Sunday 1 September 2019

Tonga comes to visit... again?

The effects of Tongan undersea volcanic eruptions are not the first thing you'd think of when enjoying the summer weather on a sandy beach at Kingscliff, Byron Bay or Port Macquarie. But 6 years ago, in 2013 there was a direct reminder of a volcanic eruption of the the undersea volcano the Havre Seamount. This reminder was pumice rock washed ashore from an eruption which took place about 6 months previously. You can read more about it on the blog post I wrote at the time. It looks likely a very similar thing is going to occur in the next few months.

In mid August this year (2019) it was observed that a massive 'raft' of pumice rock was floating west of Tonga. A small island called Fonualei showed evidence of recent activity, with steam and fresh pumice in the area. The extent however of the eruption went unnoticed until a sailing boat sailed through a huge pumice raft. ABC News has a great video of what sailing through the raft looked like.
Photographs from passenger aircraft and also some satellite pictures have shown that the size of the eruption must have been huge. The Island of Fonualei was active but clearly not the main location of the eruption. We'd all be very aware of the eruption if it was Fonualei erupting the volume of rock obvious from the satellite. A formal but short report on the eruption by the Smithsonian Institute can be found here.

Given that the prevailing currents and winds will direct this pumice onto the coast of Australia it is something to look out for. Biologically it is interesting too. Fresh pumice washed up on the shore can transport various sea creatures. This is because pumice makes a great home given its porosity.
Not much more to add, except a prediction. I don't know how good it will be but I guess that come mid summer we will see pumice from Tonga washing up on the beaches of NSW and Queensland.

Thursday 22 August 2019

Bottled Tweed Shire Spring Water - The Biffo!

I’ve been meaning to address the ‘bottled spring water' discussions that have been going on for quite some time in the Northern Rivers. I guess better late than never is OK. The recent request by Tweed Shire Council for comment on their draft planning proposal made me think it was worth putting some ideas up now. This is not a very technical post, more of a bureaucratic process one. Note it does not include surface water issues which are legally very similar and tied up with groundwater, it also does not consider the other issues such as road damage from haulage of water, construction of water supply pipelines etc). To be very clear... this is also tagged as an opinion post. It contains my personal views and opinions on the matter - they can be very different from yours! Feel free to let me know what your opinion is in the comments section below.

Can't find a relevant photo... so this will do!
To give some background, groundwater in the Tweed Valley is derived from two main aquifer types, either deep fractured rocks of the (administratively called the New England Fold Belt Coast Groundwater Source), or shallow groundwater systems of the sediments of recent alluvium (Such as the Tweed Alluvium Water Source). I understand that most (or is it all?) of the groundwater that is extracted in the Tweed Valley that ends up in water bottles is from the deeper groundwater source.
Tweed Council is proposing to prohibit new water bottling facilities in rural zoned areas of the shire. One of the reasons overly simplistically outlined for this proposal by the Tweed Daily News is that “there is not enough data on groundwater resources to fully understand the environmental impacts of the industry”. The Planning proposal document also says “…there was a perception that water belongs to the community and should not be used for private profit.

This raised my eyebrow. 

Access to groundwater in NSW is controlled by the state government. This is in two forms: 
  1. 1. The actual well or borehole that is to extract water is licenced by the state. 
When and individual wants to install a bore a water supply works approval application must be made to WaterNSW. Staff experienced in groundwater (including hydrogeologists) assess the application against plans (Water Sharing Plans) that have been developed to protect the environment from badly extracted water, including too much extracted water over periods of time, the possible impact on neighbouring groundwater bores and groundwater dependent ecosystems 
  1. 2.Water is owned by people and companies. The water itself when not used for basic landholder rights (e.g. stock and domestic) is licenced by the state and capped based on the water source (Water Sharing Plans). There is no automatic community right to any water unless it is basic rights water – which the Water Sharing Plans prohibit from being adversely affected. 
If an individual wants to extract water that is not for basic landholder rights they must buy water from some other producer in the water source. This means that the amount of water extracted cannot be increased. The plans that are in place also place a limit on how much water for different uses can be extracted from a source. I think the category of water in the case of bottling water would be Industrial Use. The limits on water have been set by hydrogeologists and state planners and are outlined in the Water Sharing Plans.

Slight differences to the above process are where a development is classed as state significant development, these are assessed in an even more detailed way (and by another organisation – the new Natural Resources Access Regulator). However, even in this case the extraction rules in the Water Sharing Plans cannot be ignored. 

In addition, the NSW Chief Scientist is due to release its final report on the impact of the water bottling industry on the North Coast. Being a state government review conducted by hydrogeologists this review has the potential to be the most useful for decision making and can directly feed into modifying the Water Sharing Plans or other licencing processes if there is shown to be a deficiency.  

Given that water is managed by the state government I was surprised to see that there is an expectation by some that Tweed Council should seek to manage water using local planning instruments. It is interesting that if a bottling plant is proposed in a rural area in the Tweed it requires Council consent now, and concurrence from other environmental agencies. In fact local government is legally required to refer such matters on to the appropriate state government department for these matters.  

I’m not saying this is the wrong way to manage water it is just, in my view, a very novel and creative way given the state has ultimate authority over water resources. How can a local government place rules that stop new water bottling plants to be constructed, but cannot stop water that is legally owed by someone and allowed to be used for that purpose under state rules? I guess this is one way you can… but a very cumbersome and possibly unnecessary way? If there is an expectation that the community owns the water, should the community actually be buying the water? I don’t fully know, as always I have more questions than answers! 

Anyway, the draft proposal in on public exhibition until the 17th of September 2019. Go to for more information or to make a submission.