California Forum

Australia’s different approach to drought

Houseboats are docked in the low water at Lake Shasta’s Bay Bridge resort near Redding. Water levels of Lake Shasta are at about 30 percent of capacity.
Houseboats are docked in the low water at Lake Shasta’s Bay Bridge resort near Redding. Water levels of Lake Shasta are at about 30 percent of capacity. Associated Press file

In the midst of a devastating 12-year drought, Australians felt like they were dealing with a “never-ending disaster.”

They were “planning for a worst-case scenario” in 2006, nine years into the drought, the Australian Department of the Environment’s Tony Slatyer told a gathering of water officials last week in West Sacramento.

His nation had laid the foundation to deal with the worst drought in its history by uniting behind conservation and extraordinary water policy reforms.

California, on the flip side, is beginning a fourth year of drought and has been reacting from a “crisis management” perspective, an aide to Gov. Jerry Brown told the audience. Yes, voters this year approved a $7.5 billion water bond and the Legislature approved groundwater reform, but neither will have an impact on water policy for years.

And the many Californians who haven’t embraced water conservation will probably think the drought has ended with the latest storm. They would be mistaken.

A lifestyle of conservation was one of many topics discussed by water experts from Australia and California who gathered at the ziggurat building. The primary focus of the “California-Australia dialogue on drought solutions” was to find similarities on water policy and to see what ideas might be implemented here to cope with drought. The program was jointly hosted by the Australian government and Brown’s office through the G’day USA program.

There were plenty of jokes about accents and many greetings of “G’day,” but the Aussies were serious about water and seemed surprised at California’s approach to such a valuable commodity.

Australia began reforming its water policy in the early 1990s in an effort to more effectively manage its water system. Of all the talk at the conference about water efficiency, entitlements and allocations, four aspects of Australia’s water reform stood out as issues California should debate.

▪ Conservation: Several speakers talked about how all Australians felt a social responsibility to conserve water. As the drought wore on “there was a strong sense that we’re all in this together,” Slatyer said. Australians conserved by recycling, capturing storm water, building desalination plants and implementing other efficiency measures. And now that the drought has eased, Australians are still conserving at levels below the amounts used before the drought.

▪ Environment: One of the guiding principles in Australia’s water policy is based on a scientific study that determined how much water needs to be left in a river “to preserve the natural environment,” Graham Dooley, president of the Australian Water Association, said. “The biggest scientific study ever done in Australia was about preserving the natural environment in balance with sustaining productive agriculture.” The study showed that more than 50 percent of the water needs to flow through the river system, he said, which established expectations of how much water can delivered to cities and farms.

▪ Water markets: Australia has an electronic trading platform, like a stock exchange, to buy and sell water. Water is treated as a commodity and farmers can buy and sell their allotment of water as it fits their economic needs and goals. Kim Morison, managing director of Blue Sky Water Partners, was surprised that in California, low-value crops were still being produced, while high-value crops were going without water.

▪ Water data: How much water is available in California? State officials don’t have an answer. California doesn’t measure how much water is generated each year. The state only estimates how much water is being used in cities and on farms. Australian water experts were astonished by this fact. “It’s helpful to measure everything,” Dooley said. In the Philippines, the city of Manila discovered that 60 percent of water piped to customers was lost to leakage.

As California enters another year of drought, Simon Birmingham, a senator and the Australian parliamentary secretary for the environment, succinctly made the point of where to begin: “If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

Conserving water as a lifestyle is doable here, and some Californians are embracing the idea. Using science to establish a level of water for the ecological health of a river should happen as a matter of principle. A water market and the concept of measuring water use would take a monumental shift in California, or maybe a 12-year drought.

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