What can the Great Wet North learn from the Dry Down Under?

Water is a hot topic in Australia. We don’t have a lot of it, or we have too much of it all at once. The slow soaking rains of Vancouver are only imagined in the wildest dreams of many Australian farmers.
So what can my fellow residents here in B.C. learn from the experience of my native land, the driest continent in the world?
First, some background on geography. The Murray-Darling Basin covers 14% of Australia’s total land area, and is often called Australia’s Food Bow as it contains the majority of the country’s irrigated agriculture. The Basin contains 23 river valleys, and runs from the north of the country in Queensland, through several states, and finally reaches the ocean some 3,375 km later in South Australia. It’s a huge area and has been severely affected by drought
Water reform is one of those areas where you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Last month the Murray-Darling Basin Authority released the draft Basin plan, which will set new sustainable diversion limits. While there is no single volume of water or number that will guarantee the health of the Murray–Darling Basin, the plan acknowledges the need for rules and constraints.
The foreword to the new plan shows how heated the debate over reforming water allocation has been:
“Different state governments have different views. Typically, Victoria and New South Wales argue for minimal change while South Australia strongly argues for a larger volume of water. At times they seem to be almost diametrically opposed.
Situation normal!
The conservation movement want more,  farmers and irrigators want less. Scientists want more science. Again, situation normal!
Everyone has “right” on their side. For every claim there is a counter claim.”
To save you all wading through the legislation yourselves (letters of thanks will be accepted), I’ve been reading it and I think it’s got good bones. The plan has pissed almost everyone off, which when you’re in government, generally means you’ve hit a middle ground somewhere.
Environmental groups like GetUp! are campaigning against the Basin plan saying the environmental water allocations are too low and it’s not going to do anything to help the river, but the numbers are not concrete. That’s the whole point of legislation – you put in a framework that is flexible enough to adapt to changing climates and situations. Especially when you’re developing water legislation.
This is the challenge that B.C. is going to face. The B.C. provincial government is developing the new Water Sustainability Act and plans to release draft legislation by the summer of 2012. What’s going to be really difficult is convincing people that something needs to be done about water allocations now.
Water scarcity is not something people in B.C. deal with regularly. It’s not in the forefront of their minds (except in the height of summer). Many Vancouverites won’t panic at the sight of a running tap, and think that it’s fine to leave it running while they brush their teeth, or fill a glass and drink it before filling the second glass. Having lived with permanent water restrictions in Melbourne, I do feel that panic-filled urge to turn the tap off.
I have to remind myself not to shout at the guy outside a store who is hosing down the street with water instead of sweeping the leaves away. In Australia, doing that is illegal. I’m still not used to taking a shower without an egg timer in there with me so I know when three minutes is up and it’s time to turn the water off. And don’t even get me started on how wasteful it is to have a bath, and then take a shower to ‘clean off’ afterwards! (Oh, and by the way Canada, what’s with all the baths? Do you really use them that often? I couldn’t tell you that last time I actually had a bath!)
It took over a decade of drought, trees and wetlands being severely stressed, small country towns actually drying up and having to truck drinking water in, and farmers getting 0% water allocations before the federal government felt it had the mandate to reform water legislation. That’s what the new Murray-Darling Basin plan is all about.
I hope it doesn’t take that kind of catastrophe here in B.C.
Amy Huva is an environmental chemist and sports fanatic from Melbourne, Australia. She worked for the Australian government for two years before packing her bags for the ski fields of British Columbia. She now works in the environmental industry in Vancouver and blogs regularly for CarbonTalks.ca.  All opinions expressed in this blog are her own.