From the archives of Maven’s Notebook:
Original publish date: January 27, 2015
In the late 1990s, Australia began experiencing severe drought conditions that stretched on for well over a decade. Australia is no stranger to drought, being known as the ‘land of droughts and flooding rains;’ however, the Millennium Drought as it would come to be known, was by far the worst on record. When the drought finally broke, it did so with drenching rains and flooding that claimed more than 20 lives and destroyed hundreds of homes.
The impact of the long intense drought was devastating to both the nation’s agriculture and environment; urban residents felt the squeeze as well, with some cities water use falling down to a mere 39 gallons per capita per day. As the state of California confronts potentially a drought that could last for years, what lessons can be learned from the Australian experience?
At the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) event, Managing Drought, held earlier this month, Jane Doolan, a professorial fellow of natural resource governance and a member of Australia’s National Water Commission, discussed how the Australian government responded to the extreme drought conditions with policy initiatives that changed their water entitlement system, supported water markets, and provided water for the environment to head off catastrophic impacts to sensitive species and ecosystems.
Here’s what she had to say.
Australia has had a history of water reform going back twenty years, with a lot of that reform focused on establishing clear, unambiguous property rights to water held by the environment, communities, and irrigators, she began. “As a precursor to the operation of our water market, which has been the way we have transferred waters from low value use to high value use without the intervention of government, a lot of what we’ve done over 20 years is focus on water efficiency,” she said. “From our rural sectors, we want high value, high performing sustainable irrigation. From our urban sectors, we want urban authorities providing their communities with the reliability of supply, and contributing the livability of those communities.”
There has been a lot of effort put into improving the environmental water that goes beyond just providing environmental water, although that’s critical, she said. “It’s setting it in the context of catchment management and improving river health, and it’s on the assumption that a healthy environment will underpin our regional economies and our regional well being,” she said.
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