Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Lessons from the Outback: How Australia Survived Drought

One question that comes up when looking at the Texas drought is, are there any examples of other droughts the state could look to? Texas isn’t alone dealing with the issues of water and drought, and one of the most recent examples of a large population dealing with drought comes from Australia. (You can see a slideshow of the Australian drought above.)

“Australia is the biggest drama that has recently played out in the world of water,” said Ralph Eberts, the Executive Vice President of Black & Veatch Water, at the Texas Water Summit at the University of Texas Monday. Australia is just now emerging from a severe decade-long drought. At the peak South East Queensland hung on with less than fifteen percent of its water supplies remaining. Aussie wildlife and agriculture took a considerable blow. And failed rice and grain crops threatened to unhinge the global food supply.

A parallel can be drawn between Australia’s drought experience and that of Texas. Australia, like Texas, was caught in a bind with no warning. The drought experience across Australia varied considerably, with different regions undergoing various levels of stress. Texas has witnessed this variability with West Texas drawing the shorter straw.

But the duration of the Australian drought led to markedly different results.

Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Image

Farmer Marshall Rodda inspects an empty dam, leaving him with fields of stunted wheat stalks in the parched earth of the Australian wheat belt in the fall of 2006.

Australians were forced to adopt a culture of conservation. Among the first water uses to be universally prohibited was lawn irrigation. Front yards quickly turned brown, and satellite imaging was used by the Australian authorities to locate those that illegally watered their lawns. Specific triggers were set to mark where new stages of drought response would be initiated.

The country also diversified its water assets. Australia underwent a series of recycled water projects, installed a number of advanced water treatment plants, built a desalination plant, and secured various means to store water underground. The price tag of these modifications amounted to $7.5 billion. “I would argue it’s money very well invested though,” said Eberts.

Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Stockman Gordon Litchfield from Wilpoorinna sheep and cattle station holds a handful of bull dust on his property June 7, 2005 in Leigh Creek, Australia.

Many of the technologies developed in response to the drought created climate-independent sources of water, meaning that they won’t rapidly disappear in the event of increasing temperatures or declining rainfall. Eberts contends that there are invaluable benefits from a resilient water system, including quality of life and overall public health. “Texas should sell water investment apart from drought needs,” says Eberts, investing now so that we don’t have to pay for damage later.

In the case of Australia, improvements initiated by the drought came to represent something much more – continued water security beyond immediate drought needs. Water availability, viewed as a perpetual need, became a priority, Eberts said.

The international standard for water systems development doesn’t stop with Australia. Both Singapore and Hong Kong have become aware of the importance of water. Singapore meets fifty percent of its total water demand with recycled water products alone.

Photo by Jonathan Wood/Getty Images

Cracked earth is seen at Wivenhoe Dam on April 10, 2007 in Brisbane, Australia.

Will Texas follow suit? The state has already witnessed innovative efforts in San Antonio and El Paso, where desalination plants have been employed to meet water demand. But Eberts says Texas as a whole still lacks a unified water plan. He points to this fact as a key vulnerability and offers an outline of what to do:

  • Develop comprehensive water resource plans that account for climate change and supply risks
  • Set triggers for actions and water use restrictions
  • Communicate the importance of resilience
  • Diversify sources to include water reuse and desalination where available
  • Conserve water through demand management

In moving forward, Eberts says, the Lone Star State might just benefit from the Outback experience.

Sheyda Aboii is an intern with StateImpact Texas. 


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