Groundwater dependent ecosystems

Groundwater springChanges in groundwater quantity and quality can impact on the many ecosystems in Australia that rely on groundwater to survive.

Many ecosystems depend on groundwater to stay healthy. Some ecosystems are completely groundwater-dependent. Others rely on groundwater for part of the time, such as during the dry season in northern Australia.

Not all ecosystems draw on groundwater directly. In many cases the groundwater provides baseflows in rivers that ecosystems depend on. The impact of changes in groundwater quantity and quality on these ecosystems is determined by the degree and nature of their groundwater dependency.

Types of groundwater-dependent ecosystems

Six types of groundwater dependent ecosystems are conventionally recognised in Australia:

  • Terrestrial vegetation that relies the availability of shallow groundwater
  • Wetlands such as paperbark swamp forests and mound springs ecosystems
  • River base flow systems where a groundwater discharge provides a baseflow component to the river's discharge
  • Aquifer and cave ecosystems where life exists independent of sunlight
  • Terrestrial fauna, both native and introduced, that rely on groundwater as a source of drinking water
  • Estuarine and near shore marine systems, such as some coastal mangroves, salt marshes and sea grass beds, which rely on the submarine discharge of groundwater.

The National Water Commission is focusing its efforts on the first four ecosystem types.

Groundwater-dependent ecosystems and water reform

The National Water Initiative (NWI) recognises the importance of protecting groundwater-dependent ecosystems and calls for the development of better understanding of the relationship between groundwater and important groundwater-dependent ecosystems.


In the 2009 Biennial Assessment of progress against the NWI, the National Water Commission considered that good progress was being made, but there is still much to do to complete the identification and integrated management of connected surface water and groundwater resources across Australia:

Findings were that:

  • Jurisdictions have commenced assessments of connectivity, as required under the NWI. The Commission appreciates that each jurisdiction takes a different approach to assessment and management of its water resources, in line with its assessment of management needs. However, applying different thresholds of significance, and hence differing thresholds that trigger integrated management, risks undermining confidence in water planning and entitlements, particularly in areas where entitlements can be traded across borders.
  • All jurisdictions have now passed legislation, or in the case of Western Australia implemented planning processes, that recognise the potential connectivity of surface and groundwater resources and provide
    for their conjunctive planning and management.
  • Where plans have been developed, Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, the Australian
    Capital Territory and the Northern Territory account for the potential connectivity of surface water and groundwater resources in the determination of the sustainable extraction limits. Other jurisdictions have commenced the development of plans that will set out integrated management arrangements.
  • All jurisdictions have made some progress in developing integrated management arrangements for
    some connected systems. However, the continuing slow progress in rolling out the enabling water
    plans, and failure to adequately address overallocation in some systems, are inhibiting widespread adoption of integrated surface water and groundwater management.
  • The quality of data on Australia's groundwater resources is particularly poor, and more resources
    need to be devoted to improving it. The quality of metering and monitoring of groundwater extractions
    is variable. The National Groundwater Action Plan is helping to improve the quality of data on
    groundwater resources.
  • There is currently a critical need for increased national expertise in groundwater assessment and
    management, and especially skills in assessment and management of connected systems. Progress is
    being made in this area through initiatives such as the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training and the National Groundwater Action Plan.

National Groundwater Action Plan

In response to the findings of the Biennial Assessment the Australian Government has funded the $82 million Groundwater Action Plan. This initiative is managed by the National Water Commission and will lead to a better understanding of groundwater issues, including groundwater-dependent ecosystems.