Water-tracing technology to monitor Sydney Basin groundwater

Friday, 02 October, 2015

Water-tracing technology to monitor Sydney Basin groundwater

Researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have used water-tracing technology in the Sydney Basin to determine how groundwater moves in the different layers of rock below the surface.

Their study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, provides a baseline against which future impacts on groundwater from mining operations, groundwater abstraction or climate change can be assessed.

“All underground engineering projects have the potential to have an impact on groundwater,” said study co-author Katarina David, from the UNSW Connected Waters Initiative (CWI).

“So it is essential we understand how the water falling on the surface finds its way to the aquifers deep underground.”

Co-author Dr Wendy Timms, also from CWI, added: “This is particularly important in the southern Sydney Basin, where six underground coal mines operate within the Sydney water supply catchment and underneath wetlands and sensitive ecosystems.

“Our research has global relevance as well, because this new technology provides a quick and cheap alternative to having to install numerous boreholes for groundwater monitoring.”

The team used a 300 m-deep core drilled through the layers of sandstone and claystone at a site on the Illawarra plateau. Small sections of the moist rock from the core were then carefully preserved and analysed in the UNSW laboratory.

“The best tracer of water is water itself,” said CWI Research Centre Director Professor Andy Baker. “So we directly analysed the groundwater in the pores of the rock from different depths and rock types, using the latest laser technology.”

The technique has the advantage that hundreds of rock samples from a single core can be quickly and cheaply analysed. It can also be used for sites where the groundwater is very deep or held tightly in the pores of the rock.

“We identified the different isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen in the water, which allowed us to work out where the water came from,” Professor Baker said. “We identified four distinctive layers of rock, or hydrogeological zones, which control groundwater movement in the Sydney Basin.

“The water moves very slowly underground and has taken a long time to reach a depth of 300 m. But we found the isotopic composition of the deep water was similar to that of modern rainfall, which means the system in the Sydney Basin has been relatively stable for thousands of years.

“Using this as a baseline, we can detect any future changes in water flow or water quality.”


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