After the rains?

For many parts of Australia, the water supply outlook is better today than it has been at any time over the past decade.

During the past year, average or above average rainfall has been experienced across much of northern and eastern Australia.  The sparsely populated north west of our country has even had record rainfalls in recent months, and flooding has been a not totally unwelcome event for riverside rural towns.

Many parched floodplain wetlands across the Murray-Darling Basin have also received their first proper drink in a long, long time.  Bird and fish populations are exploding in response.

Nevertheless, some regions remain dry.  Perth’s water supplies sit at only 27% capacity (down 20% since this time last year).  To the east, Melbourne is faring only a little better at 51%, and Sydney at 57%.  In comparison, Brisbane, further north, is 100% full – indeed, Brisbane’s massive Lake Wivenhoe reservoir spilled in October for the first time in many years.

Even with the respite in the east, it would be a brave person who thought that the dry conditions have disappeared for good, and that we can return to business as usual, consuming water as we did prior to the ‘big dry’.

The need for efficient water use – in farms, homes, parks, shops, factories, mines, and power plants – remains just as high today as it did at the height of the drought.  Returning to our unsustainable usage patterns of the past, particularly in urban settings, should not be on anyone’s agenda.

I am confident that Australia’s rural and urban water authorities have learned a salient lesson over the past decade.  In particular, that historic rainfall and stream-flow patterns are far from a prefect predictor of future water conditions.  Moreover, I think it is now universally accepted across Australia’s water industry that we need higher levels of water supply security and planning than we had prior to the ‘millennium’ drought.

Whether or not our public will maintain its strong behavioural changes to better water consumption, and whether our politicians will retain their commitment to smarter water allocation and use, remains to be seen.

The enormous public and political outcry against the draft Murray Darling Basin Plan (the ‘Guide’) (see my previous blog on this) would suggest that we remain some way from a shared view on the balance required between human and environmental water allocation, and far from achieving that elusive goal of truly sustainable water use.

UPDATE 22 NOV

The Australian moulded plastics industry reported on Friday that rain water tank demand was well down since the recent rains kicked in.  From a peak of 5000 large tanks being built each week at the height of the NSW and Queensland drought, now only 200 per week are being made.  A significant part of the demand decrease may be due to the closure of the vast majority of local and state government rebate and incentive schemes for rainwater tanks – down from 65 schemes to just 4.

As we have seen with the almost random application, then removal, of financial incentives for solar electricity sources for households, governments can be both champion and villain when it comes to getting the public response to sustainability right.

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