Culture shift, not rate hikes, key to dealing with drought

Melbourne, Australia cut its water consumption by half during Australia’s worst-ever recorded drought in 2010 without introducing hike rates or technological innovations. The city’s simple but successful strategy holds critical lessons for water-stressed regions like California.

According to a study from University of California, Irvine and Australian researchers published online today in the WIRE’s Water journal, Greater Melbourne – home to 4.3 million people – was able to halve its water use five years ago without building a new pipeline, hike water rates or build an expensive desalination plant – all measures proposed recently to deal with California’s current drought.

Instead, the researchers found that utilities and agencies worked together to implement a culture shift among water users. For instance, by the time the drought ended in 2010, one in three Melbourne households had a rainwater tank and many even built retention ponds to contribute to urban water supply for which they still earn credits on their water bills to this day.

“Documenting what happened in Melbourne during the Millennium Drought was a real eye-opener,” said senior author Stanley Grant from UC Irvine. “It’s like looking into what the future could be for California, if we got our act together.”

According to the study, residents and commercial users slashed their water use by half from 1997 when the drought began to a 155 litres per person per day by 2010. In contrast, average residential water use in Los Angeles is more than double at 314 litres per day four years into the state’s drought. The state average is 413 litres per day while in Palm Springs residents use an unbelievable 1,314 litres of water per day – more than 8 times than Melbourne’s.

“You can’t just come up with technical innovations and think that’s going to do the trick. You need education, you need public outreach, and you need all these people working on it,” said co-author David Feldman. “During the drought in Australia, if you watered your lawn, you heard about it from your neighbours.”

Feldman thinks it would be difficult to replicate some of Melbourne’s successes in California, saying that California is largely in denial about the problem. “When it comes to water, California is still in the oasis stage.”


Photo credit: Gabriel White, flickr/Creative Commons

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