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   CSIRO  |  SOLVE  | Issue 10 | FEB 07  
COVER STORY
WATER RESOURCES:
Quenching Data Thirst the First Step to Water Security
By Youna Angevin-Castro

Researchers are developing information technologies to lift the accuracy of water resource monitoring and better equip the nation's water managers to plan ahead.

When it comes to Australia's most precious natural resource, water, most authorities agree that reliable monitoring is integral to its long-term management. As an increasingly scarce and highly contested commodity, there is obvious potential for disagreements over water access and use.

To address this, a CSIRO-led Water for a Healthy Country Flagship research project is developing information technologies to help water managers better understand the status and trend of our national water resources, to facilitate better planning and investment in water infrastructure and to maximise the value of this fragile resource.

A Water Resources Observation Network (WRON) was instigated by CSIRO’s Dr Rob Vertessy in response to the clear need for more accurate monitoring of Australia’s water resources.
 
He says billions of dollars of investment are needed in new water-supply infrastructure as the urban population grows and the long-term effects of climate change become more apparent. “But where do we start? Good water information is the key to answering these questions.”

Arising out of early planning for the eWater Cooperative Research Centre – a research centre formed by the Australian Government to facilitate water management and decision making – WRON seeks to create foundation technologies to revolutionise water information management, and harness this information to provide a more accurate understanding of the country’s water outlook. “WRON came about following the realisation that data sets for water in Australia are generally poorly organised,” says Mr Ross Ackland of the CSIRO Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Centre. “They are spread across a number of different agencies, are reported in a variety of different formats and can be difficult to access. It became apparent that to better manage water resources in Australia, we have to first improve the way we manage our water data.”

WRON will provide a distributed, web-based integrated data management resource, supported by a range of specific tools and applications, which will allow end-users to access data quickly and easily, with the knowledge that the data has been subjected to a strict set of standards. Ultimately, it is hoped that WRON technologies will:

  • allow better anticipation of changes in water availability and demand;
  • better define allocations to users and the environment; and
  • inform new infrastructure decision-making.

Mr Ackland describes Dr Vertessy’s WRON vision as a 'beacon on the hill', and he saw an opportunity to develop information and communication technologies that could support the management of data sets specifically for the water industry.

Fundamental to WRON’s success is the ability to collaborate and work in partnership with the many agencies and water authorities around the country.

Mr Ackland says most stakeholders recognise the value of sharing their data, and welcome the opportunity to help shape data standards. “Water is a hot political topic, particularly with the drought and spectre of long-term climate change. Therefore, most people do recognise the importance and value of what a WRON is setting out to achieve.

“However, we did discover that there were some concerns with privacy and security of data sharing. Sharing of water data does not mean free and open access to all data. This is one of the areas that the ICT Centre has been able to address – we’ve done a lot of work in the past for the health industry regarding privacy and security applications for sensitive data, and knew that we could apply these same principles to the water industry.”

Dr Stuart Minchin, of CSIRO Land and Water, says CSIRO has made a serious commitment to WRON and industry is becoming more and more convinced of the value of getting involved. “Water is a very valuable resource and yet we still don’t have a very good idea of how much water we’ve got and how much we’ll have in the future,” Dr Minchin says.

He uses the Australian Dam Levels Monitor project as an example of how WRON technologies can work to improve data delivery.

“Prior to the Dam Levels Monitor, dam-level data could only be obtained by manually visiting numerous websites managed by different water authorities. This search could be lengthy as visitors would often have to browse the websites and read information unrelated to the information they were seeking before finally finding the required data.”

The team developed a process that involves sending a web robot – a customised program that automatically scans the hypertext structure of a website – to these websites, which then harvests the data and collates it into a centralised database. This data can then be re-served as an online web service to end-users.

“This technology enables us to deliver dam-level data in a whole range of different ways, and demonstrates how, if we come to some agreement on how to present water data, we can create all sorts of useful tools,” Dr Minchin says.
 
“For example, we’ve developed a Google Maps interface, and an XML feed that other web-based models can access. We also have a Google Earth implementation, and a desktop widget that users can download to their computers. Soon we will have a model that will predict dam storage levels three, six and 12 months out, taking into account climate forecasts and water demand profiles.

“The point is, once you have done the hard work of making the data accessible using a standards-based interface, the ways in which this consumer data can be presented are unlimited, and can be tailored for specific uses.”

While WRON technologies are likely to improve the way existing historical data is managed, they are also delivering on projects that raise the potential for future problem-solving applications.

One such application is the Fleck-based Sensor Network, being established in the Burdekin Delta sugar-cane region, in research led by CSIRO’s Dr Pavan Sikka, with the potential to help manage a major environmental issue: saltwater intrusion.

“WRON technologies gave our team the opportunity to develop an on-farm sensor network for environmental monitoring of a serious problem,” Dr Sikka says.

His team has been working with the North Queensland Water Board (NQWB) in the Burdekin region, where productivity has been affected in some areas by increased salinity levels in an otherwise highly productive region.

“Most irrigation of the Burdekin’s sugarcane fields is achieved by pumping groundwater,” Dr Sikka says. “If salinity exceeds certain levels, this can seriously damage sugarcane crops.”

This problem is difficult to manage due to uncertainty about what is really happening in the aquifer. CSIRO developed the Fleck Sensor Network to tackle  this problem, enabling real-time monitoring of pumping levels from underground water bores, and allowing the NQWB and CSIRO to improve their understanding of this complex and variable groundwater system.

The improved understanding will allow the NQWB to identify better management strategies for the groundwater system, and consequently maintain high farm productivity.

“The real advantages of this kind of sensor network are its relatively low cost and the ability to monitor how much water is being pumped, and the salinity and groundwater levels at specific pumping sites,” Dr Sikka says. “The information can then be distributed directly to the local water board via the internet, and has the potential in the future to prevent over-pumping at any particular site.”

 

APPLICATION:  A Water Resources Observation Network (WRON) will create a more accurate picture of Australia’s water resources by developing technologies and standards for managing water data. It will also provide the information needed to support future problem-solving projects

BENEFIT:  A web-based data management resource that will give water managers a uniform framework in which to share national water resource information
 

Monitoring is being carried out across 20 sites, but Dr Sikka says that the potential to monitor hundreds of sites simultaneously, by organising multiple networks in a hierarchical structure, is where the power of the system lies. He says this has the potential to be particularly useful in regional areas, where pumping sites may be spread out across hundreds of kilometres and may be located in remote areas.

“It means we can monitor water use across a network of stations, as opposed to collecting isolated data from individual sites,” Dr Sikka says. “There is also the potential for remote monitoring, minimising the need for complicated infrastructure.”

Science informs water reform
The National Water Initiative is Australia’s blueprint for water reform. That blueprint asks a lot of Australia’s scientists.

Many of our science challenges in Australian water reform are unique to Australia. Unique-to-Australia problems will often require unique-to-Australia science to solve them. Australia is fortunate to have CSIRO taking the lead in Australian water R&D.

We need good science to define our national water resources. We know far too little about our water resources, and with much less accuracy, than we should. We need a major national effort to improve our knowledge about water, including improved water measurement and metering, water system modelling, real-time water data and water accounting.

The sharing of water resources must be guided by credible science, which can reduce disputes about sharing and must underpin good water planning and feed into policy and decision support systems.

Good science is needed to help sustain our water-dependent ecosystems. Scientists can help settle the sustainable yields of our water systems, identify ecological assets and the watering regimes necessary to maintain them, and identify the environmental externalities of water use.

We need science to identify the risks to our national water resource. Our scientists are leading national debate on climate change while constantly improving seasonal forecasting capabilities. Scientists can also advise on surface water/groundwater interactions and land-use change, including water interception by activities such as forestry and mining.

Finally, we need the best available science to improve water-use efficiency. We need to foster the sciences underpinning recycling and more efficient irrigation techniques. We need to embed science in integrated water-cycle management and water-sensitive urban design.

The role of the National Water Commission is to advance the National Water Initiative. We must do this hand in glove with Australia’s scientists. Australia is fortunate that CSIRO is at the centre of Australia’s science effort.
Ken Matthews, Chairman & CEO National Water Commission
 

For further information contact:
CSIRO Enquiries
Email: Solve@csiro.au      Web: www.csiro.au
Freecall: 1300 363 400       International: +61 3 9545 2176

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Last Updated: February 8, 2007
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