Dought, water, and what-not

So, what do we do about water, and shortages?

There is no simple, one-fits-all solution which will magically make things right. A series of measures need to be taken, which in combination will make a significant difference.

Starting with the greatest bang for buck is a simple way of getting some big benefits. These ideas about what should be done are not in any special order, just two categories.

Short term (less than 5 years)

Stop inappropriate farming.

It’s time to stop pussy-footing around the rural lobby groups.

This one is the responsibility of state governments which have been handing out water licenses for a very long time. Those governments should immediately begin a voluntary buy-back of irrigation water licenses at fair market rates.

At the same time, irrigators and farmers growing rice and cotton should be bought out, without right of appeal, for a fair compensation, and their farms returned to native vegetation.

Alternatively, those farmers could convert to a crop that requires (say) 90% less irrigation. In that case they would have to give a legally enforceable undertaking, in perpetuity (perhaps through an encumbrance registered on the land title) that they will never indulge in high water consumption crops again. Some compensation may be needed for this option.

Buy and close Cubby Station.

The current Federal Government has so much money rolling in that they don’t know what to do with it all. They can fund the states for the compensation bills.

Educate, cajole, and price domestic water appropriately

Education about water consumption has been going on for at least 30 years. It clearly has not worked, judging by the number of people who still hose down driveways, and turn showers on flat out. That does not mean we should not stop, but we should use both carrot and stick.

This means that the price of urban domestic water needs to rise. By all means keep a small quota of cheap water (per year) – sufficient for people to maintain life and hygiene. Consumption beyond that can be considered a luxury and priced to create an economic disincentive to over-consumption.

At the same time, all houses with a spa should have a surtax imposed – perhaps higher council rates, or a state government levy. This removes the incentive to add water-guzzling spas. A similar surtax should be applied for all backyard swimming pools. In other words, those who wish to use water in an indulgent manner should pay an appropriate penalty for their indulgence.

Ban fountains

Public parks and gardens should have fountains turned off and drained. The sale of domestic fountains and water features in regions south of about Cairns should be illegal, with a penalty for sale of several thousand dollars.

Existing private fountains should be switched off, and drained. Government inspectors can enforce this with severe penalties for non-compliance. If that seems draconian, simply impose another surtax. Perhaps $500 per house per fountain per year. That will get them drained fairly quickly.

Subsidise the agricultural conversion to micro-jet and drip irrigation

Many irrigators grow using drip and micro-jet irrigation now, but too many still use overhead sprinklers. Governments should offer a subsidy program lasting 2 years, for which they pick up 50% to 80% of the cost price of materials for installation of drip or micro-jet irrigation systems.

At the end of the two years, those same Governments should then inspect and impose substantial penalties on growers who have refused to convert.

The largest impact is likely to be in Victoria and NSW – however this does not amount to state favouritism, because everybody benefits from more efficient water use.

Charge a more realistic price for industrial and agricultural water

Water for industrial use and Irrigation is charged at very low prices compared to domestic use. These prices need to rise, though parity would most likely lead to significant industrial disruption and uneconomic farmers. So rises need to be moderate, but scheduled to have well defined increments every 1 to 2 years, starting immediately, and running for a period of 10 to 20 years.

Long term (more than 5 years)

Improve the irrigation infrastructure

Recognising that irrigation will never be eliminated, we all must irrigate as efficiently as we can.
We must immediately start a program of conversion of the open irrigation ditches to lined & covered, or go into pipes. This will be expensive, with thousands of kilometres of irrigation ditches to convert. It will take a long time, but it will approximately halve the amount of water entering the irrigation systems for the same amount delivered.

Richard Pratt (the cardboard box king from Visy) made an offer several years ago to pay $200 million of his own money for exactly this purpose, provided the federal government matched his payment dollar for dollar. There has been no action because the federal government don’t want to play – for some bizarre reason. (SHAME ON YOU JOHN HOWARD).

Whilst the responsibility lies with the states, the issue crosses state borders and affects the entire eastern seaboard and south of Australia. It seems perfectly fair and reasonable that the national government aid in solving a national problem. And again, there is not a shortage of Federal money.

This infrastructure update is most likely very time consuming, so it should form part of a 20 year plan.

Freeze development of eastern states cities: future development in the wet north

Just like the title: no further expansion of existing eastern and southern cities. No more farming land and market gardens being chopped up for housing. No more growth of the outer endlessly sprawling suburbs. Land speculators don’t like that? Tough. Want compensation (for an intangible possible future gain)? Tough.

New cities should be built in the wet north where there is plenty of water. It’s also a perfect opportunity to build those new cities using the best possible practices for energy efficiency. Levels of thermal insulation can be mandated. Architecture and urban design can have huge freedom – provided houses are oriented correctly and meet energy consumption standards. It might be the opportunity to get rid of the no-eaves, no-shade urban abomination.


And I’m sure there is more. But these measures would be a damn good step in the right direction. The government that implemented them would never get another vote from the rural farmers and National Party voters, ever again, but they comprise less than 3% of the economy and have a voice far beyond their economic weight. So who cares? It’s time for hard action.


You weren’t kidding about draconian! We do have to do something drastic, though. As a private citizen, I would have no problem with about 80% of your suggested measures.

Inappropriate farming. Yes.

Carrot and stick. Yes.

Ban fountains. I’d rather see them use recycled water and everyone to just get over their reused water fear.

Subsidise micro-irrigation. Yes.

More realistic industrial water pricing. Yes.

Improving irrigation infrastructure. Yes.

Halting development eastern state cities. Oooh. You saved the best for last. I don’t think this is ever going to happen and I’d be a little pissy with the government who ever tried this. Rather than halting development in eastern state cities they should encourage development and migration to the north. All those Sydneysiders and Melbournites seeking warmer weather and cheaper prices in Brisbane should just keep walking and head further north.

Comment by MadameBoffin | October 19th, 2006 10:29 pm | Permalink

More people in the north, hmmm, might work, but would need lots of caution and careful planning. Building more homes in the north just seems to be shifting to a different set of problems, not necessarily better or worse. More housing in the north means more slashing of rain forrest, the very thing that brings the rain, more electricity demand because of air-conditioning, tumble driers, etc, more costs associated with repairs due to cyclone/storm damage etc. I do however agree that Melbourne and Sydney expanding are destroying huge quantities of valuable pastureland.

One of the underlying problems is that us white folk aren’t natively from Australia and we are consuming huge quantities of resources adapting it to suit our needs.

Comment by Newman | October 20th, 2006 10:26 am | Permalink

You may have alluded to this in your recommendation on “price domestic water appropriately“, but here’s a couple more suggestions:

1 Encourage domestic re-use of grey water, and
2 Subsidise domestic rain-water tanks.

When we built our house here (between Brisbane and the Gold Coast) 25 years ago, domestic rain-water tanks were actually illegal. Since then, all our rainwater has gone down the street and out to sea. Despite Brisbane having plenty of rainfall, our dam catchment areas are further inland and are bone dry.

The Queensland Greens are advocating subsidies for rainwater tanks plus capture and reuse of urban storm water instead of building more bone-dry dams.

I don’t know whether this solution would suit all capital cities, but it certainly makes sense for Brisbane and Sydney – maybe not Canberra.

Comment by MikeFitz | October 20th, 2006 4:20 pm | Permalink

I got tired and cranky, and the ISP was down while I was bashing that lot out (so I did it in Word and pasted it in when the USA servers were back up).

And I forgot a few things.

Re-use of grey water: It is a good idea, within some limits, in some areas. In areas with little land (McMansions) its probably a bad thing to do because there is nowhere much to soak it up.

Domestic rain water tanks: The SA government has had such a scheme in place. On a simple cost / benefit analysis it’s not good economics. The payback period of my home rainwater tank is something like 30 years. Even with a subsidy, its still longer than the lifetime of most galv tanks. And the water savings are not very much.

There is more gain in one of the biggies that I forgot: more recycling of sewage. With appropriate treatment, sewage is clear and has no odour, and little taste. Its fine for watering parks and gardens – you could drink it at a pinch. With more cleaning up, its very drinkable, but that might be going too far – the cost is probably not worth it. But cleanup to a point where it can be used for parks, gardens, flushing toilets… why not?

By far the biggest gains are to be made in agriculture, though.

Comment by Wally | October 20th, 2006 5:31 pm | Permalink

Goyders line was introduced in about 1865 at the request of the Government [Goyder was the Surveyor General].

Until that time, most of the northern saltbush areas were successfully growing sheep and cattle with a very low density of stock per unit area and a very low rainfall.

There had been a number of ventures into the saltbush country trying to grow wheat with disastrous results and the Government asked Goyder to establish a delineation where wheat would grow most years, hence the saltbush line. Within 10 years and after a run of good seasons, the small farming lobby persuaded the Government to resume the pastoral leases and cut up the saltbush country for small farms growing wheat.

The newspapers of the day ridiculed Goyder. A run of good seasons for three of four years persuaded everybody that ‘the rain followed the plough’. Yes, all you had to do was to plough the ground and magically it would rain.

Disastrous seasons occurred in 1881 – 1884 inclusive so that most of the small farmers left their new holdings, towns closed, the delicate ground structure was destroyed and eventually the land reverted to pastoral lease but in no condition to run sheep and cattle as it had done so successfully before. The Willochra Plains between Quorn and Hawker have never really recovered.

Alas, the farming and water crisis, short-sighted Government and abysmal reporting in newspapers is sadly nothing new.

Do we ever learn?

You can read all about it in ‘On the margins of the Good Earth’ by D W Meinig, a book published in the early 1960’s and written by Meinig who was a Professor at the University of Syracuse in the USA and in SA on an exchange scheme.

Comment by Dad | October 21st, 2006 9:29 am | Permalink

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