We all need water - it is the very stuff of life. Australia has a major crisis on its hands which has been estimated to cost around $65 billion to fix - and it's not just a southern problem. But regardless of how much it costs or who is to blame, it must be fixed. As this media release from the CSIRO goes on to explain ....

The first ever Australia­wide land and water resource assessment pinpoints more efficient water use as the key to further sustainable development in Australia.

An Australian National Resources Atlas is a major and exciting result of the assessment, The Hon Tim Fischer, MP, told a National Science Briefing in Canberra.

"Australia's natural resources underpin our economic development," Mr Fischer says.

"The assessment, called Australian Water Resources Assessment 2000 considers all water users, including the environment, in assessing water use and water availability," Mr Fischer says.

"It is based on the best available information from all states and territories.

"The Atlas will be a 'one-stop shop' for data, maps, information and related links on Australia's natural resources.

"It will roll out over the next 6 months as a whole host of National Land & Water Resources Audit initiatives come to completion, detailing Australia's water resources, soils, native vegetation, rivers, estuaries, land use and the economic return we gain from these natural resources.

"It's the kind of accurate information we must have to make sure we do not over­commit water resources, as we have done in some cases.

"For example, 'Big Bad Barr Creek'- bad, but recovery is in progress; the 'near-knackered Namoi', which will be rescued; and the beautiful under-utilised Burdekin - more to come on this.

"Tackling water quality and dry land salinity issues will need commitment and partnerships across the entire community including industry, science and government," Mr Fischer says.

Roy Green, Chairman of the National Land and Water Resources Audit told the Briefing that the first ever national audit of Australia's surface water and ground water resources shows that Australians use enough water each year to fill Sydney Harbour 48 times.

"The Audit also reveals that most water is used for irrigated agriculture (75%), the rest by urban and industrial users (20%) and for other rural users - domestic and stock purposes (5%); and that on average, water use has increased by 65% since the early 1980s - the greatest increase being in Queensland and New South Wales.

"Using the best available information provided by State and Territory agencies, the Audit shows that 26% of Australia's surface water management areas are approaching or beyond sustainable extraction limits and that 34% of Australia's ground water management units are approaching or beyond sustainable extraction limits.

Dr John Williams, Deputy Chief, CSIRO Land and Water told the Briefing that the audit gives for the first time a consolidated statement on the extent and impacts of dry land salinity across Australia.

"Called Australian Dryland Salinity Assessment 2000, it is based on the known incidence of dryland salinity, soil characteristics, topography and ground water," he says.

"It shows that:

1. approximately 43,000 kilometres of our rivers and 130 kilometres of important wetlands as well as 5.7 million hectares are at risk or affected by dryland salinity - this could increase to just over 17 million hectares in 50 years time.

2. Dryland salinity affects more than simply the land - some 20 000 km of major roads are already at risk, as well as 1600 km of rail and 68 towns.

Although northern Australia has far less dryland salinity than temperate (southern) Australia, it could become a problem in catchments with high salt stores if the water balance changes, causing the groundwater to rise.

"The Audit identifies management options including restoring the water balance by changing farming practices, forestry or natural vegetation; protecting high value assets through engineering options such as pumping, evaporation or diversion; adapting to and using the saline environment - aquaculture and salt tolerant plants.

"Once the water balance is changed and the salinity process under way, it is extremely difficult to slow or reverse," Dr Williams says.

"Prevention is a far better investment than trying to reverse the process. Northern Australia and some areas of temperate Australia can avoid dryland salinity. Prevention involves managing native vegetation, maintaining the water balance and understanding salt loads in our soils before clearing," he says.

"There is no one quick fix, no simple solution. Management decisions will have to take into account:

1. Time - dryland salinity takes years, sometimes decades or centuries to develop and therefore remedy.

2. Cost - the value of the asset worth protecting versus the management costs.

3. Community priorities and values - living with salt versus the costs of remedial works," he says.

The National Land and Water Resources Audit has released the results of the first ever Australia-wide land and water resource assessment.

More information:
Drusilla Patkin, National Land & Water Resources Audit,
Margaret Bryant, CSIRO Land & Water,
Dr John Williams, CSIRO Land & Water

DATE: November 2000

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