HCN: It seems like one of the innovative things Australia has done is to effectively nationalize water management in the Murray-Darling Basin.  There are some water leaders in the Colorado River Basin who are starting to talk about the need to think like a basin, instead of think like individual states with individual interests. But it seems like something that in our system would be really hard to do, because it would require those basin states to give up some power.

BU: The Murray-Darling was originally allocated in 1915, so seven years ahead of our Colorado River Compact. And the states carried enormous power. The Australian states actually were independent nations before they federated in 1902. So they were very strong entities. They’ve always jealously guarded their prerogatives around water. Even the federal Constitution of Australia gives the states the right to control their water. In 2007, in the midst of this drought, those states voluntarily gave up their right to control their water to a brand new entity called the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. It’s a federal commonwealth entity that now has all kinds of power over the future running of this system. In 2006, I think if you had asked people in Australia in the states if they were going to give up that power, they would’ve said, “Absolutely no.” So there is an interesting analogue here. Our states in the Colorado River are just as jealous of their rights as were those Australian states. It’s hard to think they would ever give up their power.

HCN: The Murray-Darling Basin in southwest Australia, which I believe is where you spent most of your time, has many of the same demands on it as the Colorado River Basin – growing cities, irrigated agriculture, the environment, meaning fish, riparian ecosystems, wildlife. One of the things that struck me looking at some of the charts you’ve put together on how the Australians have reallocated their water is that they give quite a large amount to the environment. It seems environmental flows are given much higher priority there than they are here.

BU: You’re absolutely right. It’s huge relative to what we do here. And that’s an artifact of the geography and topography of that continent, which is overwhelmingly flat. And their river systems, because of this flatness have these huge floodplains. And the floodplains need to be flooded on a regular basis. That flooding has all kinds of environmental benefits, including moving carbon around, which is really important for things that live in water and on land. That flooding (also) provides bird-breeding habitat. And when you dry up these rivers because you’ve diverted too much out of them for municipal uses or for agriculture, that flooding has ceased. So they have gone back to trying to get these natural floods to occur. That means buying lots of water, maybe as much as 30 percent of their system, and allocating it to environmental uses.

The good news for us in the American West is that our environmental needs are typically more on the low-flow side. Perhaps a classic case of this in the Colorado River system is the Delta of the Colorado, which just like the Murray River, has ceased to flow for many, many years, because we’re diverting basically every last drop out of it. The best environmental science on the Colorado River Delta is that it needs just a tiny bit of water to come back.