Making water for the environment count in an era of change: Cautionary tales from Australia

by Alison Whipple

Floodplain forests of the Ovens River near its intersection with the River Murray, Australia. © J Pittock 2017

The specter of California drought looming again on the horizon gives renewed urgency for water policy and management reforms. Recent discussions reflect a growing recognition that our future depends on us making water count for both humans and the environment. For much of our state’s history, water has counted primarily in its capacity to supply water for cities and agriculture. Continued declines in California’s freshwater ecosystems and new and amplified threats under climate change make it clear additional reform is needed to maintain the character, functions and services of our riverine landscapes.

Sustaining California’s native freshwater ecosystems has been a persistent challenge even under the best of conditions, and in an era of climate change, compounding factors expand this challenge. These issues are addressed in a recent Public Policy Institute of California report, which identifies needs for reforms to improve water accounting for environmental purposes, develop watershed-level plans, and establish ecosystem water budgets.

Efficient and effective strategies to establish and implement needed reforms such as these can be found in other systems, as managing water for the environment is a global challenge. And, places similar to California – defined by scarce and variable supply, high demand, and a large diversified economy – are more likely to provide useful insights. With comprehensive water reform currently underway, Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin offers just such an opportunity.

Degraded River Murray floodplains suffering from lack of water, salinity, and acidification. © J Pittock 2009

The Murray-Darling Basin shares many physical and socio-economic characteristics with California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Basin. Both climates are highly variable, dominated by cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers and marked by severe droughts and floods. Water availability is often out of sync with when it is needed for agriculture, resulting in extensive water supply infrastructure to store and move water. Irrigated agriculture dominates water usage, and both the Murray-Darling and Sacramento-San Joaquin Basins are often referred to as the “food baskets” of their nations. Also common to these systems is extensive ecosystem degradation, marked by native species declines.

Profound vulnerabilities were revealed during recent droughts, Australia’s Millennium Drought and California’s 2012-2016 drought. Rising temperatures, overall reduced water availability, and greater extremes under climate change place additional pressure on the physical and political capacity of these systems to reliably supply water for humans and the environment.

Australia’s current water reform process is one of the most ambitious globally on several fronts, including its limitations on consumptive water use, establishment of water markets, and large-scale comprehensive planning and management framework across multiple levels of government (Grafton et al. 2016, Hart 2016). A fundamental principle is that freshwater ecosystems are legitimate “users” of water. Under the 2007 Water Act, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority was established and charged with creating a plan for a “healthy working river.” After a contentious drafting process, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan became law in late 2012 with nearly complete implementation by 2019. As the Plan moves from planning to implementation phases, a number of issues have arisen that hinder progress and chances for success, especially under climate change (Hart 2016, Pittock et al. 2015, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists 2017).

What follows are cautionary points developed through conversations with Australian researchers as well as from published literature concerning water management in the Murray-Darling Basin. These build on four general lessons for California previously identified by the Public Policy Institute of California based on environmental water reforms in Victoria, Australia, a state covering part of the Murray-Darling Basin: 1) Plan prior to droughts, 2) Support strong federal and state partnerships, 3) Establish water rights for the environment and allow trading, and 4) Give the environment equal priority among other water users (Mount et al. 2016). As California looks to these guiding principles in the context of its own unique socio-economic and environmental conditions, addressing the following points should improve chances for success:

  1. Apply science-based accounting. Allocate sufficient and accountable water, including buffers for climate change, to meet ecological goals and avoid crossing key ecological thresholds. Apply rigorous environmental flow rules including environmental watering priorities and assurances in times of scarcity. Apply rigorous and comprehensive accounting to insure value is received for public expenditure in water acquisition and restoration programs. This includes careful and coordinated shepherding of environmental water through the system. Demonstrate progress toward achieving goals to maintain momentum for reforms. This requires established and coordinated scientific monitoring using clearly understood measures of success, with sustained funding independent of political cycles.
  2. Hold management accountable. Treat water markets as a useful tool, not a panacea. Address overallocation to prevent less-utilized licenses from compromising effective trading. Consider that robust water markets may not be possible everywhere. Account for flood flows and return flows (from water applied to farms). Clearly articulate priorities with easily understood and measurable objectives. Employ transparent accounting to encourage compliance. Cultivate trust and enforcement, which includes demonstrated authority at the top levels of government, buy-in by all participating government entities, and support for local-level implementation with stakeholder participation.
  3. Carefully consider complementary measures. Consider complementary measures and ecosystem-based adaptations to address the many stressors degrading freshwater-dependent ecosystems. This is especially important for supporting resilience under climate change. Evaluate risks of hard engineering infrastructure constructed in the name of efficiency as a replacement for water, including potential maladaptation to climate change. These should be seen as emergency measures rather than standard management tools. Implement regular review of large infrastructure (e.g., dams) to assess performance and implement adaptive management of operations.
  4. Manage at the basin scale. Manage for process and function instead of static conditions, with the goal of health for whole rivers rather than site-by-site and species-specific objectives. Manage for variability, not average conditions. Account for altered variability under climate change using a range of scenarios, as planning based on past extremes may not be adequate. Integrate groundwater and surface water planning and management. Avoid the exchange of surface water for groundwater as surface water restrictions tighten. Seek social, political and financial solutions in addition to technical.
  5. Specifically consider climate change. Do not defer climate change adaptation. Be proactive instead of reactive in planning and employ no- or low-regret options that support ecosystem resilience under change. Develop priorities under climate change to know what to conserve, what to let shift, and what may need to be let go. Prioritize conservation of less impacted systems, such as free-flowing rivers. Consider how other human responses to climate change may affect water resources.

As the implementation of water reforms in the Murray-Darling Basin reveals these and other challenges, it would be wise to take note as California continues with water reforms to make water for the environment count in an era of change.

Alison Whipple is a PhD Candidate in Hydrologic Sciences at UC Davis and affiliated with the Center for Watershed Sciences.

This work and my recent trip as a visiting researcher in Australia were made possible by the National Science Foundation under IGERT Award #DGE-1069333, Climate Change, Water, and Society at UC Davis and the Delta Stewardship Council Delta Science Program under Grant No. 2271. The contents of this material do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Delta Stewardship Council, nor does mention of trade names or commercial products constitute endorsement or recommendation for use. Any opinion, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Delta Stewardship Council or the National Science Foundation.

I thank the many researchers who generously shared their time and insights, helping untangle the story of where the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is now and where it is going to sustain healthy ecosystems into the future. Special thanks to Associate Professor Jamie Pittock and Professor Stuart Bunn for hosting my visits at the Australian National University’s Fenner School and Griffith University’s Australian Rivers Institute.

Further reading

Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2017. Pumped: Who’s benefitting from the billions spent on the Murray-Darling? Four Corners, Australia.

Finlayson, C. M., S. J. Capon, D. Rissik, J. Pittock, G. Fisk, N. C. Davidson, K. A. Bodmin, P. Papas, H. A. Robertson, M. Schallenberg, N. Saintilan, K. Edyvane, and G. Bino. 2017. Policy considerations for managing wetlands under a changing climate. Marine and Freshwater Research.

Grafton R., Q., J. Horne, and S. A. Wheeler. 2016. On the Marketisation of Water: Evidence from the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia. Water Resources Management 30:913-926.

Hart, B. T. 2016. The Australian Murray–Darling Basin Plan: challenges in its implementation (Part 1). International Journal of Water Resources Development 32:819-834.

Horne, A. C., J. A. Webb, M. J. Stewardson, B. D. Richter, and M. Acreman. 2017. Water for the Environment: from Policy and Science to Implementation and Management. Elsevier, Cambridge, MA.

Mount, J., B. Gray, C. Chappelle, J. Doolan, T. Grantham and N. Seavy. 2016. Managing Water for the Environment During Drought: Lessons from Victoria, Australia. Public Policy Institute of California.

Mount, J., B. Gray, C. Chappelle, G. Gartrell, T. Grantham, P. Moyle, N. E. Seavy, L. Szeptycki, and B. B. Thompson. 2017. Managing California’s Freshwater Ecosystems: Lessons from the 2012–16 Drought. Public Policy Institute of California.

Pittock, J., J. Williams, and R. Grafton. 2015. The Murray-Darling Basin plan fails to deal adequately with climate change. Water: Journal of the Australian Water Association 42:28.

Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. 2017. Five actions to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan ‘in full and on time. Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, Sydney, Australia.

This entry was posted in Around the World, Climate Change, Planning and Management, Sustainability and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Making water for the environment count in an era of change: Cautionary tales from Australia

  1. Greg Zlotnick says:

    “Avoid the exchange of surface water for groundwater as surface water restrictions tighten.” Please expand on this, as this is a fundamental strategy for many in the state, both with respect to conjunctively managing an individual agency’s supplies, as well as to provide the foundation for significant and important water transfer activity during droughts. If you take this tool away, what would you suggest to prevent “train wrecks” among those who face the prospect of severely reduced surface water availability? SGMA will help to improve coordinated management of surface and groundwater to improve sustainability, but the ability to go to banked groundwater when surface water is scarce is a critical management technique that you seem to suggest should be “avoided”?


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