They never do the Australia analysis I want to see.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.



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8 responses to “They never do the Australia analysis I want to see.

  1. Could not agree more! I think that I have previously noted that I am an Australian-American, so I won’t belabor that. But, as usual, the players pick and choose from the Australian experience to support their existing point of view. What seems to be fairly clear is that it is urban conservation that got the cities through the drought. Efforts to pull more water from the “virtual river” of recycling, stormwater capture and so on, were pretty feeble or too late and collapsed once the drought ended. Agricultural policy is still a mess. Agreement on needed environmental flows has never been achieved and within the last month there is this news from Australia “We have some new developments here. the new leader of the National Party is Barnaby Joice. Somewhat of a Trump clone but with some reality checking setting in as he has been in politics for 10 years now. Anyway he has grabbed back water from the Environmental Portfolio and placed it in the agriculture portfolio. We are likely to see no more environmental buybacks.”

    • Noel Park

      Gee, all of that seems eerily familiar. Something substantial on recycling may happen here long term if the MWD project with LA County Sanitation at Harbor City actually happens. Buy there are no credible storm water capture projects that I can see. And collapse if the drought ends is always highly likely.

  2. Noel Park

    I am right there with you on the fallowing of the 4.5 million acres. But I’m not optimistic that it will happen until disaster strikes. Doing it in an organized public policy was just doesn’t seem to fit our political psyche.

    Once they get the groundwater down to where the cost to pump it is uneconomical, maybe something will change

    We have a long time farmer friend in Tulare County who recently drilled 1000 foot well. Then he sold the farm to some investor group. He said “The handwriting is on the wall”.

    I read that somebody in Huron had drilled a 3000 foot well. Didn’t I read here that some learned hydrologist had predicted that, at current pumping tates, they would wipe out thr groundwater in 5 years? As my Dad was so fond of saying, “It’s self regulating”.

  3. Curt Sanders

    Ok, first things first. We need, 1) clear reliable data on the diemiensions of the water supply. Well, A) Surface water data, we pretty much have that. B) groundwater – currently No hard data. Science is advancing but at this point we do not know what the true diemiensions of California’s underground aquifer system are nor do we know how much water is contained there.
    Would it be wise to manage that underground aquifer with a lot more caution until we do have hard data on it? Apparently not to Jerry B and his state water management team..
    California groundwater extraction especially in the Central Valley is completely and utterly out of control.. Super wells continue to be authorized in the CV.. Insanity.. Calif has some huge hydrological challenges in the not to distant future. Somehow, someway the realization has to made by our leadership that The preservation of California’s underground aquifer system ( which really should be emergency use primarily now) has to be made a super top priority in any water management plan. The fallowing of millions of acres of farm land is coming and quite possibly it will be the by product of a big drought. Not a puny 4yr drought like we just had but a much bigger boy. Similar to what has been forecast by NASA, Columbia, and Colgate in Feb 15′. The study says if we keep emitting greenhouse gases into the atomosphere at the current rate globally the Western U.S. especially CA will in 2050 have an 80% chance of a 30 yr drought….(those projections were made at current levels of Carbon emissions. Not a continuous increase which is most probably for at least another 15 or so years). I know I have mentioned this before and sorry to reiterate it but the full understanding of this probability is completely missed by Jerry and his water management team. Paleoclimatology of the West reveals that we have droughts, 50 yrs, 100 yrs, and longer.. Will Calif be caught in the next drought with its pants down and an empty aquifer system? It is quite possible, especially with the current rate of extraction..

  4. With the Hadley Cell boundary moving north, it’s not clear whether we’ll get an extended drought, or the southern half of the state slipping into weather conditions currently associated with central Baja, with rain coming in randomly, a few times per year if we’re lucky, possibly from a hurricane. Whether this will be called a drought or business as normal in a changing climate is semantic at that point.

    Anyway, the world is littered with the ruins of cities killed by droughts, and there’s no reason to think we’ve solved the problems they faced yet. It’s too bad too.

    • Noel Park

      I have lived in my present SoCal home for 8 years and 6 of them have been below “normal”. I fear that you are right. At what point does ” drought ” become “climate change”?

      We are planning a trip to northern AZ and NM, home of several cities evidently ruined by ” drought “, so yours is a particularly pointed comment to me.

  5. “One immediate difference is that when we turn back boats to Indonesia, objectionable as that policy is, we know the Indonesians aren’t going to shoot them when they come back,” he said.