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The follies of an election lead-up
Russell Degnan

In a state full of committed gardeners, there is probably very few things the Bracks government is more afraid of than the sight of yellow lawns, and dying trees. One has to assume that is the main reason they haven't imposed stronger water restrictions already.

Either that, or they believe their own press, that substantial water savings have been achieved since the 1990s. They haven't, the claim that water consumption is down 22% since the late 1990s is based on the measurement of pre-water restriction drought conditions in 1997. Every year is a bit different in terms of rain, but the sudden upsurge on the back of a dry winter is not surprising. Gardens need a lot watering in hot weather, and there is nothing to stop people doing so.

What is surprising, is how slow the response has been. Triggers for water restrictions are all well and good, but even a cursory look at this graph shows that Melbourne has been trending towards the lowest storage levels in a decade since July. Based on previous drought years, and the continuing lack of rain, we can expect the water storage levels to drop by around 15-20% by next June (as happened in 1997 and 2002 even with water restrictions in place).

That puts storage levels down to, or even a bit under 30%. That's laundry water on the garden territory. The sort of restrictions we haven't seen since the Thompson Dam was built in the 1980s.

Not that this drought will last forever. Droughts are a constant feature of the landscape, and will continue to appear and depart as long as we live here. What needs to disappear is our reliance on punitive restrictions and half-arsed water pricing to manage our water supplies. As was discussed on Harry Clarke's site some time ago, pricing should reflect supply, and can and should be managed over the 20-year drought-cycle of south-eastern Victoria.

Moreover, as Robert points out: desalination plants are cost-effective solutions to water requirements, as long as people are willing to pay for them -- and one supposes they are. However, the government cannot build that kind of infrastructure if water remains under-priced.

It is going to be an ugly summer. Strictly speaking, there is plenty of water, but the fear that there won't be next year will drive restrictions until it rains. Until then, expect a lot of unhappy urban tree-lovers.

Environment 16th October, 2006 14:20:24   [#] 

Comments

It's not a lot of money
What gives me the screaming willies is that we're not really talking about a lot of money. Total Melbourne consumption works out to about 140,000 litres per person per year. For about $150 per person annually, we could supply *all* our water needs by desalination.

Water supply issues for our capital cities are a sideshow - the problem can be solved by a fairly modest application of cash for technological fixes, even if we don't allow water trading. The main game is agricultural and environmental flows in the Murray-Darling basin, which cannot.
Robert Merkel  16th October, 2006 23:52:59  

The follies of an election lead-up
the pricing issue bugs me though.

surely a price increase would just make water unavailable to less financial members of the population, whilst the obscenely rich (or just slighly unattractively rich) would continue to use gallons of water at will, manicuring their lush green gardens and taking 3 baths a day.

nothing stops the rich from doing what they want exactly when they want to.

meanwhile, the poor get poorer and the gap between the haves and the have-nots gets ever wider.

or am i being melodramatic?
bec  19th October, 2006 01:28:00  

The follies of an election lead-up
Russ - I have to say that, in context, I'm very put out that your spam filter catches me... ;-P

bec - Just a quick point that, in principle, the issue of how we should allocate costs (your social equity concern) is separable from the issue of whether we wish to make a collective decision to provide better incentives for the efficient use and development of a scarce resource.

Increasing prices across the board would be only one policy option. Another would be some form of tiered pricing system - sufficient to capture the luxury uses that worry you, while providing some protection for more basic consumption (if this is the incentive we are trying to provide). Another option would be direct government involvement in the provision of alternatives such as desalination, or government subsidation of such alternatives. Etc.

My point is not to advocate for any specific policy initiative - only to indicate that voicing a preference for better incentives in the water market does not automatically and inevitably channel us into a social equity dilemma.
N. Pepperell  21st October, 2006 08:24:28  

The follies of an election lead-up
Yes spammers. They managed to foil my simple session management approach to spam blocking. In response I seem to have created an intermittent comment box that works for me, but not anyone else... once I finish the slightly more important thing I should be doing I'll rework things properly... hopefully it is working again now.

Bec, what NP said. Also, there is some scope for some people to use water for luxury uses (and for those funds to be used to increase future supplies/subsidise more efficient uses/increase environmental flows). Under those circumstances, allowing the unattractively rich to consume their excess income money on watering their garden, increases social equity. That is, they have less money to spend themselves, and provide less competition for other consumer goods. That does imply that some people might not be able to afford to keep a lush garden, but then, that's kind of the point.
Russ  24th October, 2006 16:56:02  

The follies of an election lead-up
Strangely, I seem to be having spam filter issues of my own now, so I've lost my moral highground and retract my indignation... Must be something going around...
N. Pepperell  24th October, 2006 22:59:09  

Geoff
"desalination plants are cost-effective solutions to water requirements, as long as people are willing to pay for them -- and one supposes they are."

I'm not sure we could afford to pay for desalinisation plants, the energy required to remove salts from water is huge - where would this energy come from, coal? nuclear? Each one has its greenhouse issues. the cost of this energy, especially with any kind of carbon tax would make desalinised water pretty expensive...
Geoff  26th October, 2006 17:04:33  

They are cost effective
Geoff, Perth's desalination plant is claimed to produce water for $1.17 per kilolitre, and they buy green power to run it. It is expensive compared to dam water, but it's a pretty minor expense in terms of total household budgets.

And, yes, you could run desalination plants on nuclear power. The greenhouse impacts of nuclear power are roughly 1% of that of coal.
Robert Merkel  30th October, 2006 15:42:40  


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