The Gold Coast hinterland conjures images of waterfalls, lush rainforests and subtropical climate, but when drought descends over South East Queensland, hinterland communities experience it in full force.
The mountainous region behind the coastal city is home to communities which function without town water networks, meaning that residents are completely dependent on rainwater and groundwater supplies.
Consequently, when rainfall figures plummet and local supplies diminish, residents become desperate for not only immediate replenishment, but long-term water security.
The role of groundwater in the hinterland
Groundwater is a particularly valuable resource in this region, with entire townships situated above aquifers, which lie deep below the surface.
These aquifers are formed by fractures and fissures in rocks within the mountains, containing water which has seeped down through thick layers of basalt over many years.
The aquifers can be accessed by drilling bores, which extract the water by pumping it to the surface.
It is common for residents of these communities to drill their own bores for domestic use, penetrating different aquifers at varying depths.
Although the amount of groundwater stored within the aquifers is sufficient enough to support entire communities, it is believed that continuous extraction during times of drought causes water levels to gradually drop, as there is not enough rainwater seeping into the earth to replenish them.
This becomes especially problematic for Scenic Rim communities Tamborine Mountain and Springbrook, which are at the epicentre of commercial water extraction operations.
While bottled water manufacturers including Coca-Cola and Neverfail are permitted to harvest hundreds of millions of litres of groundwater in the midst of drought, domestic bores become so dry that residents lose access to their own sources.
With commercial water trucks carrying local supplies away from desperate communities, a heated dispute has erupted in the hinterland, and residents are asking the government to intervene.
Regulating water on Tamborine Mountain
Tamborine Mountain’s situation deteriorated in December 2019, when the local primary school’s bore ran dry at the height of the drought, prompting the community to put pressure on the government to declare a water emergency.
The challenges of regulating a natural resource add layers of complexity to identifying and implementing a solution.
The situation has become so murky that state and local governments are at odds over who has the authority to address the issue.
Natural Resources, Mines and Energy Minister Anthony Lynham, whose department has the power to limit extraction during declared water shortages, explained that he could not limit the amount taken by commercial operations as the groundwater is not regulated.
In the meantime, Queensland University of Technology has been conducting a hydrogeological investigation, studying Tamborine Mountain’s aquifers and the impacts of water extraction.
Commissioned by the Scenic Rim Regional Council in 2017, the research will inform the future of water management in the region, with findings expected to be released in late 2020.
Although these gradual developments are a source of optimism for the communities, the water moratorium is ending in March 2021.
Solutions are on the horizon, but their sustainability depends on the State Government’s response.
Key issues and potential solutions
There are several underlying issues which residents and community groups have identified, which appear to be hindering efforts to secure access to water in times of drought.
One concern is that commercial water extractors are allowed to take too much.
Local water sellers who have opened their own bores to bottled water manufacturers are carrying out operations above board; however, residents worry that, if beverage giants are permitted to extract large amounts of water while community members lose access to the supply beneath them, there is a problem with how water distribution is prioritised.
This leads directly into the second issue, which is that the rules and policies surrounding water regulation are so complex that those who have the authority to take action are reluctant to do so.
Although recent progress has been made, with QUT’s hydrogeological study and the Government’s water moratorium offering opportunities to improve the situation, the limitations of current legislation need to be re-examined.
Finally, the situation is convoluted by miscommunication and lack a of transparency between many of its key players and stakeholders.
There is a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding within these communities, particularly amongst residents who are directly impacted by groundwater-related issues in times of drought.
Scenic Rim state election candidates’ responses
Scenic Rim Greens spokesperson Dr Sally Williams said that commercial water extraction remains a point of contention in the community because, unless those in the position to facilitate change actually instigate it, things will stay the same.
“I think petitions and approaching people is all very well, but ultimately, I think actually doing something about it is also very powerful,” she said.
“I honestly do believe that very little changes without people actually getting … onto the streets and doing something.”
Dr Williams explained that, while the water-related issues on Tamborine Mountain are complicated, other Scenic Rim communities which experience less rainfall but don’t have a reticulated water supply are even more vulnerable to drought.
“Further west, drought is a hugely significant issue,” she said.
“It was for us last summer here, but you’ve only got to go further west of Beaudesert to see just how dry it is, and continues to be, in spite of the rain.”
Liberal National Party
State Member for Scenic Rim Jon Krause, who has held the electoral seat for the LNP since his election in 2012, told the Beaudesert Times that he will fight for water security in the Scenic Rim if he is re-elected.
“Our community needs to get its fair share from Brisbane, and only a change in government will deliver that,” he said.
Although Mr Krause did not respond to our request for further comment, a media statement detailing the successful effort to build a pipeline that connects Beaudesert to the South East Queensland water grid indicates that water security is on the cards.
“The LNP understands that investment in water security is essential, and that’s why I have been on the front foot in getting this South West Pipeline brought forward,” he said in the statement.
“In our region, water means jobs and water means farmers being able to farm better and grow higher value crops as well.”
Scenic Rim candidate for Labor, Luz Stanton, did not respond to our request for comment.