An initiative involving local stakeholders collaborating with the University of New England (UNE) to ensure the Upper Namoi catchment manages water more effectively is being launched in Tamworth on Tuesday, May 8.
The Water in the Landscape Initiative (WILI) is focused on better management of so-called "green" water - the water held in the landscape in soils, unregulated aquifers and small storages. Green water feeds the "blue" water held in regulated rivers and water storages but has historically been given little attention by policymakers.
The initiative has broad backing, with WILI's interim steering committee carrying researchers from the UNE, Tamworth Regional Council and community groups. The WILI approach is based upon working with and for local communities, which will be offered a significant role in shaping what WILI does.
Martin Thoms, a UNE Professor of Physical Geography and one of the project's initiators, says WILI will help landholders and water managers understand how to better manage water that falls on their landscapes.
"It's all about community capacity building," Prof. Thoms says. "We want to build our knowledge of how to hold water in the landscape and build our understanding of how we transfer that knowledge."
He observes that there is "strong scientific certainty" that north-western NSW is going to grapple with more acute water shortages as global temperatures continue to rise.
"Tamworth has ambitions to grow its population to 100,000, but the best climate models forecast that the city will have 20 per cent less water available to it by mid-century."
"And while the region has some of the best agricultural soils in Australia, the productivity of the richest soil is determined by rainfall or irrigation water. The availability of water from all sources is likely to become far more variable over coming decades - even more so than in recent decades."
"We can't continue to depend solely on big, expensive open dams that lose a considerable percentage of their storage to evaporation and are all becoming progressively shallower because of sedimentation."
"We have to start thinking about how we can keep water more safely stored in the landscapes where it falls - in soils and aquifers where it is less prone to evaporation; even in vegetation that helps cool the landscape and slow evaporation."
"The more water we hold in the landscape and slow on its journey to the sea or back into the atmosphere, the more we have to sustain people, enterprises and the environment in times of stress."
Improved landscape management is also the best foil against flood damage to infrastructure, Prof. Thoms says. "Nature-based" solutions like the restoration of wetlands are becoming a preferred flood mitigation strategy worldwide.
Millions of dollars have already been invested in "water in the landscape" projects in the region over the years, Prof. Thoms notes. Few, if any, were monitored and recorded in a way that enables assessment of their effectiveness, nor provided a platform for passing on knowledge.
WILI will bring scientific rigour to future projects, Prof. Thoms says, and the data and knowledge the initiative accumulates will be actively used across the Upper Namoi through education projects.
"We're aiming to develop a series of short courses, guided by what communities want, that can be rolled out across the region. Part of that work will be to educate communities about water policy, and to help them engage with it in a constructive manner."
If WILI can succeed in its ambitions to develop transferrable models for rehydrating landscapes, and give communities the confidence to grapple with water policy without being reactive, Prof. Thoms believes the initiative's work in the Upper Namoi might be a model for the whole contested Murray-Darling Basin.
"We can't continue to do the same things with water as temperatures and populations rise, and water becomes more precious. We need better solutions, and more localised solutions that communities can invest in, learn from, and pass on their learning."
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.