Lessons for the Colorado River from drought-stricken Australia


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.

High Country News Classifieds