Sunday, 1 June 2014

This is what one aquifer looks like

In some amazing places you can immerse yourself in an aquifer. These places are rare and dominated by a rock type that does not occur in any substantial amounts in our region. However, people dive in the sub-terrainian waters of the limestone caves of the Nullabour in South Australia. The best aquifers in our region do not contain large caves compared with limestone areas. They are hosted in riverine alluvial sediments, fossil soil horizons in volcanic rocks, or fractures in hard metamorphic and volcanic environments. The main aquifers being on the coastal river flood plains, Alstonville Basalt and the New England areas respectively. However, volumetrically the sources that are very large are those in coastal sands.

Auger containing saturated sand from the Woodburn Sands
This post is an illustration of how one of those coastal sands aquifers looks. I've covered the Woodburn Sands in several previous posts but a quick summary is still needed. The Woodburn Sands are beach and dune sand that was laid down during the last significant interglacial. This was around 130 000 years ago during the Pleistocene period. The sea level was much higher than now and this meant that beach systems were often formed a significant way inland.

From the picture you can actually see what the medium that hosts an aquifer looks like. The Woodburn Sands are just that, sands. The sand grains are mostly quartz but there are also some grains made from volcanic and metamorphic rock fragments. Occasionally you can see grains of heavier minerals that were mined until the 1980's. The sand grains are very similar in size which is typical of wave and wind sorting. There is a very small fine fraction of clayey material.

Where the clay content is higher the ability of the water to flow through the aquifer is reduced. This is why some bores can only produce a small amount of water compared to the huge volume that is in the whole aquifer. This is an example of why aquifers tend not to behave as underground lakes. You can pump water out of one end and run out because the hydraulic conductivity (flow velocity) is not high enough to allow the water at the other end of the aquifer to flow in.

The Woodburn Sands is not the only important coastal sands aquifer in the region. Another very important water source include the Macleay sand coastal aquifers. These aquifers were formed in a similar way to the Woodburn Sands and are used for similar purposes. Usage includes irrigation, stock, domestic use and town water supply for places such as Kempsey and Evans Head. There are also some interesting arsenic contamination issues in one aquifer system (Stuarts Point) in the Macleay area which I will post on in the near future.

The similar characteristics of the coastal sands aquifer systems in the North Coast area has motivated the NSW state government to develop a Water Sharing Plan for these systems as a whole. The Water Sharing Plan is expected to be formally adopted this year (2014). Local governments regard groundwater from the coastal sands aquifers as very important. Rous Water has recently adopted its future water strategy which identifies coastal sands as the main source of additional information in the medium to long term and Mid-coast water have recently increased their production of groundwater for drinking too.

Available here is a presentation by the NSW Office of Water on the overall coastal sands systems in North East New South Wales

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