My real objection to the Australia love-fest today is that it isn’t specific enough. That study and the write-up are about the lessons of Australian urban drought management. But both those discussions say nice things about ‘Australia’s drought management’, which implies both the urban and the ag side. The implicit endorsement is a problem. Careful readers who look deeply into the text will understand it was a study of four Australian cities. Most other people will just think that California should do whatever Australia did, both urban and ag.
My impression from afar is that Australian agricultural drought management was pretty damn problematic. Here are the problems I know of:
- They spent A$1B on district modernization, mostly on remote controlled moving gates. I’ve had strong doubts about how those gates are performing. I still don’t know the answer to that, but apparently they are reevaluating the second phase of the project, another A$2B on district modernization. I am a huge proponent of district modernization, but not with high-tech gates.
- The farmers’ subjective experience of the drought seems to have sucked. Whatever the drought measures were, they didn’t change the rhetoric about government-created drought any. That article once again describes the process of a water district crashing as water leaves a district piecemeal; this time, sadly, after they spent a bunch of money on the canals. Water delivery infrastructure has a density threshold that must be met. If ag land is not retired by planning at the district level, it will crash at the district level.
- The support structures for their water markets, as described in Unbundling Water Rights, are more autocratic than anything I’ve ever seen in California.
My final concern is more of a question. Do these endorsements mean that Australia’s policies, including their ag policies, are OK? Are we following in their footsteps? Because the effect of their policies (and the part that effectively absorbed the lack of water) is that they fallowed half their irrigated land. They retired 15% of their ag land. From Australia’s Series 4618.0:
Instead of the 600,000 or so acres of land that was fallowed in 2015 in California, an Australian level of agricultural drought response would have been fallowing about 4.5 million acres. (Which would decrease human water use by ~13.5MAF.) Do endorsements of Australia’s techniques include that? If so, I am all in. I would love to talk about a zoning approach for ag land that designates whether irrigated acreage gets water in wet, normal and dry years. If it doesn’t mean that, I wish the Australia advocates would be a little more specific about which lessons we should bring back home.