Lessons In Urban Water Conservation From Down Under


Residents of Melbourne, Australia, reduced their water consumption during the long drought and effectively saved the city from running dry. Credit Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Thanks to the New York Times for this tutorial, provided at city scale, on more sensible management of natural resources:

Australia’s Lesson for a Thirsty California

Sylvia Rowley

MELBOURNE, Australia — On his first visit to Melbourne in 2009, Stanley Grant, a drought expert and professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Irvine, had a question for his taxi driver.

“How’s the drought?” he asked.

“It’s about 28 percent,” came the reply.

Grant was puzzled. But shortly afterward, they drove past an electronic road sign announcing that the city’s reservoirs were indeed at just 28 percent of capacity.

The taxi driver knew the state of the reservoirs exactly. “In California you might get people saying, ‘I don’t know, it’s not my department, I let the government take care of that,’ ” said David Feldman, a colleague of Grant’s and a co-author with him of a paper on Melbourne’s innovations in water management.

Grant’s conversation with the driver took place toward the end of what is known here as the “millennium drought” in southeastern Australia; it lasted from around 1997 to 2010 and was the worst drought in the country’s recorded history. In Melbourne, reservoir levels dropped by almost three-quarters to a historic low of 25.9 percent.

Australians had never experienced anything like it. “Trees were dying in the parks,” said Sandie Pullen, who then was the manager of water communications at the state Department of Sustainability and Environment. “There were dry creek beds with animal skeletons on the outskirts of Melbourne.” At one point, the city of four million people was 500 days away from running out of water.

Yet the city averted catastrophe, in large part because residents responded to a campaign to use less water. Feldman argues that the experience offers lessons for water-stressed urban centers around the world.

Reducing water demand is often seen as a ‘‘soft’’ response to drought — less successful than big engineering projects. But Melbourne’s experience shows that helping residents (who use over 60 percent of the city’s water) and businesses to use less can be a “highly effective and relatively low cost” part of a city’s response. During the drought, domestic consumption dropped from 247 liters (65 gallons) per person per day in 2000-1 to 147 liters (39 gallons) in 2010-11 — enough to help save the city from running dry. Without water conservation, the reservoirs would have been empty by 2009, according to Melbourne Water.

How does a government persuade millions of people to nearly halve their water use? When the drought was declared, the state government of Victoria ordered Melbourne’s water companies to work together with it to quickly begin to formulate a joint response. The three water utilities and the water wholesaler are state-owned, and their cooperation was crucial to developing a response of this scale, Feldman said.

One utility, Yarra Valley Water, was put in charge of leading the behavioral-change work. It coordinated “what would otherwise have been a political nightmare in terms of getting all the water utilities to agree on anything,” said Chris Foley, then the manager of communications and marketing at Yarra Valley Water.

Foley’s first task running the joint program, which was called “Our Water, Our Future,” was dealing with what he calls “I reckons” coming at him from several directions…

Read the whole article here.


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