From 1997 to 2009, Australia faced the worst drought in the country’s recorded history. In Melbourne, a city of 4.3 million people located in southeastern Australia, water levels dropped to an all-time low capacity of 25.6 percent before the drought eased.

Despite the dire situation, the city reduced water demand per capita by almost 50 percent by implementing a slew of policies and programs.

The actions taken in Melbourne can be used as a road map for water-stressed places around the world, including California, according to research published this week by American and Australian researchers in the journal WIREs Water.

“Documenting what happened in Melbourne during the Millennium Drought was a real eye-opener,” said paper co-author Stanley Grant, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). “It’s like looking into what the future could be for California if we got our act together.”

The policy choices and integrated response from government agencies allowed for a sea change in Melbourne and a culture shift to using less water. Here’s some of what the Australians did:

  • Prior to the drought, in the late 1980s, the city passed legislation that set the groundwork for an integrated government response in case of a drought. Federal entities provided funding to the state of Victoria, which in turn distributed money to the city of Melbourne. A regional water manager had the power to force water utilities, city agencies and reservoir managers to cooperate.
  • The government invested millions in infrastructure. That included a pipeline that would deliver water over mountains and a water treatment plant. It also invested more than $6 billion in the construction of the Wonthaggi Desalination Plant, which to this day has never been used.
  • Rebate programs for residential graywater systems—used for gardening—were implemented.
  • The government invested heavily in increasing the use of recycled water for both the agricultural and urban sectors.

Citizens also invested in rainwater holding tanks—by the end of the drought, nearly 1 in 3 citizens of Melbourne had one. Water flowing to rivers was reduced, and water restrictions were implemented and education programs launched to encourage the public to participate.

By 2010, businesses and residents in Melbourne had cut their water use to 41 gallons per person, half of what it was in 1997 before the drought began.

Saving water with electronic billboards
The analysis of what did and didn’t work during Australia’s historic drought is one part of Grant’s five-year, nearly $5 million international research grant from the National Science Foundation to study the technologies and policies put in place by Australia during the Millennium Drought, and their potential adoption in the southwestern United States in case of future water supply shortages.

Grant said one of the things he found interesting was the simplicity of one effective tactic—electronic billboards that flashed reservoir levels.

“Everybody could relate, and it showed what it would mean if they ran out of water,” he said. “They were galvanized.”

Grant added that he isn’t sure how something like that would be replicated in California, because the water system is so fragmented. The comparisons between the two droughts aren’t perfect. For example, relatively little groundwater is used in Melbourne. California, on the other hand, relies upon it.

In a policy publication from March of this year, the Public Policy Institute of California drew comparisons between what Australia did during its decadelong drought and what California is currently facing. It offered four policy priorities in drought preparation and response—collecting better water-use information, setting clearer priorities, managing demand and supply more stringently, and implementing forward-looking environmental drought management practices.

“Making these changes will be worth the effort, but it will entail some costs,” the document states. “And like all meaningful reforms, it will require overcoming institutional and political hurdles and objections from those who prefer the status quo. The Australians made these difficult policy changes during their long drought, leaving them better prepared for the next drought. California needs to do the same.”

Ellen Hanak, a senior fellow with PPIC and one of the authors of the paper, said in an email that the fourth solution—creating environmental drought management—is least recognized thus far in California.

PPIC suggested two specific adaptations that served Australia well in managing the environment during the Millennium Drought.

The first would be to purchase water rights for the environment, which provides managers with a flexible tool for managing key habitats. The second would be to tax water authorities and use the money to promote sustainable water management and address adverse water-related environmental impacts. The funds could help develop critical drought habitat, purchase water during shortages and recover populations following drought, they write.

‘We’re running out, and here’s the number’
Not everything Melbourne did to combat the drought was considered an outright success, the authors found. The use of recycled sewage water on crops has largely been discontinued because of concerns that it was affecting plant growth and harvests.

On the surface, Grant said, the desalinization plant that has never been turned on is easy to vilify but also offered the city a buffer.

“It created an environment where there was some water security,” he said. “In case the other stuff, which was more experimental and environmentally friendly, didn’t work, they could always turn on the desalination plant. It created an environment where they were able to innovate, whereas without it, they might have been more reactionary.”

The study’s authors found that one reason Melbourne was able to save so much water was that it prioritized conservation efforts. To this day, the city has increased resilience to climate change and drought, the researchers found.

“There is a lot of resilience built into these systems because there were so many systemic changes,” he said, adding that as the drought ended and the focus shifted away from water scarcity, residents are still using water conservation habits they picked up because they recognize the environmental benefits.

Rainwater tanks and rain gardens, for example, have significant ecological benefits because they capture water locally and keep it out of streams. Stormwater runs off, picks up pollutants and chemicals and is known to cause stream ecosystem dysfunction.

As far as California goes, the state is mostly still in denial, Grant said, but he added that Melbourne reacted similarly. It took about four years after the drought began before water restrictions were imposed.

One key to making reductions in California is to connect residents to their water so they treat it as a precious resource.

“We need to figure out how to create that sense of urgency, by telling them honestly what the situation is,” he said, “not saying, ‘Conserve water, we’re in a drought,’ but showing them we’re running out, and here’s the number.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500