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Australian water crisis offers clues for California [Updated]


When California water officials look into the future, many of them see Australia: a vast, arid continent that has been suffering through drought for more than a decade. Severe shortages have prompted Australia to implement strict water-saving measures throughout the country. It has required residents to use less water in their homes, caused government to build large-scale desalination plants and led farmers to implement drip irrigation systems.

Australia, it seems, could offer a model of how to adapt in California, where, despite this weekend’s rains, the state remains in a third year of drought -- a drought many water officials expect not only will continue but continue to be exacerbated by a growing population and climate change considerations.

Recognizing that California and Australia are "inextricably linked to the serious changes and challenges of an accelerating decreasing availability of water and its supply juxtaposed to the demands of ever increasing populations," according to Grame Barty, regional director of the Americans for the Australian Trade Commission, the L.A.-based commission hosted a one-day event Thursday to bring together water sustainability experts from both sides of the Pacific in what it hopes "will become an important annual exchange of issues and solutions between the USA and Australia." It's part of the annual G'Day USA: Australia Week celebration.

Playing host to a wide range of stakeholders, including utilities, government officials, business leaders, academics and nonprofits, the Australia-USA Water Sustainability and Management Forum covered topics such as trading water rights, the effects of climate change on water, water-demand management and urban water planning for growing populations.

"The past is no longer a guide to water management," said Bradley Udall, director of western water assessment for the University of Colorado at Boulder. "Climate theory models all point us in one direction, and that is a future with less water. We need to think here in the U.S. about how to deal with that now, not later."

Udall said the current situation in Melbourne, Australia, which has watched its water reserves decline from 100% in 1997 to 30% today, represents a likely scenario for the American Southwest. 2006 to 2009 were the driest four years for the river that supplies Australia’s second-largest city, and the problems are expected to get only worse. Melbourne’s population is projected to grow by 2 million in the next 10 years, at which point the city will need to build a second desalination plant because it will have outgrown the one that is scheduled to come on line in 2011, "just when the city’s water is close to running out," said Dave Griggs, director of Australia’s Monash Sustainability Institute.

"It’s a little bit of a race against time," added Griggs, who said more than $900 million have already been invested in water-saving strategies for the city. "Melbourne would’ve been dry today if strict water-saving measures hadn’t been implemented."

Griggs cited rainwater harvesting and demand management as the least expensive options for increasing water supplies. Pipelines and dams were among the most expensive options, he said.

"Urban storm water is a large untapped source of water generated close to where it’s needed. ... In most Australian cities, as much water falls on that city as the city needs," Griggs said.

In Queensland, Australia’s fastest-growing state, with 2.7 million residents, about 20% of the population has installed rain-catchment tanks since 2006, when the area received just 7.4% of its average annual inflow to the major dam that supplies it. In 2007, that flow had declined to just 4%.

Responding to its dire circumstance, the Queensland Water Commission implemented a variety of drastic measures.

On the management end, it reduced the number of utilities in the state from 23 to seven. It too built a desalination plant. In addition to developing a system to connect dams supplying the area, it installed an indirect potable reuse system similar to what currently exists in Orange County, said Dan Spiller, principal executive director of the Queensland Water Commission.

On the consumer end, Queensland instituted an aggressive campaign to change the behavior of its residents since 70% of Australia's water use is residential. In 2006, when Queensland’s dams had declined to 30% capacity and severe water restrictions were already in place, prohibiting homeowners from watering their landscapes and washing their cars and homes’ windows, "residents reported restriction fatigue," Spiller said. [Updated Jan. 20, 1:30 p.m.: A government official from the Australian state of Victoria took issue with the G'Day USA speaker's assertion that 70% of water use in Australia is residential. According to East Melbourne's Office of Water, the figure varies state by state, but most water is used for agriculture.]

Yet further water restrictions were necessary.

So Queensland gave them goals. Specifically, it asked that residents use just 35 to 40 gallons of water per person per day -- a savings that could be more easily attained if residents reduced their seven-minute showers to four minutes. In addition to giving residents free shower timers, that message was widely advertised on televison and in outdoor advertising. Those who significantly exceeded the goal were sent letters asking them to explain their water use; of those, 34% reduced their consumption to the appropriate level immediately and 9% discovered they had a leak.

In addition to outreach, Queensland was aided by a $261-million rebate program that provided its residents with 508,000 water-saving devices, including rainwater tanks, low-flush toilets and water-efficient shower heads. The result was a population that didn’t just meet the stated goal but exceeded it.

Although rain has since returned to Queensland, and water use levels are now less restricted, Spiller said, "one of our objectives is that residents use only what they need."

By Queensland standards, that’s about 30 gallons per person per day, compared with 200 to 300 gallons per person per day in Southern California, said Peter Beattie, commissioner to the Americas of the Queensland state government.

California is the largest, and second-fastest-growing, state in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. L.A. County alone is projected to grow from the 18.6 million residents today to 26 million by 2030.

Most of the residents depend, at least in part, on the Colorado River, where demand could outpace supply as early as 2050, the University of Colorado's Udall said.

"Australians use the words ‘water’ and ‘security’ together," Udall said during his talk on the environmental effects of the Colorado basin. "I suspect the U.S. will do the same as we get further into the 21st century."

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo credit: Queensland Water Commission

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"AUSTRALIA'S largest wind-powered desalination plant is planned for Adelaide'
We will go from about 5GL,p.a. to up to 50GL,pa, prior to this water ran out to sea killed the sea grass, that in turn destroyed the fish breeding grounds, it’s the largest such aquifer recharge project in the world.

We will on completion support a community of some 250,000 people with this fully sustainable new water project.

One of the waste products from our offer is brine; we are planning use brine to grow algae which in turn we can use in our biodiesel back up engine.

On the demand side look at urban usage vs. agricultural usage. Agricultural usage is at least 5x more than urban usage. Then look at crops that are water intensive and in some cases are heavily subsidized.

We should ban the watering of lawns and using water to rinse off driveways and sidewalks. Farmers can't water their crops yet we are still allowed to water our lawns. Cities should ban lawns for any new developments and encourage the use of artificial grass. We need to develp desal plants to make use of the ocean water sitting right off our coast.

@ MarK: In calafornia you use 7-10 times as much water as in Australia. Reduction of demand is clearly possible and you would not have to invest in a new desalination plant. The cost for the desalination plant will be put on your water bill....

Also a desalination plant uses huge amount of electricity and thus produces very expensive water. Wasting this water to water your plants is really stupid

That 49 percent figure represents water withdrawals, not water consumption. Water for thermal power generation goes right back into the river or ocean or reservoir, albeit at a higher temperature, with very minimal evaporative loss. Consumptive use, what we actually can't use again downstream, is over 80 percent agriculture. Some say as high as 90 percent. If you want to save water for urban use or for environmental protection, agriculture is what you target.

I am a huge fan of local solutions like water catchment, and it is insane that CA doesn't have aggressive programs for it, as well as greywater usage!!

That said, this article doesn't address what the real problem is, here - thermoelectric power production. Here in the US, a full 49% of the nation's total water consumption is wasted up smokestacks for cooling fluids we just poisoned our environment to heat. 49%. Nuclear, Gas, and Coal all have this stupid, 19th century technology that is incredibly wasteful. Sure, they have been extremely heavily subsidized, so we don't really pay the cost of the enormous water depletion - instead we point fingers at agriculture and residents, which use far less water COMBINED than Big Electricity.

Now, we are starting another insane push for even more thermo-electric power and calling it, of all things "renewable." Concentrating Solar and Geothermal will waste HUNDREDS OF BILLIONS of gallons of water we DON'T HAVE in this state, to use the same 19th century "heat it then cool it off" technology. Even if these boondoggles are "air cooled," they become so much more expensive and produce so little power, they are pointless - not to mention the CSPs will require daily mirror rinsing with - yep - WATER, because their construction causes enormous dust and erosion problems.

Can we please connect the dots, here? Local solutions need to be implemented and incentivized IMMEDIATELY, both for water and for power. Rooftop solar could easily make CA a NET EXPORTER of peaker power, just from existing rooftops. Add in parking lots and in-city brownfields, eventually some storage solutions, and we have ourselves a new, profitable industry, owned by all of US!

This is not pie-in-the sky, and it's not expensive - this is a proven solution if we just got the right systems in place of loans and feed in tariffs (payments made to us for power we feed into the grid above and beyond what we consume). Any idiot looking at the baking sprawl of Los Angeles could easily see the PV potential, so why have DWP and Villaraigosa refused to fund risk-free AB 811 loans so we can all install efficiency upgrades and solar panels? Why have they refused to pay us for clean power we produce, while looking at remote communities to spend billions of our dollars destroying for "clean" power???

The problem is that Big Energy and Big Water (and certain regional power-trippers) want to monopolize and control all our access to life's essentials, and keep blocking any program that would help us start weaning off of their products and gaining independence. YOU need to fight back and demand LOCAL POINT OF USE WATER AND ELECTRICITY SOLUTIONS THAT WE OWN, and stop being pushed around and lied to by DWP, SCE, the Governor and all the other dirty dealers in our natural resources.

Catching and saving at least a portion of the billions of gallons of rain water that are currently dumped into the ocean is the place to start. Not only on a regional level with new reservoirs and catch basins, but at home, with rain barrels and cisterns.

Yes Sth Aust offers a lens into the future where ,California could be in the next 2-3 years if the drought persists.

we live next to the ocean right. how about desalinization. removes the salt from the water. GE does it, this is available people. countries our using it, california should never have a drought, never.


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