To build specific knowledge of this localised system, Professor Werner needs to know how, when and where farmers are pumping groundwater and applying it to the land. “There are many lessons to be learned from the existing agricultural practices and water management approaches of the Lower Burdekin Delta because they don’t have major water quality issues and they maintain certain efficiencies. If we apply better science to what they are already doing, it can only improve the way they are currently operating, and then we can pass on our accumulated knowledge to benefit other irrigation areas.”
There are many shifting natural forces for the scientists to consider with this analysis, including rising sea levels, climate change and changing flows in the Burdekin River. To help them understand the delta’s complexity, they will use a new state-of-the-art seawater intrusion model that will adopt a 3D representation of the coastal aquifer.
“Think of an aquifer as being like a bank account,” explains Professor Werner. “If you make too many withdrawals, the groundwater drops, and if you put too much water into the aquifer, the mineral salt level leaches higher into the soil with the rising water. If contaminated water accumulates into the aquifer or discharges to sensitive ecosystems, it can lead to negative outcomes.”
“The big picture is about far more than just efficient irrigation. It’s about the ongoing health of a vital water system. It will interlock with other research that can provide a more cohesive environmental solution for intensive agriculture and irrigation areas, which can be applied to areas across Australia.”
Professor Werner emphasises that this project must provide translational research from a multidisciplinary and consultative scientific approach. “The relationships between researchers, farmers and water managers are critical to the success of the project. We are hoping to develop a shared perspective of the longevity of the resource, so it’s vitally important that the science makes good clear sense to the wider community of the region.”