In my last post I promised a report on water in Australia, and now that I have returned from the trip (OK, a couple weeks ago, but I had work to do!), this is the first of hopefully several posts. It was a great tour; I met many wonderful people and learned much.
For the next two weeks, I will be traveling around Australia with a US delegation as guests of the Government here, meeting with water managers and touring facilities related to water reuse, desalination and irrigation. Australia is actively promoting its water management experience, with a group of companies coming together to form Water Australia with the stated goal of exporting at least $5 billion of water-related goods and services by 2015. It is certainly true that Australia has experienced significant droughts over the past decade, and they have responded aggressively to the situation (e.g., as reported yesterday in the New York Times), although certainly not without pain and controversy. I am interested to see some of their solutions on the ground, especially in comparison to California, which over the three years of the 2007-2009 drought did almost nothing.
It has become increasingly common to note, under the general law that no good deed goes unpunished, that successful implementation of water conservation measures by utilities and their customers generally leads to higher commodity rates for water. This phenomenon occurs because water utilities have significant fixed costs, and as the amount of water decreases, those costs must be collected by increasing water commodity rates. The concept is simple, but it causes consternation among some who feel that water conservation is a moral good that should be rewarded rather than punished. While I am more inclined to view water conservation in economic rather than moral terms, undoubtedly the phenomenon has an impact on customer attitudes toward conservation and thus water resource management under conditions of scarcity.
Coinciding with population growth and several years of drought in the southeastern United States, the states of Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been litigating their respective rights in the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers in U.S. District Court in the case of In re Tri-State Water Rights Litigation. On 17 July 2009, Judge Magnuson issued a Memorandum and Order ruling that water supply is not an authorized purpose for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operation of Lake Lanier in northeastern Georgia, despite the fact that the reservoir is the largest source of water for metro Atlanta. The ruling has created significant uncertainty for the future of Atlanta regional water supplies and resulted in a rush of manpower (if not any water yet) to put out the ensuing legal and political fire.