National Heritage List inscription date 4 August 2009
Elizabeth Springs possesses extraordinary natural and evolutionary qualities. It is an oasis in the desert, home to species not found anywhere else in the world and the only remaining relatively intact Great Artesian Basin spring with existing fauna and flora in far western Queensland.
Elizabeth Springs, approximately 300 kilometres south-southeast of Mount Isa, is part of the Great Artesian Basin-–the largest artesian or groundwater system in the world. The basin is effectively a huge underground water tank covering more than 20 per cent of the Australian continent and in some parts containing water that is more than one million years old.
Elizabeth Springs is a complex of mound springs. These natural groundwater springs are found in arid outback Queensland and South Australia. Water stored in deep aquifers seeps to the surface through fault lines in the overlying rock. Mounds, resembling small volcanos, form from wind-blown sand, mud and accumulated plant debris which mingles with the sediments and salts in the spring water as it evaporates.
The Great Artesian Basin has around 600 artesian spring complexes in twelve major groups. The springs range in size from only a few metres across to large clusters of freshwater pools which are known as supergroups. The Elizabeth Springs complex extends over an area of approximately 400 by 500 metres and is the sole remaining example of the otherwise extinct or heavily modified Springvale supergroup.
Great Artesian Basin springs have been significant in providing reliable water and habitat as the Australian continent progressively dried out over the last 1.8 million years. The discovery and use of underground water in the basin opened up thousands of square miles of country as it provides the only reliable source of fresh water through much of inland Australia.
Sadly, many of these springs have disappeared in the last 100 years as a result of water extraction. Elizabeth Springs is regarded as one of the most important artesian springs because of its isolation, intactness and because other springs are no longer flowing. Over 74 per cent of the artesian springs in Queensland are extinct.
Evolution on display
Elizabeth Springs is a significant refuge for a number of plants and animals that, due to the springs' isolation, have evolved into distinct species not found anywhere else in the world, including a freshwater hydrobiid snail and the threatened Elizabeth Springs goby.
The groundwater in the Great Artesian Basin moves slowly, between one to five metres per year. As a result some water in the centre of the basin, on the South Australian and Queensland border, is more than one million years old. The Great Artesian Basin springs are predominately recharged by rainfall on the Great Dividing Range on the eastern margin of the basin, where the basin's aquifer outcrops, allowing water to percolate into the vast groundwater system.
Historically, the Great Artesian Basin including Elizabeth Springs was an important water supply for cattle stations, irrigation, livestock and domestic usage, and it remains a vital life line for rural Australia.