Lessons for the Colorado River from drought-stricken Australia

by Cally Carswell

This spring, Brad Udall, director of the Western Water Assessment, spent four months in Australia working with its Department of Water.  Australia's Murray-Darling Basin has seen remarkable water reform in recent years in response to a long and devastating drought. Udall believes those reforms hold important lessons for the Colorado River Basin. HCN assistant editor Cally Carswell spoke with him recently. An excerpt of that conversation is below; you can listen to it in its entirety by clicking the audio link to the left.

High Country News: What is this thing the Australians call the "Big Dry"?

Brad Udall: The Big Dry was a 10-year extended drought, the likes of which had never, ever happened on that continent. There were 40 and 50 percent reductions in runoff in their single largest river, the Murray-Darling. The river ceased to flow at the mouth. We had fires in 2009 that killed almost 175 people; 115 Fahrenheit in Melbourne, which is record-setting temperatures. You had 2,000-mile dust storms. You had farmers committing suicide.

HCN: How does it compare to the drought we’ve been experiencing in the Colorado River Basin over the last 10 years?

BU: The Australian drought was perhaps twice as bad.

HCN: One of the reasons that you really became interested in the Australian experience was that you think it holds important lessons for the American West, and the Colorado River Basin in particular. So if you had to boil down the Australian experience to one big-picture, take-home lesson for the Colorado River, what would it be?

BU: I think that lesson would be that a crisis of this sort allows the unthinkable. But the unthinkable, you really have to prep for it. By prepping, I mean thinking about what a whole new system would look like, how it would operate. And be prepared to take advantage of a crisis like this.

HCN: What are some of specific ways in which the Australians started thinking or even doing the unthinkable that you found most remarkable?

BU: There’s a whole handful of things that they did. One, they’ve utilized markets to move water to maximize their economic returns. They’ve put in place these independent bodies to do water oversight, including something called the National Water Commission. They’ve decided that they need to live within their limits. With that in mind, what they are doing is actually acquiring water. The national government is purchasing water from willing sellers to put it back in the environment, because in the 1990s they realized they had totally over-allocated their system. Every major city now has a desalination plant. They funded science at levels we can only dream of.

One of the lessons from Australia, too, is getting the right people in the room. For 150 years, we’ve had three kinds of people in the room talking about water: We’ve had water users, we’ve had attorneys and we’ve had engineers. And for the most part, the public, economists and scientists have not been a part of this dialogue. In Australia, they don’t even let attorneys in the room — at least according to one gentlemen down there — when it comes to water. And they talk in these very holistic (terms): What’s good for our economy, what’s good for our social systems, what’s good for the environment — they have those three perspectives. It’s not just driven by the legal system, which is usually almost always the case here in Colorado.

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.

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