Is desal one lesson of Australia’s “big dry”?

At April’s “Implications of Lower Lake Levels” symposium, Brad Udall talked about the importance of the Australian example for the western United States. From 2000 to 2010, Udall said, parts of Australia experienced 40 to 50 percent reductions in river flow, which said has profoundly changed societal discussions about water. Australia’s “big dry” may be the template for thinking about the Colorado River Basin’s future, Udall argued.

One lesson worth following may be the example Australia is setting with desalination of seawater to meet urban water needs. A recent article by Norimitsu Onishi in the New York Times illustrates the struggles now going on down under regarding this technological solution – enormous cost, some significant environmental opposition, but a certain air of inevitability about desal:

“We consider ourselves the canary in the coal mine for climate change-induced changes to water supply systems,” said Ross Young, executive director of the Water Services Association of Australia, an umbrella group of the country’s urban water utilities. He described the $13.2 billion as “the cost of adapting to climate change.”

But desalination is also drawing fierce criticism and civic protests. Many homeowners, angry about rising water bills, and environmentalists, wary of the plants’ effect on the climate, call the projects energy-hungry white elephants. Stricter conservation measures, like mandating more efficient washing machines, would easily wring more water from existing supplies, critics say.

Wes Strickland linked this morning to a recent San Francisco Chronical story illustrating how that is playing out here. The example may not be exactly on point, but the Monterey Peninsula in California is heading the desal route:

In the wake of a November “cease and desist” order by state regulators requiring Monterey County’s main water purveyor to slash its diversions from the Carmel River 70 percent by 2016, an ambitious regional desalination project has emerged as the best – and arguably only – way to slake the thirst of about 100,000 customers on the peninsula.


  1. We start to see the costs of adaptation, the costs of Impact of our population and consumption.



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