across the continent and the change in climate from the tropical north to the temperate southern regions. Life in Australia’s inland water ecosystems has had to adapt to the ‘boom and bust’ that comes from periods of both extreme dry and extreme wet.

Human development has had a dramatic impact on these ecosystems, particularly in the Murray Darling Basin and other areas in the southeast, as we use water for our cities and towns and for irrigated agriculture. These water uses are obviously of great benefit to the Australian population but the use of the water and the infrastructure associated with it can disrupt the natural flows of water and nutrients through inland water ecosystems, which native plants and animals depend on.

In the tenth video of our Australia’s Biodiversity series, Dr Carmel Pollino talks about Australia’s unique inland water ecosystems and how water can best be managed for the benefit of biodiversity and our communities:

To find out more about the biodiversity in our inland water ecosystems, you might like to read the corresponding chapter of CSIRO’s Biodiversity Book.

Last week’s video looked at the new ways science is attempting to understand the unknown biodiversity in our oceans. You can review it and the other videos in the series on our YouTube channel.

Managing water across borders

Koshi River in Nepal

Koshi River in Nepal. Image by Amy North

As World Water Week draws to a close, we want to tell you about a water management project we’re involved with in the developing world.

The Koshi River basin covers some of the poorest parts of China, India and Nepal. The river stretches more than 700km, from China in the north, down through Nepal and across the Himalayas, and finally feeds into the Ganges River. Millions of people live in the region – many of them in flood-prone areas – and rely on the river and the fertile floodplain for their livelihoods.

We’re helping to manage the river better and improve the circumstances of the people living there.

The area is subject to floods, droughts landslides and flows of debris. Erosion also leads to heavy sedimentation, and rivers have been known to change their course.

NASA image showing course change

This NASA satellite image shows a change of the Koshi River’s course.

The effects of climate change aren’t helping, either. Glaciers in the upper reaches of the Basin are melting, bringing water and sediments down to the plains. The people of the Koshi River Basin are in an increasingly vulnerable situation. The impacts of climate change are disturbing water supply and agricultural production. Adding more pressure, the demand for energy and food production is rising.

Raising the stakes even higher, the Koshi Basin also has areas of significant biodiversity, including a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

With funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – Australian Aid, we’re working with partners including the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, the International Water Management Institute and eWater  to develop an integrated modelling framework for the entire basin. We’re helping to develop water balance models that capture the relationship between climate (both rainfall and temperature) and stream-flow (and flood risk) in the Koshi River Basin.

We’re also working on characterising the seasonality and variability of stream flow, and, if possible, the expected trends in stream-flow. We’ll also develop techniques for understanding the likelihood of particular stream-flow estimates.

We aim to use the research and knowledge gained from these projects to allow a regionally coordinated approach to developing and managing the Koshi Basin’s water resources. The people of the area, and the environment, should both benefit.

Blowing pollution out of the water

We're lending a hand in India to help improve their water quality. Image: M. DeFreese/CIMMYT.

We’re lending a hand in India to improve water quality. Image: M. DeFreese/CIMMYT.

By Jan Mahoney

Australians are a pretty fortunate lot – we have beautiful coastlines, top notch education and high-quality health care. Recent ABS data even shows that most Aussies are healthier, wealthier and happier than we were a decade ago.

But what about those who aren’t so lucky? It’s easy to forget about the millions of people in our neighbouring countries with no access to basic necessities like clean water and sanitation.

When it comes to clean drinking water, around 780 million people are living without it. That’s more than two and a half times the entire population of the United States.

India in particular is facing some serious water quality problems. Each day 29,000 million litres of sewage are generated, but only one quarter of this amount can be treated. The untreated sewage that gets discharged from cities and towns ends up in rivers and lakes, causing severe contamination.

India’s water is also heavily polluted by agricultural run-off containing fertilisers and pesticides. As the largest industry in Asia and the twelfth largest in the entire world, India produces a whopping 90,000 metric tons of pesticides each year. When enough of this waste enters India’s waterways, it can contaminate crops, harm children’s development and make the water supply poisonous and undrinkable.

Today, only 31 per cent of the 167 million rural households in India have access to tap water and domestic toilets. In fact, more people in India have a mobile phone than a toilet.

To help solve this problem, our researchers have travelled to India to give local scientists, academics and regulators a hand.

One of our researchers, Dr Anu Kumar (left), discussing safe water with village women.

One of our researchers, Dr Anu Kumar (left), discussing safe water with village women.

As part of our ‘Safe water for the future through Indo-Oz network’ project funded by Australian AID, the team is providing locals with the tools and techniques needed to assess the impacts of water pollution.

Through sharing case studies from Australian experiences, they are helping Indians better determine the likely impacts of climate change and the risks posed by cocktails of contaminants in water and sediments.

The project is also educating local children about environmental pollution issues. For instance, the team recently took a group of rural school kids to the local Ganga Aquarium to teach them about the importance of water safety, pollution and human health.

These children often miss out on formal education, and instead aid their parents as farmers, fishermen or garbage and landfill waste pickers.

Rural school kids from Lucknow learn about water safety at the Ganga Aquarium.

Rural school kids from Lucknow learn about water safety at the Ganga Aquarium.

By helping India’s next generation recognise the importance of clean water, these kids will have the potential to create a healthier, sustainable environment for the entire country in years to come.

Learn more about how we’re working towards a water-secure world.

Our fascination with northern Australia

Image: Amanda B Slater.

Burke and Wills’ ill-fated expedition left many intrigued about the potential of northern Australia. Image: Amanda B Slater.

By Dr Andrew Johnson

On February 11, 1861, Robert O’Hara Burke reached the Gulf of Carpentaria. He described in his diary the environment as “a considerable portion is rangy but it is well watered and richly grassed”.

More than 150 years after the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, many Australians consider north Australia to be a place of limitless potential. Throughout the 20th century, governments promoted development in the north. With a few notable exceptions, these have ended in failure.

More recently, state and federal governments of both political persuasions have had the foresight and courage to mandate scientific investigations to quantify the capacity of the north’s land and water assets, and to understand constraints to sustainable development presented by market opportunities, transport infrastructure and land tenure.

The passionate commentary demonstrates the diversity of views and the breadth of misunderstanding about the challenges of the tropics. Indeed, there are perhaps more urban myths about northern Australia than any other part of the nation. So let’s get some facts on the table.

We can sustainably double or triple the north's irrigation area using renewable groundwater resources. Image: CIMMYT.

Renewable groundwater resources can help increase the north’s irrigation area. Image: CIMMYT.

Our scientists have identified the capacity to sustainably double or triple the north’s irrigation area using renewable groundwater resources. The potential is even greater if surface water is used. History has shown the challenges. Unlocking investment requires confidence about the scale of opportunities, and knowing the risks. A scarcity of detailed information about soil and water availability made it difficult to establish water storage options or agricultural productivity estimates or establish locations for irrigation. The cost of acquiring reliable soil, water and agricultural productivity estimates has often been an insurmountable barrier to private and public investors.

Underdeveloped transport infrastructure and long distances increase the cost of accessing inputs and selling outputs, as well as reducing the mass, quality and value of commodities.

Inconsistency in land and water regulations across jurisdictions and lack of clarity within them poses significant barriers to investment. Northern Australian tenure systems are complex. There are multiple, often overlapping tenure types for the same piece of land. Administrative arrangements vary across state boundaries. There are new and emergent tenures for water and carbon that are uncertain and are evolving.

Image: Kay Ledbetter.

We’re working to improve irrigated agriculture practices. Image: Kay Ledbetter.

Despite this, there are positive developments. In the Gulf country, the federal and Queensland governments, with our researchers, have demonstrated methods for rapidly and economically quantifying water flow and function, identifying water storage options, constructing soil maps of high precision and combining them to establish estimates of regional agricultural production potential. In the east Kimberley, the tireless efforts of government and the community are now driving profound positive change in the Ord. These examples provide a blue print for irrigated agriculture across the north.

The establishment of mosaic irrigation for the beef industry will enable increased productivity by overcoming seasonal feed shortages and intensifying production. This will allow producers to improve long-term viability. A year-round feed supply will also enable more efficient use of existing beef industry infrastructure.

Smarter transport logistics that deliver least-cost pathways for existing infrastructure – critical where rerouting is often required in response to flooding – is essential. A focus on logistics will prioritise investment in strategic infrastructure such as holding yards, rest stops, road configuration, the location of abattoirs and more efficient use of ports.

Image: Alternative Heat.

Smarter transport logistics will help aid our response to agricultural flooding. Image: Alternative Heat.

We also need to address property rights. Changes to land tenure regimes have the potential to transform indigenous communities from welfare dependency to economic participation as well as creating a more positive environment for investment. Changes to tenure arrangements are under way that aim to enable more diverse uses and clarify access and use rights. Future efforts must continue to focus on pastoral lands and in clarifying Indigenous interests in land and water.

Perhaps at no time since Federation has the nation’s interest in the north been so strong. A positive agenda will benefit all Australians, especially indigenous peoples. Whatever the actions taken, many will take time to implement; there are no easy fixes. They require patience, persistence, flexibility and a long-term commitment from all stakeholders.

CSIRO Group Executive Andrew Johnson chairs the expert panel advising the Northern Australia Ministerial Forum.

Australia’s farming future: doing more with less water

Before the 1980s, farmers thought lack of water limited their yield. New crops and sowing methods are breaking yield barriers. Image: Michael Middleton.

Before the 1980s, farmers thought lack of water limited their yield. New crops and sowing methods are breaking yield barriers. Image: Michael Middleton.

By John Passioura, Honorary Research Fellow, Plant Industry.

Changing climate, drought and urban expansion threaten the yield of Australia’s wheat. But changes in cropping methods could address reduced water and lead to a jump in yield not seen since the late 1980s.

A history of innovation

The average yield of Australia’s dominant grain crop, wheat, changed little during the 1960s and 1970s. Then, from the mid-1980s to the turn of the century, three changes almost doubled the average wheat yield in south-eastern Australia.

The first of these was the idea of “water-limited yield potential”. A benchmark was set: a crop should produce about 20kg of grain per hectare for every millimetre of water that it used. This idea was rapidly embraced by the farming community for it provided an easily understood benchmark against which farmers could compare the performance of their crops. Average yields were less than half of that and there was much enthusiasm for finding out why.

The second change was canola’s introduction into the cropping system. Farmers soon noticed that the yield of wheat was substantially greater if it was grown after canola, rather than after other crops. The presence of canola roots in the soil greatly diminished the vigour of previously unrecognised root diseases. These root diseases had resulted in unreliable responses to nitrogen fertiliser, which farmers had therefore been loath to apply.

The third change was the increasingly rapid uptake of conservation farming techniques. Thanks to new and effective herbicides, tillage was no longer required to kill weeds. Farmers could sow crops without cultivating the soil, and this meant that sowing could be much more timely. It also left the soil much softer.

These three changes gave farmers a deeper practical insight (backed up by agronomic research) into what was limiting the yield of their wheat crops. This gave them the confidence to aim for higher yields by adding more fertiliser.

Drought a setback, but early sowing stepped in

This period of rapid growth came to an abrupt end during the millennium drought. Nevertheless, the farmers managed to maintain remarkably good yields during this time, except for two very tough years. How did they do it? By innovative management.

Farmers traditionally relied on autumn rainfall; thanks to the drought, there was much less of this. But there was more summer rainfall. Guided by agronomists, farmers conserved as much summer rain in the subsoil as they could.

Plants with longer coleoptiles – the tube that grows from the seed towards the surface – can be sown in deeper, moister soils. Image: Greg Rebetzke, CSIRO Plant Industry.

Plants with longer coleoptiles – the tube that grows from the seed towards the surface – can be sown in deeper, moister soils. Image: Greg Rebetzke, CSIRO Plant Industry.

They did so by meticulously controlling weeds and by retaining the stubble of the previous year’s crop as surface mulch. Controlling the weeds also made sure nitrates – mineralised from soil organic matter during wet periods – stayed in the soil to benefit future crops.

So, when autumn came around farmers had a guaranteed supply of water in the subsoil. But there was still the problem of getting the wheat to germinate and reach the moist subsoil. Farmers were anxious that the sparse autumn rain would provide few opportunities to sow.

Many sowed into dry soil, which, thanks to abandoning frequent cultivation, was now soft. In this they were largely successful.

Early sowing requires wheat varieties that develop slowly, for they must not flower before about late September, after the risk of frost damage has largely abated. Fortunately such varieties were available.

Making more use of less water

The general success of early sowing may benefit farmers as much as the changes of the late 1980s. Farmers might now hope for a much higher water-limited potential yield than in the 1990s, thanks to the capture of summer rainfall (and released nitrate) for use by the following crops, the greater potential yield resulting from the longer period available for developing floral structures that produce grain, and the time available to develop deeper roots for capturing valuable water from deep in the subsoil during grain-filling.

If the crops can use more of the annual rainfall (not just that in the growing season), and get a greater grain yield per millimetre of that extra water, yield could go up by 25%.

This prospect may be reinforced by new cultivars that will let farmers sow seeds much more deeply, deep enough for them to be sown directly into the moist subsoil. The problem with the current cultivars is their short coleoptiles. A coleoptile is the strong tube that emerges from a germinating grass seed and grows towards the soil surface while protecting the soft first leaf within it.

Coleoptiles of current wheat cultivars usually do not grow longer than about 5cm, so the seeds must be sown no deeper than this. New breeding lines have coleoptiles that can grow as long as 15cm.

Other options showing promise are dual purpose cultivars (they can be productively grazed during the winter as well as producing good grain yields); the use of “controlled traffic” so that any soil compaction is restricted to a small area because all machinery uses the same tracks; and precise GPS-guided sowing which lets crop seedlings get better established.

The near doubling of wheat yield during the late 1980s and 1990s was unpredicted, and perhaps unpredictable. But the omens are good for another period of substantial increases in wheat yield despite (and even because of) the recent volatility of weather patterns.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.