I have to admit to being a little biased here. I lived in Australia, mostly Melbourne, from 1972 though 1986 and found it to be a wonderful place. Not completely without problems, but in the big scheme of things, a place where we can learn some valuable lessons. Melbourne, a city of more than 4 million, had its act together.
In more recent times, southern Australia, and Melbourne in particular, has had to deal with the Millennium Drought, which lasted from 1995 through 2009. The last areas affected were not declared drought free until May of 2012.
Melbourne has a climate very similar to California, but at the peak of its drought in 2007 and 2008, its water policies and markets were mature, and total water consumption was a fraction of pre-drought levels. More importantly, the economy of Melbourne continued to grow during the drought years. To be fair, that was more than a decade into the south Australian drought, while California is only four years into theirs.
Andrew Hamilton, from the School of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Melbourne, co-wrote an article in the scientific journal WIREs, which compared the relative policies of Melbourne and California.
He had this to say
“Some Californian residents were using up to 1,313 litres of water every day, eight times more than the average Melbourne resident. California’s water shortage was an amalgamation of poor regulation and a vastly different cultural stance on saving water. The main reason it is happening is that from a regulatory perspective, they just didn’t enact the same controls as we have here in Melbourne,”
Here’s an example of how policy was implemented.
Melbourne’s Home and Garden rebates
Dual-flush toilet – $100
Washing machine with 5-star water (WELS) and 4-star energy ratings – $150
Pool cover with roller/reel – $200
Water-efficient showerhead – up to $20
Permanent greywater system – $500
Rainwater tanks meeting Australian Standards connected to toilet and/or laundry – $850–$1,500
$850 (2,000–3,999 litres connected to toilet and/or laundry)
$1,300 (4,000 litres or greater connected to toilet or laundry)
$1,500 (4,000 litres or greater and connected to toilet and laundry)
Rainwater tank to toilet/laundry connection – $500
Water conservation audit – $50
Hot water recirculator device – $150
The basket of goods – rebate: $30 when $100 or more is spent
I looked up what was available for East Los Angles, for comparison.
The East Los Angeles rebate program
- High Efficiency Toilet – $100
- High Efficiency Clothes Washer – $150
- Smart Irrigation Controller – $125
- SoCal WaterSmart: Turf Removal Rebate $2 / sqft.
- SoCal WaterSmart: Rainwater Barrel – $75
- Water Conservation Audit – Free
While it’s good California is offering rebates, and to be fair, they’re just now getting serious, but they have a long way to go.
There are some valuable lessons here. Note the Aussie rebates for using rainwater tanks connected to toilets and laundry. It’s all about matching water quality needed to water use needs. Do Californians need perfectly clean drinking water to fill the toilet tank?
As the California drought continues, they will need to adopt another Aussie policy: Water Markets. The water laws in California date back to the gold rush, when population was low and water was plentiful. It’s based on the common law principles of appropriation, or “first come, first served”. If you own land, you have free access to all the water on it, under it, or that flows through it. All based on the history of water consumption. Everybody else gets leftovers.
Now the whole system is skewed and rife with favoritism. In some cities, residents pay a flat rate, regardless of how much they use. Not much incentive for conservation there. In Fresno, which gets 11 inches of rain per year, a family might pay less for their water than a similar family in Boston, which gets four times as much precipitation.
Effective and transparent water markets will shift water to where the water is most valuable. There will be disruptions. Growing feed for cattle will become too expensive, and move somewhere else. Perhaps vertical agriculture will become commonplace in metropolitan areas. That’s the good thing about free markets, efficiency will evolve rapidly. This kind of change can’t be done overnight, but it’s time to make a start.
Bottom line, what California is going through is tough, but it’s not something new. The Aussie Millennium Drought provides examples of policies that are proven to work. The solution is more a matter of leadership than anything else.