California Forum

Lessons from the Australian drought

Santa Monica resident Josephine Miller uses a 200-gallon water storage tank that collects rain from her home’s roof to water her garden.
Santa Monica resident Josephine Miller uses a 200-gallon water storage tank that collects rain from her home’s roof to water her garden. Associated Press file

Recent winter storms delivered more than 3 inches of precious rain to Sacramento and much of our state. By capturing the rainwater from our rooftops and the torrent running down our urban storm drains, we could lessen the impact of California’s drought. It might sound impractical to accomplish this on the massive scale required, but it’s happening in Australia right now.

As with California, no one had a clue when Australia’s millennium drought (1998-2010) would end. Five years in, most thought it couldn’t go on any longer, yet they weren’t even halfway through. Only when they were running out of water did Australians finally implement most of their innovative policies. But when they did, everyone pitched in to help – businesses, nonprofits, schools and government agencies at all levels.

It’s obvious, but when you have very little water, every drop counts, and in Australia this maxim is put into practice at every turn. An approach called “Right Water” marries the source and quality of water with specific tasks. Rainwater, stormwater, groundwater, wastewater and even seawater are all part of the solution, along with the storage of more surface water.

Cities led the way by establishing firm targets for water use. In Melbourne, with a population of 4.5 million, each resident could only use 41 gallons per day, no matter the type of house or size of yard. The target was not only met, but surpassed – amazing considering California’s average daily water use is 196 gallons per person. A multimillion-dollar marketing campaign helped people understand the tools they could use to reduce water use, and as a result, the level of water literacy in Australia is extremely high.

In Adelaide, a city of 1.2 million people, a remarkable 45 percent of homes have rooftop rainwater capture tanks that are used to irrigate lawns, flush toilets and even run washing machines. They are mandatory for all new houses. Even if it only rains one inch, a typical 1,000-square-foot roof captures 600 gallons of water. Think how much we can collect on California’s 13 million rooftops.

No stone was left unturned in the quest for water conservation. A five-star rating system was put in place making it illegal to sell inefficient toilets and dishwashers. Robots were deployed inside pipelines to detect leaks. In California we lose more than 280 billion gallons of water to pipeline leaks each year. On a local level, Sacramento will save an annual 1.9 billion gallons of water when it finishes the job of installing water meters for the remaining half of the city.

The most politically contentious item on the Australian agenda was desalinization. Every large city ended up building a plant because the ability to purify seawater seemed like an insurance policy that couldn’t be ignored. Today, only a few are used. The next generation of facilities purify treated wastewater for significantly less money. California has now started down the path of replenishing our local water supplies by recycling water.

The Australian policies also led to some unintended consequences. For example, stringent water restrictions caused the death of hundreds of thousands of neighborhood shade trees. With less shade, homes got hotter, so people bought bigger air conditioning units to do the job that trees had done – cool them down. This required more energy from fossil fuel power plants.

Trees need watering, especially in a drought. Cities like Melbourne set a goal of getting half of the water it needs for parks and street trees from a system of underground stormwater cisterns built into every large infrastructure project. Los Angeles could be capturing billions of gallons of water in a similar network of cisterns every time it rains.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides the state with more than $183 million annually in water funding, in addition to the governor’s recent $7.5 billion water bond. Together, they present a timely opportunity to make green infrastructure investments that increase supplies for the current emergency while building meaningful drought resiliency for the future.

A whole generation of Australians will never look at water the same way, and we can thank them for showing us the way.

Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest, recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Australia with a group of state and local California officials.