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The Australian Approach to Water Crisis: Work With Farmers

With water crises erupting in California, Texas, and the Colorado River Basin, state water managers throughout the western U.S. and our federal government could take some valuable lessons from the impressive progress made in Australia over the past decade. The Aussies have taken some giant leaps forward in their efforts to avert water shortages in...

The Murray River near Renmark, Australia. (Photograph by Brian Richter)

With water crises erupting in California, Texas, and the Colorado River Basin, state water managers throughout the western U.S. and our federal government could take some valuable lessons from the impressive progress made in Australia over the past decade.

The Aussies have taken some giant leaps forward in their efforts to avert water shortages in their largest river basin – the Murray-Darling.

Capping Water Extractions

Most notably, the Aussies realized decades ago that over-allocation of water rights in the Murray-Darling Basin was damaging both to the environment and to their economy.

The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia’s food basket, providing nearly 40% of the country’s agricultural production.  Most of the country’s fruits and vegetables, as well as dairy products, beef, lamb, and wine, are produced using Murray-Darling water.  When farmers don’t get the water they need, everybody suffers.

But when too many straws are drawing from the rivers, you can be certain that when dry times come, many will be sucking air. During a devastating “Millennium Drought” in 1997-2009, river flows throughout the basin were only 40-60% of average.  Many farmers received no water allocations whatsoever for three years.  Dairy production fell by 14 percent, cotton fell by a fourth, meat by half, and rice farming stopped almost entirely.

Realizing that setting a maximum limit on water use is essential to everyone’s water and food security, the Aussies in 1997 adopted “The Cap.”  This limit on total water use – which was further institutionalized in a comprehensive Basin Plan adopted in 2012 – recognized that water rights needed to be reduced by about a third if the country was going to avoid another economic and environmental disaster.

Importantly, the cap on water rights will leave 60% of the water in the rivers, on average, for ecological support.  While many scientists argued for even higher levels of protection for the environment, it is hoped that the imposed cap on water extraction will be sufficient to avoid the massive fish kills and toxic blue-green algal blooms that occurred historically when water extractions were greater.

This cap on water extractions is a perfect illustration of the “sustainability boundary” concept that Sandra Postel and I introduced in our Rivers for Life book a decade ago.  By staying under the maximum limit on water extraction, the Aussies hope to enjoy a more sustainable future for communities, ecosystems, and their economy.  In fact, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan refers to these extraction limits as “Sustainable Diversion Limits.”

Sustainability Boundary for water
The Sustainability Boundary Concept for managing water. The “pies” shown here represent the total volume of water available from a given water source, such as the Murray-Darling River. Human uses of water (H) can increase over time, but only up to the sustainability boundary (dashed circle). At that point, new water demands must be met through conservation, improvements in water productivity, and re-allocation of water among users. By limiting human impacts on natural river flows and allocating enough water for ecosystem support (E), society derives optimal benefits from river systems in a sustainable manner. (From Rivers for Life by Sandra Postel and Brian Richter, Island Press, 2003)

Reducing Water Use in a Smart and Sensible Manner

 Achieving a lowering of water use by nearly one-third is obviously no small task, fraught with economic and political challenges.  But here again, the Aussies have pioneered a way forward.

Similar to the western U.S., most of the water consumption in the Murray-Darling Basin goes to irrigated agriculture.  Since 2002, the Australian Commonwealth (federal) government has allocated nearly U.S. $14 billion dollars to reduce the volume of water being used on farms. More than two-thirds of this money has been directed into a Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Program that helps farmers to install more efficient irrigation technologies like drip irrigation, or reduce water losses through infrastructure improvements such as concrete lining of earthen ditches.  This program has been extremely well-received, and farmers have lined up to take the government’s help in saving water on their farms.  Importantly, the government recovers the portion of the water right that is no longer needed due to the water savings.

wine grapes
Australian farmers produce some of the finest wines in the world, and they do so in a water-efficient manner. (Photograph by Brian Richter)

The remainder of this federal funding support was directed at buying water rights from willing sellers.  Some farmers sold their water and got out of farming altogether.  But many others switched to growing crops that used less water, thereby freeing up some water for sale.

To date, nearly 70% of the targeted reductions in water use have been achieved.  Much of the early progress came from buying back water rights, but the Commonwealth government has now largely shifted to irrigation improvements, at the request of rural communities concerned about losing farm families after selling their water rights.  Even though the water savings achieved through these irrigation investments is 2-7 times more expensive than buying the water outright, the government has listened to rural concerns about the possible cultural and economic disruption that can result from buying back too much water.

The Principles of Sustainable Water Management

The Australian water reforms and investments achieved in the last decade exemplify three of the seven sustainability principles that I’ve described in my new book Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability, to be released by Island Press next week:

  •  Set limits on total consumptive use of water
  • Invest in water conservation to its maximum potential
  • If too much water is being consumptively used, subsidize reductions in consumption

If you’re curious what the other four sustainability principles might be, you’ll just have to wait for next week’s blog.  Or buy the book!

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Meet the Author

Brian Richter
Brian Richter has been a global leader in water science and conservation for more than 25 years. He is the Chief Scientist for the Global Water Program of The Nature Conservancy, an international conservation organization, where he promotes sustainable water use and management with governments, corporations, and local communities. He is also the President of Sustainable Waters, a global water education organization. Brian has consulted on more than 120 water projects worldwide. He serves as a water advisor to some of the world’s largest corporations, investment banks, and the United Nations, and has testified before the U.S. Congress on multiple occasions. He also teaches a course on Water Sustainability at the University of Virginia. Brian has developed numerous scientific tools and methods to support river protection and restoration efforts, including the Indicators of Hydrologic Alteration software that is being used by water managers and scientists worldwide. Brian was featured in a BBC documentary with David Attenborough on “How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?” He has published many scientific papers on the importance of ecologically sustainable water management in international science journals, and co-authored a book with Sandra Postel entitled Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature (Island Press, 2003). His new book, Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability, was published by Island Press in June 2014.