'Water police' crack down in an ever-drier Australia

Profligate shower-takers may find their water supply cut to a trickle as country endures a long drought made worse by global warming.

– At first glance it looks like a police car – a white vehicle with a black-and-yellow checkerboard stripe running along its flanks. But as the patrol vehicle turns a corner in the leafy district of Paddington, in central Sydney, its true purpose becomes clear from the bold black lettering across its trunk: "Water Restrictions."

Australia, already the driest inhabited continent on the planet, is in the grip of its worst-ever drought.

The water crisis is no longer about desperate farmers in the Outback watching their sheep and cattle perish. Over the past six years, it has extended its grip to the cities and is changing the way Australians regard a resource they once took for granted. The patrol car is one of 50 that cruise Sydney's streets around the clock, every day of the week, sniffing out water wastage.

Climate scientists agree that Australia's drought is linked to global warming.

"There is very strong consensus," says Blair Nancarrow, director of the Australian Research Centre for Water in Society. "There's a lot of climate-model evidence that says that the drought is, at least in part, human-induced."

Data from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology show that, since 1970, rainfall has increased in the barely developed northwestern corner of the continent. But it has decreased in the densely populated east and southeast, the areas where it matters most.

Australians are increasingly bombarded with pleas to conserve their most precious resource. Last October a major electricity supplier asked people to refrain from singing, daydreaming, and engaging in other "nonessential activities" in the shower to save power and water. . Exhortations range from installing a rainwater tank in the backyard to eating less meat, on the grounds that rearing livestock requires far more water than growing crops.

Under Sydney's strict water-conservation measures, introduced in 2003,, cars must not be washed with hoses, only buckets. Watering lawns and gardens with hoses or drip-irrigation systems is allowed on two days a week. A special permit is required to fill a swimming pool. Breaking any of these rules incurs a spot fine of A$220 (US$178) for householders and A$500 for businesses.

"People are sometimes hostile, but the majority are understanding," says Brendan Elliott of Sydney Water, the utility that pipes water to 4 million people. "If they've done the wrong thing, most people will freely admit it."

By issuing 5,600 infringement notices and running an education campaign, Sydney's water consumption has been cut by 13 percent over the past three years.

In the neighboring state of Victoria, the attitude toward water-wasters is even tougher. The state's water authority recently threatened to reduce to a trickle the water supply of householders who repeatedly ignore water restrictions. Earlier this month a repeat offender was punished by cutting his supply from 10.5 to 0.5 gallons a minute – sufficient for drinking and cooking, but not enough for a shower.

The draconian measures lasted 48 hours. Dennis Cavagna, managing director of South East Water, admitted the punishment was harsh. "It's very tough, but I think it just shows we've got to be serious about this," he said.

Coercion is just one way Australia is reacting to its water crisis. Another is planning big new infrastructure projects. Sydney is due to start building its first desalination plant in July to convert seawater into drinking water. The A$1.9 billion project is controversial. Environmentalists call desalinated water "bottled electricity" because of the amount of coal-generated power needed to strip it of its salt.

Perth, in Western Australia, recently built a desalination plant, another is under consstruction on the Gold Coast of Queensland, and Adelaide and Melbourne are considering similar facilities.

Just as contentious is a plan by Brisbane to turn sewage into drinking water. The state government had planned to hold a A$10 million referendum on the subject, but in January said that the drought was so acute that it would forge ahead without public consultation.

The decision outraged some city inhabitants, concerned that recycled effluent could cause serious health problems.

Western Australia, the country's biggest state, has flirted with the idea of building a 2,300 mile long pipeline or canal to carry water from the rain-soaked Kimberley wilderness region. The A$2 billion project has been criticized as impractical. "It's a romantic idea, but it would be incredibly costly because the distances are so great, and you'd have to pump the water all that way," Ms. Nancarrow says..

A failure to adapt to less rainfall could have profound implications for Australia's beach and barbecue lifestyle. But Greg Miller says he has come up with an innovation that will at least ensure that Australians can continue to enjoy verdant lawns.

As head of the Turf Growers Association of New South Wales, he is busy promoting a new type of grass that thrives on seawater. Known as seashore or sea isle paspalum, it was developed by scientists at the University of Georgia in the US. Mr. Miller is convinced that it is superbly suited to drought-stricken Australia.

"It's the most salt-resistant grass out there. It can be watered with salt water as long as you flush it with rainwater or gray water one time out of four."

It may be only a small part of a very large jigsaw puzzle, but it shows that Australians are thinking about how to adapt to what could be a very different future.

Peter Cullen, one of the country's foremost water experts, told a recent conference that the attitude held by many Australians used to be "let's hope it rains."

"That hasn't turned out to be a grand strategy," Dr. Cullen said. "The climate is changing. It would be prudent for us to assume we are going to get less rainfall."

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