Victoria and New South Wales abstract the greatest proportion of the nation’s agricultural water. The Northern Territory abstracts the least water for agriculture, followed by South Australia and Tasmania (Figure 39). In all states and territories except the Northern Territory, surface-water diversions for agriculture were higher than those for groundwater. In the Northern Territory, the groundwater extractions were approximately 98% of the total.

Figure 39 Volume of agricultural water abstractions from surface water and groundwater in each state and territory, 2013–14 to 2019–20
Case Study Almond production in Australia

Zena Cumpston

In 2021, 123,000 tonnes (t) of almonds are projected to be harvested in Australia. Almonds now represent Australia’s most valuable horticultural crop, and Australia is the world’s second largest supplier (ANIC 2019, Granwal 2020, Jeffery et al. 2021). For each tonne of almonds sold in Australia, 2.6 t are exported; in 2019–20, these were sold to more than 50 countries, with the almond industry yielding $772.6 million (Almond Board of Australia 2021).

In 2000, Australia had approximately 3,546 hectares (ha) of almond tree plantations. By 2019, the rapid expansion of this industry had increased almond-growing land to 53,014 ha – a 900% rise in less than 20 years (Schremmer 2020). The fact that much of this expansion has occurred in a short time, particularly within the highly compromised Murray–Darling Basin, invites questions about the water needs of almonds and the role of this crop in the multiple pressures on inland water and the environment in Australia more widely (Bleby 2019).

In Australia, almonds use triple the amount of water required to produce wheat or feed grain; they need at least 8.5–10 megalitres of water per hectare during a growing season that stretches from October to April (Fulton et al. 2019). The underlying need for a reliable supply of water sees almond crops planted along river systems that are facing increasing pressure from prolonged dry periods. Almond crops have grown by 50% in the Murray–Darling Basin since 2016, despite their substantial water requirements in a geographical area with severe and catastrophic water security issues (Mann 2021). Almonds deplete biodiversity because they are grown as monocultures, with industrial farms stripping the ground around the trees bare to treat for insects and fungi. Also concerning is that the pesticides used to ensure high yields are particularly lethal to bees (McGivney 2020), and almond cultivation requires more hives for pollination than any other crop (Mann 2021).

Mining, and oil and gas production

Hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) has been used in Australia for more than 60 years to extract oil and gas from very deep seams by injecting water, sand and chemicals into a well or bore. In the past 10 years, improved drilling techniques have caused this approach to become more widespread, leading to concerns about the volumes of water required by the fracking process, contamination of drinking water and aquifers by the chemicals used, spikes in toxic air pollution, and the triggering of earthquakes. However, a recent CSIRO study in the Surat Basin in Queensland found that fracking caused ‘little to no impact on groundwater, waterways, soils or air quality’ (Apte et al. 2020). These conclusions may not be the same throughout Australia, especially considering that the impacts may take a longer timeframe than that used for the Surat Basin study to become apparent.

Australian regulation of fracking is inconsistent – Victoria has banned it; there are moratoriums on it in Tasmania and Western Australia; New South Wales has restrictions on its use; and Queensland allows it. In the Northern Territory, the ban on fracking was lifted in 2018 following the conclusion of an inquiry into the environmental, social and economic risks and impacts of fracking in the Northern Territory, led by the Honourable Justice Rachel Pepper. However, a moratorium has been placed on fracking until the 135 recommendations of the Pepper inquiry are met (Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing in the Northern Territory 2018).