Two important drought-related events happened in California late last year. The state received much-needed rainfall in December, and it convened a daylong conference in Sacramento to compare Australian and Californian water policies. Australia recently survived a “millennium drought” of twelve years duration. The experience resulted in development and deployment of innovative water management policies that serve as excellent examples for California and the rest of the USA.
The Australian government’s complete overhaul of water allocation rights is truly revolutionary. They threw out the old rules and started over. They separated urban and agricultural usage in their policy design and then completed a systemic overhaul of the agricultural water market. An online system documented exchanges and eliminated trade restrictions on water. In essence, it’s a cap and trade system, but instead of carbon emissions the units are water volume. Farmers with the flexibility to grow crops with less water intensity could sell their excess allocation to farmers with water-intense crops.
As is often quoted about electricity, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. It’s equally true about water. Australia invested significant time and financial resources to calculate the amount of water in reservoirs required to sustain the 90% of the population that resides in the southeast. The policy-makers understood the need for a data reset, acknowledging that past data is not necessarily predictive of future outcomes – something especially true as climate changes impact patterns of precipitation and water supply assumptions. As a result, their new policy approach combines technology and data to maximize efficiency at every stage of the water supply chain. If you think this sounds like a Smart Grid philosophy, you are right.
The government also designed incentives to get consumers to conserve as much water as possible. I’ve written before about the value of gamification to increase awareness. The government published a daily report about the liters per person (LPP) used the previous day. This required infrastructure capable of measurement precision, but by publishing daily usage data with 24 hours turnaround, people could recall how they used water the previous day and were thus more fully engaged in personal and community efforts to lower the LPP number. And even though the drought is over, those conservation behaviors are persistent and Australians consume significantly less water now.
Technologies that had the largest water savings impact included decentralized storm water capture and lining aqueducts with impermeable material to prevent seepage and evaporation that results in large losses of useable water. On the data side, accurate measurement of total water supplies and the flow of water through distribution grids identified potable water leaks for immediate repairs. New hydrology data about stream flows and source levels is now monitored to provide very precise allotments of water with minimal losses and overhead.
Australians had a shared pain – they were all in the drought together, and had to put aside political differences to address severely dysfunctional policies that prevented smart water management. They invested in big infrastructure with the aim to increase water supplies with desalination plants and reduce systemic losses through pipeline upgrades. They embraced big data for precise agricultural irrigation and other water saving measures. They harnessed shared social affiliations to engage all consumers in persistent and sustainable water conservation efforts. They did everything with an eye towards protection of the natural resources and especially the riparian ecosystems so important to water supplies.
Could California adopt similar measures? We may be forced to find out if this drought does not end, but there are significant challenges in the way of developing smart statewide water policies and practices, as next week’s article will cover.