To learn to battle drought, California turns to the experts: Australia

The average Melbourne resident now uses 41 gallons of water a day – four times less than the average Los Angeleno.

Gregory Bull/AP/File
A barren hillside is seen in Tulare County, outside of Porterville, Calif., in July. Farming in Tulare County brought in $7.8 billion in 2013, more than any other county in the US, according to the agricultural commissioner. But with the Sierra Nevada snowpack falling to 500-year lows, some farmers are getting only a tiny fraction of their historic surface water, and so are drilling ever-deeper, draining the groundwater.

In the middle of the worst drought in state history, a group of California lawmakers have headed Down Under.

The reason is simple: Australia, over the course of its own 12-year drought, has become a showcase of what to do – and not to do – in the face of declining water supplies and growing human populations.

The average Melbourne resident now uses 41 gallons of water a day – one-quarter that of the average Los Angeleno.

How Australia got buy-in from its residents might be an even more important a lesson for California than technological advances, experts say. None of the country’s changes could have occurred without the widespread support of the populace.

“What I hope they get is not just technical advice on things like how to capture storm water or how to reuse gray water, but what I hope they get is the fact that a big starting point to make all these things work is public engagement,” says David Feldman, chair of the department of planning, policy and design at the University of California in Irvine. It’s not enough to tell the public to cut back. “You have to engage, educate, and bring along…. It’s more than just water management.”  

To be serious about storm water capture, for example, Professor Feldman says you have to be willing to retrofit and build infrastructure with that in mind.

“The Australians learned that what got them through the drought was massive conservation but what sustains them going forward is that they implemented steps that make them resilient,” Feldman says.

Indeed, Australia’s innovations include no longer treating droughts as natural disasters and things, such as a national water market, that have never been successfully attempted in the US.

Giving everyone a voice

Australia, during the height of its millennial drought from 1997 to 2009, also gave everyone a seat at the table. That included environmental interests, not just businesses, agricultural, and municipalities. And it funded them. In 2008, the government created an agency to represent environmental needs in water negotiations and allocated $3.1 billion for purchasing necessary water.

“Not only has Australia made the huge effort to think outside the box, but it puts money where its mouth is,” says Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute, who spent months in Australia studying its methods.

Today, one of the driest nations on earth routinely floods 65 wetlands to support migrating birds. The needs of the nesting fowls eventually were treated as a vital part of the overall strategy for tackling historic water deficits, he says.

Perhaps the most important signal that Australia had a new approach to tackling cyclical droughts took place in 1989, when the government decided to adopt a proactive rather than reactive stance. It reclassified droughts from a natural disaster, which left agencies scrambling to repair damage, to a national water policy issue that would launch long-term strategies to mitigate impact.

One of the most important outcomes of this shift has been the development of an open water market, which allocates the scarce resource according to the supply and demands of all players. 

“Australia arguably has the most advanced and mature water markets in the world,” says Kurt Schwabe, professor of environmental economics and policy at the University of California in Riverside, via e-mail from Australia where he is on sabbatical.

“The fact that they had a relatively transparent, secure, and reliable system in place in which growers and municipalities can easily trade both permanent water entitlements and temporary water allocations likely reduced the economic impacts of that drought any where from 30 to 50 percent, if not more,” he adds. 

Australia calculates the total available water supply, which then becomes the basis for trading in the water marketplace, uncoupled from historic property rights.

This is in contrast to the complicated web of historic water rights contracts that dominate the water market in much of the West, particularly in California.

While limited buying and selling of water resources does take place in the US, particularly during shortages, this market does not rely on comprehensive calculations of the overall water supply as Australia does.         

Given California’s history, such an open marketplace may not be possible, says Feldman.

“I’m not even sure what a national water market would look like here,” he says, noting that the last US president to attempt one was Jimmy Carter. “It didn’t go anywhere,” he says, most notably because regional stakeholders with different policies state by state resisted a single national approach. 

Avoiding missteps

Missteps are part of any big push for change, and Australia is no exception. The push to eliminate water-guzzling landscape went too far in some areas, increasing heat levels radiating from yards that replaced heat-absorbing landscaping with gravel. This drove up air-conditioning costs, as well as led to heavy flooding in areas where landscaping had been removed. A handful of desalination plants took years and millions to build, but when the rains came most were mothballed because the money didn’t make sense any more.

“They made some mistakes,” says Chris Spain founder of HydroPoint, a tech firm that specializes in commercial irrigation systems that reduce water consumption, adding, “we need to make decisions based on good data.”

While drenching rains expected from a wintertime El Niño storm system may arrive soon to aid California’s parched reservoirs, it is possible that the extremes of the current drought could move lawmakers to action, says Professor Schwabe.

“It requires a crisis (real or perceived) to get people to consider change since change can be frightening and challenge our way of life,” he says. Beyond that, it requires both an understanding of the science as well as how the policy might affect different user groups and the environment.

Input from the various groups is essential, adds Schwabe, pointing to protests that occurred in 2010 after a proposed policy that would reduce water for some farmers was released without involving them in the process.

“One of the outcomes from the Australian government's choice to release the guide to their proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan without much consultation and too much ambiguity was significant protests – even public protests in which copies of the plans were set on fire,” he points out, adding that change requires a clear and unambiguous message as to what the reform intends to do, why, and how. 

Education and political and public support are critical, agrees Tom Cech, director of One World One Water Center for Urban Water Education and Stewardship at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He just returned from Australia, where he is coordinating a study abroad program.

Everyone, including the Aboriginal population, was brought into policy discussion, he says. If lawmakers learn only one thing, it is the importance of such inclusion.

“They all had a voice,” he adds.

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