Australia didn’t get serious until their 6th year of drought. Two more dry years to go!

We spent a lot of time looking to Australia for answers during the last drought.  My conclusion after listening to a series of Australian visitors was that they don’t actually have much to offer us.  I can use a couple of points from these articles to illustrate why.

The public billboards:

Grant said one of the things he found interesting was the simplicity of one effective tactic—electronic billboards that flashed reservoir levels.

“Everybody could relate, and it showed what it would mean if they ran out of water,” he said. “They were galvanized.”

The guy who talked to my department said this worked wonders in Australia.  They have one reservoir and kept the public well informed about the reservoir level.  Everyone knew that number on a daily basis.  As the researcher himself said, this doesn’t translate to California.  Our system is tremendously fragmented, with multiple sources, and we weren’t even systematically measuring the largest buffer, our groundwater, until last year.   We can  move water to tap lots of sources, if necessary, as in last year when we ran the California Aqueduct backward.  There is no number we could flash on billboards that would mean anything.  (Come to think of it, this could be applied in Santa Barbara County, where they all drink from Cachuma, which is distressingly low.  But even there, it is Cachuma plus maybe some groundwater under Goleta and maybe firing up their mothballed desal plant.  What exactly should go on that billboard again?)

The Australian guy who talked to my department mentioned coordinating water agencies as well.  In the article, they write:

A regional water manager had the power to force water utilities, city agencies and reservoir managers to cooperate.

He suggested we do the same.  I asked how many agencies that involved and he said there are six districts in the Murray-Darling Basin, now directed by one regional water manager.  He winced when he found out that California has about four thousand agencies that are big enough to count.  (There are probably another thousand tiny ones.)

The Australian guy touted their water market and re-do of their water rights scheme, but when I asked him what they did about the takings issue, he didn’t know what “takings” meant. When I explained it, he said that it had never come up.  At that point I was done learning about drought management from visiting Australians.

All of Australia’s urban water use efficiency is very nice and California should copy the good parts.  There isn’t a good role for household cisterns here because we don’t have a monsoon climate. But let’s point out what Australia really did.  They talk big talk about modernizing their district-level irrigation delivery systems (all those new gates for a billion dollars; I do wonder how all those moving parts are holding up) and their water markets.  But those are just mechanisms.  What they did was fallow half their irrigated ag during the drought.  A third of their irrigated ag is still retired.

It took me a lot of looking to find this, but here are the stats from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Series 4610 (and also 4618).

And 2012 was apparently an extremely wet year.

The Murray-Darling Basin has no groundwater. When surface water went away, they lost half their irrigated hectaresacreage. Farmers here claim that a 6-8% loss of irrigated lands is a big deal, but when California gets serious about living within our annual water supplies, I predict something similar. We could look at Australia’s example for ways to do that, although frankly, even their water market doesn’t seem to have been a subjectively pleasant experience for Australian growers. I would like for us to do better by our growers, but so far we don’t even admit what is happening.


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5 responses to “Australia didn’t get serious until their 6th year of drought. Two more dry years to go!

  1. Not to mention that the MDB has essentially one area of intense water use, and it’s at the bottom of the basin where the water flows anyway. It’s way easier there to move water according to market demands than it would be in ANY Western state.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    I really liked your post on the physical difficulties of moving water in a market.

  3. Steve Bloom

    IIRC a lot of that MDB land has been permanently fallowed via a government buyout program.

  4. You are generally correct. There is not much that California can learn from the Australian drought that is applicable here. But it’s not correct to say that the MDB has no ground water. The MDB and the Great Artesian Basin actually overlap in the NSW – Queensland border region and where I used to spend school holidays in Western NSW there are windmill driven pumped wells that provide drinking water for sheep. But I think you are correct in suggesting that in the irrigated farming areas along the Murrumbidgee and the Murray there is essentially total reliance on surface water. Also, Santa Barbara is connected to the State Water Project. The locals complaint is that what they have to pay for that connection is excessive for the little water they get out of it.
    Robert Pyke B.E. (Sydney), Ph.D. (California)

  5. dzetland

    Actually, no. Australia had a HUGE agricultural reform in the late 1980s and (intrastate) water trading started in the 90s, so they had a lot of experience when the drought got worse.

    Their decision to swap “rights” for “licenses” was also critical to (a) protecting enviro water flows and (b) simplifying the market.