QUESTION: South Australia's mound springs

Today Mark asked the Minister for Human Services, representing the Minister for Environment and Water, about the decline and ultimate extinction of South Australia's mound springs which are recognised nationally as an endangered ecological community.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: Some of the jewels in the crown of the South Australian outback are the various mound springs which occur when water from the Great Artesian Basin reaches the surface under pressure. These springs and the ecosystems around them are dependent on continued natural flows and water pressure of an intact Great Artesian Basin water system. The mound springs are recognised nationally as an endangered ecological community.

The reduction in water pressure in the Great Artesian Basin, through extraction from artesian bores, has been the primary cause of hundreds of mound springs across the basin drying up since the first bores were sunk in the late 1800s. These days, the biggest water user in the region is the BHP Billiton Olympic Dam mine, which is set to extract 50 million litres of water (or 20 Olympic-size swimming pools) every single day for the next 25 years.

Since the Olympic Dam mine began extracting water in 1982, impacts on the mound springs have continued to increase in severity as the extraction rate continues its inevitable rise. Many springs have declined and others have stopped flowing altogether.

My questions of the minister are:

1. How is it possible for the decline and ultimate extinction of many of these mound springs to be reversed if BHP Billiton is able to drastically increase its take of water from the Great Artesian Basin?

2. What steps will the government take to protect South Australia's iconic mound springs into the future?

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (Minister for Human Services): I thank the honourable member for his important question. In fact, I think he and I may well have been members of the Environment, Resources and Development Committee at the same time when we went to areas of the Far North in South Australia where the mound springs exist. Indeed, they are environmentally unique and definitely worth protecting.

I also recall that there was quite an extensive program of capping of bores, which the federal government may well have funded, that was administered through the then department—it might have been DWALABI or DEW or whichever former incarnation that was. But in relation to the honourable member's specific questions, I will take those on notice and bring back a response for him from the relevant minister.

On the 2 February 2021 the Minister provided a reply:

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (Minister for Human Services): The Minister for Environment and Water has advised:

  • As outlined in the South Australian Government Gazette on 27 August 2020, BHP's water extraction from the Great Artesian Basin (GAB) will not be increasing, and will remain up to a total maximum of 42 megalitres per day (ML/d) annual average or 15.3 gigalitres per annum.
  • Predicted impacts on specific springs were identified in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Olympic Dam mine and GAB water extractions in 1982, and in the mine expansion EIS in 1997.
  • Successive South Australian governments have been working with all landholders, including BHP, to control uncapped bores and replace open bore drains to minimise wastage to improve the health of GAB springs.
  • Since the year 2000, we have seen 59 bores capped and achieved water savings of 49.9 gigalitres per annum and measured recovery of aquifer pressures.
  • The South Australian government continues to facilitate landholder access to the commonwealth government's Improving GAB Drought Resilience Program.
  • The program provides co-funding on a 50:50 basis for landholders who are accessing water from the GAB for water supply infrastructure projects that reduce water loss, improve aquifer pressure and the health of basin-dependent springs.
  • The Far North Prescribed Wells Water Allocation Plan has been in place since 2009. A key objective of the management regime established by the plan is that the taking of water must not have an unacceptable impact on spring ecology, particularly at high value sites.