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Intelligent Use of Water: Is Australia’s Model the One to Follow?

RP Siegel | Wednesday March 30th, 2011 | 0 Comments

Naomi Klein, in her book, The Shock Doctrine, makes the point that it is far easier to get big things done in the aftermath of a disaster than before. Not always the best things, they are often opportunistic plays by those in power who have been waiting to push through a pre-existing agenda. But they only succeed because the people accepting the new agenda have been rudely awakened to the need for action. In a way it’s a commentary on human nature. We tend to ignore threats until they hit us. Indeed, it is perhaps the essential theme underlying the move we’re going to need to make to a more sustainable world, that conscious migration from a reactive to a pro-active mentality. And then of course, there are the vested interests…

This is pretty much the background behind today’s story which contrasts Australia’s hard won water policy forged in the aftermath of a twelve year drought with California’s policy which might more closely resemble an attitude of “it can’t happen here.”

The story comes to us courtesy of the NY Times. It features Andrew Gregson, CEO of the New South Wales Irrigation Council. Gregson was a speaker at RainBird’s 12th Annual Intelligent Use of Water Summit. New water regulations in Australia known as the Basin Plan are quite stringent, enough so to raise the ire of many farmers, saying they can’t survive under their directives. Gregson, in his presentation, claims that the triple bottom line that was initially intended has been distorted to an environment-only plan.

And yet, there seems to be wisdom in it. For example, water rights are given, not in absolute amounts, but rather as a percentage of whatever is available. Priority is given to permanent perennial crops, such as nut trees or grapes. Water intensive annual crops like rice and cotton are the first to go in a drought. Water rights in Australia are now decoupled from ownership of the land and can be bought and sold or traded separately.

By changing the economics, Mr. Gregson said, “water efficiency increased dramatically.” He added, “If we put a dollar value on every liter of water a farmer uses they will necessarily use it to its most efficient level.” Of course, this kind of big picture, centrally prioritized thinking will be painful to some. However, as Gregson said, “it was the capacity to trade water that kept the permanent crops alive.”

In California today, things are quite different. Rights to use specific amounts of water are assigned on a first-come first-served basis in a system similar to mining claims. That owner gets to keep all of the allocation until it runs out, no matter what they are farming, even if their crops are considered second-, third, fourth- or fifth-priority.

Australia also monitors flows and reserves amounts for environmental protection purposes, such as keeping wetlands wet.

California’s Central Valley farmers are loath to report their water consumption, despite the fact that the US Geological Survey report shows a steady depletion of their groundwater supplies.

Many experts, such as Juliet Christian-Smith of the Pacific Institute find Australia’s action too extreme for California, saying, “The context is quite different than California at the moment.”

Others feel that Australia’s painful experience could provide some valuable lessons for California. Still, one commenter from Melbourne said that, “the progress made here is nowhere near as far reaching as this [Times] article would suggest.” She argues that not enough water is diverted for wetland protection. Clearly the farmers beg to differ.

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RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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