California Seeks Drought Advice 05/25 09:25
SYDNEY (AP) -- California has turned to the world's driest inhabited
continent for solutions to its longest and sharpest drought on record.
Australia, the land poet Dorothea Mackellar dubbed "a sunburnt country,"
suffered a torturous drought from the late 1990s through 2012. Now Californians
are facing their own "Big Dry," and looking Down Under to see how they coped.
Australia also faced tough water restrictions --- along with dying cattle,
barren fields and monstrous wildfires that killed 173 people. But when the
rains finally returned, Australians had fundamentally changed how they handle
this precious resource. They treat water as a commodity to be conserved and
traded, and carefully measure what's available and how it's being used.
Efficiency programs cut their average daily use to 55 gallons, compared with
105 gallons per day for each Californian.
The lesson: long droughts are here to stay, so societies had better plan
ahead, 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
California water officials now routinely cite Australia's experience.
Felicia Marcus, who runs California's Water Resources Control Board, can
describe the stormwater-capture system watering soccer fields in Perth in
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 lawyers make
sure property rights remain paramount.
From an Australian perspective, California's drought response has been
"absolutely pathetic," says Daniel Connell, an environmental policy expert at
The Australian National University.
Australia's drought response was hardly perfect, and some of its gains might
be slipping away, but Americans suffering their own "Big Dry" may benefit from
WHOSE WATER IS IT?
AUSTRALIA: Overuse and drought had depleted Australia's main river system,
which winds across four states that produce a third of the nation's food, and
ran so low by 2002 that the Murray River had to be dredged to reach the sea.
The government capped entitlements, canceled inactive licenses, bought back
hundreds of billions of gallons from irrigators and strictly metered usage to
make sure license holders use only their allocation. Availability now affects
price as shares are traded on an open market worth $1.2 billion a year in U.S.
The water that farms, industries and towns get depends on what's in the
river; in drought, it can dwindle to virtually nothing. But entitlements can be
bought and sold, keeping agriculture afloat. A farmer of a thirsty crop like
cotton might not profit when both water and cotton prices are 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: Nearly 4,000 so-called senior water rights holders who staked
claims before 1914 or own acreage abutting a river or stream get priority. In
drought, authorities must completely deny water to most other claimants before
they touch the water of these senior water-rights holders. San Francisco 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. Gov. Jerry Brown calls the system "somewhat
"Revising the water-rights system is a thermo-nuclear issue in California,"
said John Laird, California's secretary for natural resources, but if water
shortages go on, "almost everything has to be on the table."
WATCHING THE FLOW
AUSTRALIA: Thousands of gauges across Australia measure rainfall,
authorities in each state and territory measure surface water at stream gauging
stations, and underground water is monitored through a complex process
involving the drilling of bores and controlled pumping tests. Water data
collection agencies report to the federal Bureau of Meteorology, which
publishes the data online.
CALIFORNIA: The legislature last year required monitoring to be phased in
gradually, eventually showing for the first time how much groundwater is being
pumped. But roughly a quarter-million California households and businesses
still lack water meters, and aren't required to until 2025. The state relies on
an honor system: Rights holders self-report their use of river and stream water
every three years. Gov. Brown's budget proposed last week would require
monitors and annual usage reports.
TIGHTENING THE TAP
AUSTRALIA: All major cities imposed limits or bans on watering lawns and
washing cars, and inspectors fined rule-breakers. Public-service campaigns and
water-saving appliances also reduced household water use from 85 gallons per
person per day in 2000 to 55 gallons per person today.
CALIFORNIA: After voluntary cutbacks were ignored, Brown's administration
mandated a statewide 25 percent cut in water use by cities and towns, and
ordered more farmers to stop pumping from rivers and streams. Marcus said the
one piece of advice that seemed universal in both Australia and California "was
conserve, conserve, conserve, as early as you can, because it's the cheapest,
most economical way to buy time" while tougher water-saving measures are phased
DO MORE WITH LESS
AUSTRALIA: Australians began conserving long before their drought. In 1995,
Sydney's water authority was ordered to slash per-capita demand by 35 percent
by 2011, and it met that target by reducing pressure and leaks in pipes,
boosting businesses' water efficiency, and offering low-cost, water-saving
technologies in homes, such as dual-flush toilets, low-flow showerheads and
rainwater tanks for gardens, toilets and laundry. With government rebates,
these devices became common across Australia.
Such efficiency measures can be implemented quickly, economically and
easily, says Stuart White, an Australian sustainability expert who has advised
Californians on drought response. "In some cities, it's quite possible we would
have reached death's door if it hadn't been in place."
CALIFORNIA: Communities across California offer rebates on drought-friendly
plumbing and appliances, and a growing number of local ordinances are being
rewritten to allow families to recycle water from rains and from showers. But
the rooftop-rain collectors, stormwater cisterns and bathwater-recycling for
gardens common in Australia remain rarities.
MIRACLES OF TECHNOLOGY
AUSTRALIA: Billions were spent on desalination plants in major cities, and
many are not operating because cheaper water is now available in Australia,
prompting critics to dismiss them as expensive and power-hungry flops that will
create greenhouse gases and worsen the continent's climate-change woes.
Supporters say the plants will protect the country from the next inevitable
CALIFORNIA: Brown has called for conservation while focusing on an
ambitious, $17 billion plan, opposed by environmental groups, to build 39 miles
of tunnel to take Northern California water to Southern California's bigger
farmers. Desalination plants also are envisioned: San Diego's would be the
biggest in the Western Hemisphere.