What lies beneath: Rural landholder interpretation of the risks of aquifer exploitation in Australia

Emily Mendham, Allan Curtis

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    'Unsure' shift to the 'Agree' or 'Disagree' cohorts. The survey data suggest that focusing on the economic implications of declining water tables would be an effective way of engaging these rural landholders in dialogue about the sustainability of their groundwater resource. Risks associated with the management of groundwater in farming landscapes are at the forefront of public discourse in Australia and North America. There has been very little social research examining rural landholder attitudes to groundwater use and management. This is an important gap given the critical role social acceptability plays in resource access decisions, the important role groundwater plays in sustaining livelihoods, and the vital role it plays in maintaining groundwater dependent ecosystems. This paper attempts to address that gap by exploring how rural landholders interpret risks associated with groundwater use for irrigated agriculture. We do that by using a case study from south eastern Australia where farmers' livelihoods are increasingly dependent on groundwater. We draw upon spatially referenced survey data to investigate the general extent and nature of concern about risk associated with pumping groundwater. We also explore the factors influencing risk interpretation, including occupational identity and proximity to the aquifer. Survey results suggest that while there is concern about pumping groundwater for irrigated agriculture in the Wimmera region, there is also considerable confidence that negative outcomes can be avoided.The dimension of risk of most concern to respondents was the possibility that the benefits of pumping groundwater would not be shared equitably. Those reporting lower concern about the risks of groundwater pumping were more likely to own properties located above the aquifer, to exhibit a strong business orientation including prioritising economic values compared to environmental values, and to express attitudes indicating they thought private property rights should be protected. A substantial proportion of survey respondents indicated they were 'Unsure' on all the risk items in the survey. It seems the future social acceptability of groundwater exploitation in the Wimmera region will depend on the extent that those
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)180-189
    Number of pages10
    JournalJournal of Hydrology
    Publication statusPublished - Apr 2014


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