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Australian water crisis offers clues for California [Updated]

January 15, 2010 |  3:00 pm

Manpour

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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