Water use by top California customers last decade, compared with top Australia customers. Graphic: Shaffer Grubb / UT

By Chris Nichols
9 May 2015

SACRAMENTO (UT San Diego) – Severe dry spells aren’t unique to California.

Just ask Australia, where the Millennium Drought stretched from 1997 to 2009, devastating the southeastern portion of the country and forever changing how it uses water.

For months now, water experts in California have asked their counterparts Down Under for advice on drought management. And, increasingly, state officials are employing the lessons they’ve learned from Australia, though not all equally, as they address California’s four-year dry stretch and ponder a drought that could extend for years.

“What’s front of mind for us is the Australia experience – which we may replicate,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, said at Tuesday’s board meeting in Sacramento, where the board approved unprecedented water cuts of up to 36 percent for cities and towns.

“Their advice to us was: ‘Conserve, conserve, conserve early to avoid pain later on,” Marcus told reporters in late April.

Perhaps the most powerful lesson California can learn from Australia, at least early on, state officials say, is to value water as a scarce commodity, rather than as something that will always be ample.

This helped the Aussies, who count rain barrels and rock gardens as regular fixtures outside their homes, push through their worst drought on record. The Millennium Drought battered their country with huge job losses, foreclosures and increased rates of suicide among farmers, Jane Doolan of Australia’s National Water Commission told a California think tank in January.

Still, Doolan said, with conservation as way of life, the country and its economy emerged from more than a decade of drought still strong.

“People were highly engaged around the drought. And they were willing to accept that this was their future. Therefore, what we put in place was almost climate adaptation,” Doolan said.

While conservation helped, it wasn’t all voluntary. In the worst stages of Australia’s drought, city dwellers were restricted to indoor residential use only, and some farmers received “none or very, very little” water for annual crops such as rice and cotton, she said. [more]

CA looks to Australia for drought advice



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