California Governor Jerry Brown may want to look Down Under for relief from the state’s years-long drought. The amount of water stored in reservoirs and snowcaps is so low that on Wednesday he ordered an unprecedented 25 percent cut in statewide use. It’s a wise though belated move. Now he needs a comprehensive plan to help turn California’s water woes around.
Melbourne, Australia offers a good model. The city suffered through what’s known as the millennium drought between 1997 and 2009. Like their California counterparts, Melbourne officials failed to react at first. They assumed abnormally low rainfall and high temperatures would not last for long, and enough water was flowing into city reservoirs to meet residents’ needs.
That began to change in 2004, however, and water flow dropped to more than 70 percent below average by 2006. At that rate, the city reckoned supplies would dry up in another five years.
California’s current drought hasn’t lasted as long, but supplies are dwindling quickly. The Sierra Nevada snowcap is at just 5 percent of normal levels, and state reservoirs contain only one year’s worth of water, according to NASA.
Melbourne responded to its drought by building a desalination plant, capable of supplying around a quarter of the city’s needs, and a water recycling facility. Officials also reformed and upgraded irrigation north of the municipality, reducing consumption by about a third. And they didn’t put restrictions on how water was used – as long as consumption did not exceed 155 liters per person each day.
Progress toward that goal was tracked and broadcast daily and weekly on television, encouraging residents to take an interest in how they were doing.
Melbourne is, of course, far smaller and politically less complex than California. The Golden State’s notorious web of laws and conventions governing underground water supplies complicates matters even further.
Brown’s edict is a decent first step. And there has been some progress toward locating new sources and identifying ways to reuse water. He may need to channel a bit of Aussie spirit, though, to find a more lasting solution.