What California can learn from Australia's millennium drought

February 26, 2016

Lessons learned during Australia's worst drought on record are helping California through its own water crisis.

A new report released today shows that strategies developed and mistakes made during the decade-long millennium drought in Australia present a powerful resource for water planners and government as the most populous state in the US enters its fifth year of .

"The Australian experience shows that investment in water conservation options provided the cheapest, quickest and most effective contribution to managing demand during the drought," said Professor Stuart White, director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) at UTS. "Without them many cities and towns would have run out of water."

Managing Drought: Learning from Australia, a report by researchers at ISF, the Pacific Institute and the Alliance for Water Efficiency, provides an overview of key events and initiatives implemented in Australia's four largest cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. The report was funded by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the Water Research Foundation.

Australia survived the millennium drought by demonstrating world-leading innovation and water planning and management, said Professor White. An important factor in the successes was community involvement which rallied support to lower household water demand to a target level of 140 litres (37 US gallons) per person per day.

"California has made significant progress in advancing water conservation and efficiency to cope with the drought, but this report shows that more can be done," said Heather Cooley, Director of the Water Program at the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank. The state has set conservation targets and communities have implemented short-term , such as restrictions on outdoor watering. But, said Cooley, "Australia made much larger investments in and efficiency, which allowed them to cope with the millennium drought and also reduce vulnerability to future droughts."

"In Australia, urban water efficiency was the quiet achiever and California can benefit from long-term structural changes in water use by implementing similar water-efficiency measures," said Mary Ann Dickinson, President and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency. However, she said, the Australian experience also provided lessons of what not to do. "We wanted to document in this report lessons learned that can inform future decisions by California's policy-makers."

The NSW government had a policy of "readiness to construct" for its proposed Sydney desalination plant on Botany Bay. However, that was overturned and the contract signed when dam levels were already rising. The result was a $US1.4 billion stranded asset and a plant that is still in mothballs.

"Having more flexible, modular and adaptable supply options – dams, major pipelines, desalination plants, recycling capacity – can save a lot of money and prevent the construction of stranded assets," said Professor White.

On top of successes in urban water efficiency, other key findings in the report include:

  • Broad community involvement across sectors – households, business, industry and government – fosters a sense of fairness and collaboration in saving water.
  • Clear, credible communication about the drought situation and response is needed to maximise public participation and support.
  • Innovative water-pricing mechanisms, not employed during Australia's millennium drought, could be used to incentivise savings in California.

Explore further: California city looks to sea for water in drought

More information: Managing Drought: Learning from Australia can be downloaded at www.allianceforwaterefficiency.org/AWE-Australia-Drought-Report.aspx

Related Stories

Blueprint for a thirsty world from Down Under

May 26, 2015

The Millennium Drought in southeastern Australia forced Greater Melbourne, a city of 4.3 million people, to successfully implement innovations that hold critical lessons for water-stressed regions around the world, according ...

Research to aid Californian drought response

July 6, 2015

The worsening drought in California has prompted US agencies to turn to Australian researchers to identify the most effective strategies Australian utilities and agencies used to survive the Millennium Drought.

Drought tips available for farmers

August 26, 2015

Drought strategies for managing alfalfa and many other crops are available free from UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. As California endures a fourth year of drought and ever-tightening water supplies, water-management ...

Johannesburg limits water use as drought worsens

November 9, 2015

Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city and economic hub, on Monday imposed emergency water restrictions as supplies deteriorated due to a drought, the worst to ravage the country in three decades.

Recommended for you

The sound of a healthy reef

August 26, 2016

A new study from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) will help researchers understand the ways that marine animal larvae use sound as a cue to settle on coral reefs. The study, published on August 23rd in the ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.