Kristen Gelineau & Ellen Knickmeyer, ASSOCIATED PRESS
California’s longest and sharpest drought on record has its increasingly desperate water stewards looking for solutions in Australia, the world’s driest inhabited continent.
The struggle to survive with little water is a constant thread in the history of Australia, whose people now view drought as an inevitable feature of the land poet Dorothea Mackellar dubbed “a sunburnt country.”
Four years into a drought forcing mandatory 25 percent water cutbacks this year, Californians have taken a keen interest in how Australia coped with its “Big Dry,” a torturous drought that stretched across the millennium, from the late 1990s through 2012. Australia’s city dwellers had to accept tough water restrictions as cattle collapsed and died in barren fields, monstrous wildfires killed 173 people, and scores of farms went under.
But by the time the rains returned, Australia had fundamentally changed how it handles water, following landmark reforms to more carefully mete out allocations and cutbacks. Today, Australia treats water as a commodity to be conserved and traded. The system also better measures what water is available, and efficiency programs have cut average daily water use to 55 gallons, compared with 105 gallons per day for each Californian.
The hard-earned lesson is that long droughts are here to stay, says drought-policy expert Linda Botterill of the University of Canberra.”We can expect longer, deeper and more severe droughts in Australia, and I believe the same applies in the U.S.,” Botterill says. “As a result, we need to develop strategies that are not knee-jerk responses, but that are planned risk-management strategies.”
That’s why California water officials routinely cite Australia’s experience and invite Australian water ministers to come speak. It’s also why Felicia Marcus, who runs California’s Water Resources Control Board, can talk in minute detail about the stormwater-capture system watering soccer fields in Perth.
But Californians may find Australia’s medicine tough to swallow. Australians are accustomed to living in a dry land, expect government intervention in a crisis and largely support making sacrifices for the common good. For much of their history, many Californians have enjoyed abundant water, or were able to divert enough of it to turn deserts green, and highly paid lawyers ensure that property rights remain paramount.
“The outstanding feature of the California drought is the way in which it’s been allowed to become incredibly serious, with — from an Australian perspective — an absolutely pathetic and nominal sort of response,” said Daniel Connell, an environmental policy expert at The Australian National University. “The main difference between California and Australia is they’re dominated by a legalistic approach and dominated by rights, and we’ve got a much more public-policy approach.”
Australia hardly has all the answers. Some of its drought responses faced sharp criticism, and some experts believe Australia already is losing some of its gains. Still, Americans suffering their own “Big Dry” may benefit from some comparisons:
WHOSE WATER IS IT:
AUSTRALIA: Too many water entitlements had been allocated for Australia’s main river system, which winds thousands of miles across four states that produce a third of the nation’s food. Overuse and drought so depleted the Murray-Darling Basin that by 2002, the mouth of the Murray had to be dredged to keep it flowing into the sea.
Australia responded by capping entitlements, canceling inactive licenses and buying back hundreds of billions of gallons from irrigators to restore the rivers and sell to other users when rain is plentiful. Water use is strictly metered to ensure license holders use only what they are allocated. Precise measurements also track the availability of water, which affects its price as shares are bought and sold on a water trading market worth $1.2 billion a year in U.S. dollars.
The amount of water represented in entitlements doled out to farms, industries and towns depends on what’s in the river; in drought, it can dwindle to virtually nothing. This is where water trading becomes critical. License holders can buy or sell their entitlements to others, keeping agriculture afloat. A farmer of a thirsty crop like cotton might not profit when both the share of water and the price of cotton is low. But if an orchard grower in desperate need buys that water, the cotton farmer can live off the sale while the orchard owner reaps a profitable harvest.
CALIFORNIA: Gov. Jerry Brown calls the state’s system of divvying up water rights, which dates to the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, “somewhat archaic.” The largest state economy in the U.S. still follows the maxim “first in time, first in right,” which gives overarching priority to nearly 4,000 so-called senior water rights holders who staked claims before 1914 or own acreage abutting a river or stream. In drought, authorities must completely deny water to most other claimants before they touch the water of senior water-rights holders. San Francisco, for example, has stronger water rights than many other cities because in 1902, Mayor James Phelan hiked up the Sierra Nevada and tacked a water claim to an oak tree along the bank of the Tuolumne River.
“Revising the water-rights system is a thermo-nuclear issue in California,” John Laird, California’s secretary for natural resources, said last month. If the state’s water shortages go on long enough, however, at some point “almost everything has to be on the table.”
For more comparisons between Australia and California’s water policies go to: California looks Down Under for drought advice | The State The State