Looking Down Under for Solutions to CA Drought

FILE – In this March 3, 2015, file photo, a flock of sheep drink from a dam at the edge of dried-up Lake George, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) southwest of Sydney. On the world’s driest inhabited continent, drought is a part of life, with the struggle to survive in a land short on water a constant thread in the country’s history. The U.S. state of California is looking to Australia for advice on surviving its own drought. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, File)

Desperate for solutions, California looks Down Under for advice on surviving the drought

By KRISTEN GELINEAU and ELLEN KNICKMEYER, Associated Press May 25, 2015 | 9:29 p.m. EDT + More 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 risk-management strategies.” 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 minute detail. 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 some comparisons:



  • 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. dollars. 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 the share of water and the price of cotton 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 archaic.”


Blueprint for a thirsty world from Australia

Posted: 26 May 2015 05:55 AM PDT

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 to findings by American and Australian researchers….


Australia’s Water Rights System – A Look of Things to come in the State of California post-Drought?

May 26, 2015 hydrowonk.com/blog

As the drought in California drags on, things that have not happened for decades or ever in some instances are starting to happen. For the first time since the Department of Water Resources (DWR) started conducting the spring snow surveys, the survey found no snow in April. Despite Governor Brown’s presence and a media frenzy surrounding the April survey, DWR cancelled the May survey because “Lack of snow at Phillips Station [the survey site in the Sierra Nevada Mountains] renders survey moot.” In early May, the State Water Resources Control Board warned that senior water rights are “likely to be curtailed later this year due to extreme dry conditions.” On May 20th, State Water Resources Control Board Engineer Kathy Mrowka confirmed at a hearing that the Board will send curtailment notices to senior water rights holders in the San Joaquin River Watershed by the end of the week. The State has not curtailed senior water rights since the 1970s.

Further, the State may curtail riparian rights in the Delta for the first time this summer. This week, Delta Watermaster Michael George outlined a proposal to encourage Delta farmers with riparian rights to cut their water usage by 25%. These farmers face a tough choice- if they voluntarily sign up for the program and fallow 25% of their land (or reduce water consumption by 25%), they will be immune to further cuts this summer. If the farmers do not voluntarily join the program, they still can try to plant 100% of their crops. However, the Delta Watermaster could potentially cut water supplies to those who do not comply well beyond the 25% voluntary reduction level. Either way, farmers have to choose whether to opt into the program by June 1st. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, a coalition of farmers in the Delta is working to finalize this deal with State officials.

I bring these cases up because some pundits and lawmakers are looking into the possibility of re-examining the State’s often complex water rights system. Governor Brown alluded to the point that California may review its water rights system when he announced mandatory water restrictions in April. He called the water rights system “archaic” and commented, “Some people have a right to more water than others. That’s historic. That’s built into the legal framework of California. If things continue at this level, that’s probably going to be examined, but as it is, we do live with a somewhat archaic water law situation.” Recent articles have cited the Millennium Drought in Australia and the wholesale changes that the country made to its water rights system in the aftermath of the drought as a roadmap to what changes California may be able to make. However, as Governor Brown mentioned in his quote, California has more than a century of water rights law “built into the legal framework of California.” Are the changes that Australia made to its water rights system applicable to California? From a political and practical standpoint, would the Australian water rights system have a chance of passing through the myriad of California’s government agencies that would have to agree to these changes? I will address both of these issues in this piece…..

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