Tale of Three Regions: Study Probes Drought-Forced Change in Water Policies

(CN) – Aside from advanced economies and Mediterranean climates that sustain long growing seasons, California, Spain and Australia share an intermittent feature that reshapes their overburdened water systems every time it rears its ugly head: drought.

A field fallowed by drought near Fresno.

As populations and the demand for both rural and urban water supplies increase, so have the damaging impacts of droughts and water shortages. A recent series of bitterly dry stretches have forced lawmakers in the different continents to scrap outdated approaches and become more proactive in shielding drought.

While the respective regions have made progress in warding off water scarcity problems, a study released Monday says the trio should borrow ideas from each other as their governments prepare for climate change and the next big drought.

“Despite efforts in the three regions to better adapt water management to drought, unresolved problems remain,” states a report published in the international journal Global Environmental Change.

The study by researchers at Spain’s University of Cordoba examines the regions’ existing water rights policies and major reforms made in the face of recent droughts. It also examines the impacts and impediments the various methods of water ownership can have on crafting reforms.

For example, Spanish laws declare water to be public property and the federal government plays a major role in management.

During a drought that persisted from 1990-95, the study says a top-down approach allowed Spain to implement a national irrigation modernization plan and set in motion improvements in desalination and wastewater technology. The government also encouraged farmers to buy insurance and today nearly 6 million acres are insured against drought.

In contrast, water policy and usage in California is largely decided and managed by federal, state and local agencies, with the levels of bureaucracy often bogging down major reforms. Furthermore, water is more of a private asset in California with a variety of water rights that determine how much water farmers and property owners can pull from rivers and aquifers.

When lawmakers or regulators do pass water reforms, they are notoriously held up by litigation, leaving judges to play peacemaker between environmentalists hoping to keep water in rivers and farmers looking to pump more out.

This scenario is playing out currently in the Golden State as both local water suppliers and the federal government have moved to stop a recently passed rule that will require more water to remain in the state’s second largest river and its tributaries. After more than a decade of discussion, regulators passed the bill last December with the aim of propping up salmon populations in the San Joaquin River system.

As the state struggled through its worst drought in modern history in the early 2010s, then-California Gov. Jerry Brown, the Legislature and state regulators took a more forceful role in water decisions.

For the first time, the state cracked down on farmers’ groundwater usage and declared mandatory water restrictions for its nearly 40 million residents. It also required water agencies to conduct better reporting and promote water conservation programs.

By the time the drought loosened, most water agencies met their conservation targets and the agricultural industry largely survived thanks to groundwater supplies.

According to the study, Australia’s change in approach to water policy was sparked by the so-called Millennium Drought which lasted from 1995-2010 in Australia’s agricultural rich Murray-Darling basin. The drought triggered a “Basin Plan” that set diversion limits and rules intended to keep enough water to sustain river ecosystems. Water trading also became a major practice during the drought, as farmers sold off their claims to irrigated water.

While each region has a clear tradition of exploiting surface and groundwater supplies as well as a heavy reliance on irrigation, the study’s lead researcher says Spain may be best fit to protect its rivers and residents from disastrous droughts that are becoming more common with climate change.

“In Australia and California, they have not defined the concept of ecological flow well, which is what indicates the minimum level of water needed to conserve the plant and animal ecosystem of a river,” said Julio Berbel in a statement accompanying the study.

The researchers recommend that California and Spain build off Australia’s robust water trading system, and commends California for passing a groundwater management law that will require farmers to recharge aquifers. It also urges the regions to do a better job of considering environmental impacts when passing future water policy.

“The large tradeoffs between human water use and ecosystem requirements have yet to be properly resolved and damage to ecosystems remains a central issue,” the report states.

Berbel said the regions should be open to cooperation and continue to push improvements in irrigation technology and water conservation methods.

“I truly hope we do not have to wait for the next drought to implement some of these improvements,” Berbel concluded.

%d bloggers like this: