Water lessons from Australia

By guest blogger, Amy Huva
Last Tuesday, I was one of six speakers at a WWF Pecha Kucha on Water and Salmon in downtown Vancouver speaking to a packed house about my experiences working in water policy for the Australian Government.
In case you haven’t heard, we had a more than decade-long drought in Australia that started in the late 1990s and didn’t finish until the floods of 2010. It led to all kinds of fun things like showering with buckets to try and keep the garden alive in summer when all outdoor water was totally banned. Yes, I realise that’s a totally foreign notion to many Canadians, but it was actually illegal and anyone who did have a lovely green garden would post signs on their fence stating that they used rainwater tanks or greywater to avoid being labelled the neighbourhood water waster.

Boat parking, Horsham, Victoria. (photo: John Carney, flickr)

It was extreme enough that the Federal Government created the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to try and save the country’s breadbasket of irrigated agriculture once the river stopped flowing all the way to the ocean.
The budget for this program was an epic $10 billion over 10 years for water rights buybacks and infrastructure upgrades. This is an excellent example of what can go horribly wrong if you don’t have minimum flow requirements for rivers. The Murray-Darling was over-irrigated for more than a century, which wasn’t a problem until the drought was bad enough that the river started dying.
Similar to saving for retirement, when we’re all told it’s much easier and cheaper to start today, rather than wait until your 40s or 50s, water policy is much cheaper and easier if you do it before you start to run out, rather than later when it can start to cost you billions of dollars.
Obviously Australia has a very different climate to BC, and with climate change it’s likely to get even wetter in the Pacific Northwest, however competing water uses are only growing, further stressing rivers that are critical for much of the natural ecosystems that BC is so famous for.
Minimum flow requirements, or sustainable diversion limits as we call them in Australia are important because they set the scientific base line for what a river needs to survive. The science is often painstaking as each river is different and flow requirements at a river’s headwaters vs the delta can differ, but it’s important knowledge. It’s something that can be done relatively easily and uncontroversially now, while rivers are still in good health, rather than later as the Australians did causing additional angst for already drought-stressed communities.
People in BC are blessed with some of the largest sources of the freshest water in the world that supports populations of salmon, which in turn feed populations of bears and whales and people like me who think salmon are really tasty. The people of BC should be very proud of the natural capital their province holds, and should take this opportunity with the modernisation of the BC Water Act to ensure that they protect the water needed for the rivers to survive for future generations.
Australians can tell you that trying to save a river once it hits crisis point is not only costly and politically difficult (people want action now, good policy takes time to develop), it’s ecologically difficult. Once those hundred year old trees are gone, it takes another hundred years for them to grow back.
This was the point of my talk last Tuesday and I think it bears repeating. Just like saving money now for retirement isn’t particularly fun, it’s better and cheaper in the long run. Getting BC water legislation right now will be better and possibly even save the province $10billion trying to save a river system in the long run.