Confined wells rehabilitation scheme complete

The South East Confined Aquifer Wells Rehabilitation Scheme has been wound up after 18 years.

The scheme came about in the year 2000 when water allocation planning was being undertaken for the confined aquifer. There were concerns that the many poorly constructed and leaking wells were impacting on the pressure in the artesian aquifer, with a possible threat to the sustainable use of the resource.

The Mid South East Irrigators Association worked with the then South East Catchment Board and the Department of Water Resources, developing a proposal for funding to block and or replace the approximately 120 poorly constructed wells in the Kingston - Robe - Lucindale area.

The proposal was successful in attracting funding, with support from the State Government as well as $1.036 million in Federal Government Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) funds.

The project aim was the blocking and the reconstruction of 117 poorly constructed artesian wells, resulting in significantly improved pressure in the aquifer, ensuring the continued sustainable use of the resource.

A committee of landowner representatives appointed by the Minister was set up on August  21 2001 in order to oversee the project, taking it to its completion.

The former Department of Environment, Heritage and Aboriginal Affairs and the former Department for Water Resources in conjunction with the Mid South East Irrigators Association (MSEIA), received $1.5M of Commonwealth funds (NHT1 & 2 programs) over a three year period from 1999 to 2002. A contribution of $1.1M in State Government funds was also received in three annual allocations during the same period.

$750,000 of the State funds were allocated to Department of Primary Industries and Resources (PIRSA) for seed funding loans, also administering the loan component of the scheme, assisting financing the drilling of replacement wells.

$350,000 of State funds and $480,000 of NHT funds to be used by Department for Water Resources (now DEW), commencing the plugging of 120 wells and for scheme administration.

NHT funds ($1.036M) secured by MSEIA were held in an investment account administered originally by the SE Catchment Water Management Board, now South East Natural Resources Management Board (SENRMB). Monies were transferred from this account to PIRSA to fund the well replacement grants as required.

The grants and loans component of the scheme was planned to operate over nine years, with grant and loan applications available up to June 2009 and all on-ground works to be completed by 2010.

The Ministerial Committee decided on a cautious approach when subsiding replacement costs as these could be highly variable depending on the size and nature of the well, despite a 100% subsidy applied to back filling and decommissioning the existing poorly constructed wells, funded by the State government from its contribution to the scheme.

The scheme initially provided well owners with a grant of 30% of the cost of a replacement well. The 30% grant was conservatively determined from the outset to be the amount that was affordable to the scheme based on an average replacement cost and the number of wells to be replaced.

Putting the replacement well subsidy into context, similar schemes are being operated in other parts of Australia, principally the GABSI initiative, where the Federal and State Governments subsidise up to 80% of the cost for rehabilitation or replacement of wells. 

The remaining 70% of the replacement cost was funded by the well owner with the option of low interest loan repayable over five years, funding their contribution.

The grant and the optional loan were offered as incentives to well owners to participate in the scheme, as broad participation was essential to maximize the positive impact on the resource.

It was expected that he scheme would take 9 years initially, although it was not until August 2015 that the final loan repayment was made, enabling the scheme to be wound up.

Although the final distribution of the residual funds was not made until June 30 this year.

Distribution of this surplus was made by way of an ex-gratia payment, equating to a further payment of 40.7% per replacement well, bringing the total grant per well to almost 71%.

The final result has been a significant measurable increase in pressure head over the whole area since the scheme’s completion - a really good outcome for the sustainability of the resource.

“It took 18 years to wind up but 73 poorly constructed and leaking wells were rehabilitated, 44 were blocked and abandoned, 62 landholders were assisted and the resource conserved,” said Josh Hancock, secretary of the Mid South East Irrigators Association (MSEIA). 

“This is a good news story for both the environment and irrigators and demonstrates what can be achieved when government bodies and community groups work together.”

The committee of the SECWRS (now disbanded) acknowledged the considerable ongoing effort and expertise of George McKenzie from the former Department of Water Resources to the successful completion of the scheme and the final disbursement of the residual funds.