Australian Draught Leadership for California

 

FILE - In this July 15, 2014, file photo, sprinklers water a lawn in Sacramento, Calif. Most Californians have heard by now that they should stop watering their lawns to save water in the drought. But there are smaller steps to take, too, from taking shorter showers and doing less laundry to restaurants skipping water at tables. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

Bajadock: Writing from NZ today, 17 hours ahead of Baja on the time line.  It is fun to get Kiwis’ take on USA.  One thing noticed is how much of a melting pot New Zealand is.  Everyone seems to be from other than NZ.  The oysters aren’t as good as in Baja, but, the beer and wine scene is excellent.  Happy to hear about our little rain shower in Ensenada last weeka and see you next week back in Baja.

SDUT
FILE – In this July 15, 2014, file photo, sprinklers water a lawn in Sacramento, Calif. Most Californians have heard by now that they should stop watering their lawns to save water in the drought. But there are smaller steps to take, too, from taking shorter showers and doing less laundry to restaurants skipping water at tables. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File) The Associated Press

— Severe dry spells aren’t unique to California.

Just ask Australia, where the Millennium Drought stretched from 1997 to 2009, devastating the southeastern portion of the country and forever changing how it uses water.

For months now, water experts in California have asked their counterparts Down Under for advice on drought management. And, increasingly, state officials are employing the lessons they’ve learned from Australia, though not all equally, as they address California’s four-year dry stretch and ponder a drought that could extend for years.

“What’s front of mind for us is the Australia experience – which we may replicate,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, said at Tuesday’s board meeting in Sacramento, where the board approved unprecedented water cuts of up to 36 percent for cities and towns.

“Their advice to us was: ‘Conserve, conserve, conserve early to avoid pain later on,” Marcus told reporters in late April.

Lifestyle change

Perhaps the most powerful lesson California can learn from Australia, at least early on, state officials say, is to value water as a scarce commodity, rather than as something that will always be ample.

This helped the Aussies, who count rain barrels and rock gardens as regular fixtures outside their homes, push through their worst drought on record. The Millennium Drought battered their country with huge job losses, foreclosures and increased rates of suicide among farmers, Jane Doolan of Australia’s National Water Commission told a California think tank in January.

Still, Doolan said, with conservation as way of life, the country and its economy emerged from more than a decade of drought still strong.

“People were highly engaged around the drought. And they were willing to accept that this was their future. Therefore, what we put in place was almost climate adaptation,” Doolan said.

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While conservation helped, it wasn’t all voluntary. In the worst stages of Australia’s drought, city dwellers were restricted to indoor residential use only, and some farmers received “none or very, very little” water for annual crops such as rice and cotton, she said.

With California’s drought stretching on, the state is taking Australia’s lead by emphasizing water savings and making it mandatory. Last week’s water cuts by the state water board followed Gov. Jerry Brown’s order in April to slash water use by 25 percent. That followed his call a year ago for a voluntary statewide reduction of 20 percent, which Californians haven’t come close to in most months.

State officials say Australia’s conservation could be replicated in California, noting the two have a similar quality of life and that parts of California have the same arid climate as southeastern Australia.

Closing that gap, however, could require some major changes. A 2011 study by UC Davis showed Californians, on average, used nearly 50 gallons per person per day more than Australians in 2009. It also found that if California had the same residential water use rates as Australia that year, it could have saved 2.1 million acre-feet of water. One acre-foot of water is enough to supply about two typical households per year.

Australia’s savings comes from its stronger outdoor water restrictions, lower-flush toilets and a much different water pricing system, the study said.

Water markets

Along with learning about Australia’s water savings, Californians are taking notice of Australia’s sophisticated electronic water trading system. Unlike in California, farmers Down Under can buy and sell water using a system akin to a stock exchange.

“This exchange added price transparency and helped farmers to see their water as a regular cost of production instead of as something tied to their land, which in turn prompted efficient use,” according to theReport on California-Australia Drought Dialogue, a joint meeting of officials from both governments in West Sacramento last December.

Temporary water transfers are allowed in California, and have increased during the drought, but are considerably slower due to the state’s red tape. State officials have said they are working to speed up water transfers in California.

The biggest barrier to California having such a robust water market, Marcus, the water board chair, said in the report, “was a lack of water use monitoring. Moreover, California’s water rights would need to be adjudicated, a process that would take decades, if not a century.”

Pipes and plants

Not only did Australia bolster its water exchange, it expanded its water pipes and built a string of desalination plants during its recent drought. Some Californians want to duplicate Australia’s recent $10 billion binge in water infrastructure spending to drought-proof the Golden State. California voters in November took a key first step by approving a $7.5 billion water bond to pay for water recycling, storage and habitat restoration projects, among others things.

Many environmentalists and lawmakers in the Golden State are reluctant, however, to follow Australia’s lead in building numerous seawater desalination plants, saying they pose high costs to ratepayers and the environment, and should be “a last resort.” The largest ocean desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere is expected to open in November in Carlsbad, providing the San Diego region with 7 percent of its water supply by 2020, according to water officials.

Now that Australia’s drought has passed, and some of its desalination plants are inactive because other supplies are cheaper, some have criticized what they say was excessive spending.

California’s water leaders have also taken seriously Australia’s advice on what to do once the rain returns. That advice? Keep planning for future droughts, even when the momentum for water reforms runs dry and the calls for easing restrictions mount.

“But just be aware that following the drought,” said Doolan of Australia’s water commission, “there is always the period where a lot of that work is reprosecuted, there’s a period of consolidation, and a period of embedding, and that’s got to be undertaken. It’s less sexy, but it’s just as important to make sure that the gains that are won during the drought are sustained into the long term.”

chris.nichols@utsandiego.com | (916) 445-2934 | Twitter@ChrisTheJourno

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