Water: Australia's Long-running Problem

The Land Down Under continues its search for solutions to its chronic problem of water distribution

Water is Australia's most pressing problem, a century after the bunch of British colonies became a nation that was a magnet for settlers from less fortunate parts of London's empire.

At the onset of Federation (nationhood) in 1901 -- just before Queen Victoria died -- the "Great Southern Land" (the word "australis" is Latin for "south") seemed to have everything. Farmland was abundant and well-watered, especially near the coasts. The local native peoples (Aboriginals) were tamed by the gun and therefore dismissed as irrelevant; the concept of "anti-colonialism" was a long way in the future -- even though Britain's nose had been first bloodied and then banished from the United States.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Australia had also dug a promising future by discovering huge amounts of gold in the south, north, east, and west. Among the foreign mining engineers enjoying a career in Western Australia (WA) was an American named Herbert Hoover. He spent several profitable years between college and the White House in Kalgoorlie, which is still one of the world's great gold producers

Canals: A Possible Option for the Future
Sitting hundreds of miles from regions of regular and plentiful rainfall, Kalgoorlie was kept alive 100 years ago only by a remarkable engineering feat that sent water by pipeline eastwards from the Western Australia state capital, Perth.

Reminders of that bold scheme came during this year's election for the WA state parliament, equivalent to voting for a state legislature and a governor in the United States. A proposal to shift water 1,200 miles across Australia's most arid region -- in what would be the world's longest canal -- was seen as such a vote-winner that the main opposition party made it the major campaign promise.

The canal would have taken water from the Kimberley region, in WA's under-populated far northeast, to Perth, where the great majority of the state's 1.9 million people live.

The voters of Australia's biggest state, which is one third the size of the United States' "lower 48" and three and a half times bigger than Texas, were invited to see the US$1.5 billion plan as the way to solve, once and for all, the chronic problem of water distribution.

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That is the key word -- distribution. WA and Australia's other states do, overall, receive enough rainfall. Underground reserves are also substantial.

The challenge for the state governments and the federal government in the national capital, Canberra, however, is that ... in simple terms ... much of the rain falls in the wrong places. It lands on the less populated parts.

Americans, particularly those in Texas and southwestern states, are used to long and frustrating discussions on water quality and quantity. They are familiar with topics such as how to reduce pollution, what additives should be added to urban supplies, how to reduce consumer demand, and so on.

In the land Down Under -- where the national population of 18 million is somewhat less than that of Texas -- the quality of water is only marginally a point of discussion. The priority is overwhelmingly the complementary issues of quantity and distribution -- and this is not just when politicians need to win votes.

The canal proposal in WA can be perceived as shelved because the opposition Liberal (conservative, despite the name) Party failed to oust the Labor government. However, this was not necessarily a widespread rejection of the expensive water pledge. Other issues such as education and health care swayed voters. The Liberal leader made such a mess of the last week of campaigning that he resigned and was replaced within 48 hours of the defeat.

Over several weeks before election day, opinion surveys showed voters from all parts of the spectrum were impressed by the Liberal's canal idea. Since Labor's victory, a range of scientific experts have praised the plan, pointing out that no matter how expensive, WA will be forced to take some form of drastic action on water distribution. Labor unions have said water is a priority, whatever the complexion of the government.

Before the election, the Liberal federal government in Canberra gave approval to the canal. Favorable comment by the Prime Minister, John Howard, was important because his administration would have been expected to allocate federal funds toward the project.

"The concept is a great one," he said in February. "Clearly we have to make a proper assessment, but it's a bold idea. If the Liberals win in WA, and I hope they do, I'd be happy to sit down and talk about it."

A History of Water Shortages
Howard does not need to focus on Australia's west to be reminded of the need for bold moves on water. Drought, caused by years of below-average rainfall, has ravaged large parts of New South Wales and Queensland, the two biggest states on Australia's eastern seaboard.

Even Victoria, which once considered itself immune to such damaging fluctuations, has suffered. A friend of mine has had to get used to a grim sight from his hillside home in inland Victoria. Lake Eildon used to be a playground for boating and water-skiing, but over the last few years the surface has dropped to the point where mud has become the main feature. If anyone is looking to inspect the ruins of old farm buildings that have been submerged for decades, Eildon is great news. For everyone else, it's a warning sign.

Long before those buildings were made out of local wood by colonial rural pioneers, anyone in Australia with an eye on possible long-term problems could have foreseen that the territorial spread of settlers, livestock, and crops might have to grapple with aridity. For one thing, there was no massive inland river such as the Mississippi.

Costly and risky expeditions to the interior, in search of water, often yielded heartache. Bright ideas, such as the importation of thousands of camels and Afghan drivers to carry supplies, lifted morale but could not help implement projects such as the irrigation of vegetables hundreds of miles from the coast.

The interior, indeed, became a byword for danger. A vast region between the west and east coasts was named Nullarbor -- Latin for "no trees." WA has a substantial geographic feature whose name is even more revealing -- Lake Disappointment. Explorers had seen, from a distance, an expanse whose shimmer looked extremely promising. But it proved to be salt, not water.

The lake was of little use to cattle drovers who once traveled the Canning Stock Route, which touches on the lake's western edge while it stretches nearly 1,000 miles southward from WA's Kimberley region to the state's southern half. The drovers got water from a series of wells along the stock route, which today is used only by tourists and mineral exploration teams who know to carry their own for washing and drinking.

At certain times of the year, a minor deluge can make Lake Disappointment properly wet, but basically it is symbolic of the dilemma faced by officials and owners of ranches ("stations," as they are known locally) in many parts of Australia. The nation's hospitable face of "sun, surf ,and sand," so prominently displayed on tourism brochures from New York to Naples, is deceptive.

Hence the eye-catching, election-driven promise in January this year, 100 years after the completion of the Canning Stock Route, to construct another link between the south and the Kimberley, which receives reliable monsoonal rains but has only a few thousand residents. Even if they were justified in querying the cost of a canal, no one could deny that water could be spared for elsewhere.

According to statistics, Perth, the world's most isolated capital, should be able to count on about 33 inches of rain a year. Though the southern hemisphere summer (November to March) can bring a few thunderstorms, most precipitation comes in the winter (June, July, August). The Mediterranean climate -- not unlike southern California but more directly comparable to Greece - means dry periods of many weeks, when storage of water becomes difficult.

Such long rainless spells are merely a tedious nuisance for many city folk, who in any case have the benefit of cooling sea breezes on many summer afternoons. One common phenomenon is so welcome that it is called the "Fremantle Doctor," referring to Perth's port. Rottnest island, a holiday resort ten miles off the coast of Perth, is nearly always cooler than the city.

For farmers in southern WA, however, the situation is often more serious. In the grain- growing and livestock grazing regions that begin just inland from Perth, any substantial delay or variation in rainfall can mean financial hardship. The horizon is scanned anxiously for rain clouds from mid-April (i.e. the fall) onwards, to moisten fields preparatory to the sowing of seed, particularly wheat. The longer the wait, the more nervous the looks not only in the farm homesteads but also in the local stores and vendors of machinery that depend on healthy farming conditions.

Supporters of a Kimberley "pipedream" have history, if not economics, on their side. For a start, it is obvious to even the most skeptical observer that the 340-mile pipeline between Perth and Kalgoorlie has justified itself. Completed in 1903, it was an engineering marvel that stretched contemporary methods and resources to the limit.

In the 1980s, technological advances were quoted by WA's first Aboriginal member of parliament -- with the appropriate name of Bridge -- when he proposed a Kimberley-Perth pipeline. Many applauded but few endorsed. The eventual official view was that the enormous cost could not be justified. Twenty years later, in 2005, the idea was on the agenda again.

Promoting Conservation Today
In the two decades between the Kimberley proposals, the population of Perth had soared. Current water restrictions include forcing suburban home owners to use garden sprinkler systems only two days a week. Those whose street addresses end in 3 or 5 can turn them on Mondays and Fridays, for example. Those ending in 1 and 7 are given Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Restraints applied across the metropolitan area include raising the price of water and running "Use Wisely" advertising campaigns in newspapers, radio, and television. Aesthetic considerations are added to ecological appeals by encouraging Perth residents to establish hardy native (i.e. indigenous Australian) gardens, requiring minimal watering, to replace the traditional green lawns and rose beds that have been maintained by many as if WA was, horticulturally and climatically, akin to Yorkshire or Sussex.

This latter policy has had some success. But then there are the golf courses and wide grass verges in some older neighborhoods. Any encroachment on those would be seen as an assault on the "Australian way of life."

A shadow of tragedy hangs over Western Australia's interminable grapple with the challenge of shifting water in bulk. In 1903, when Kalgoorlie's reservoir finally received the first flow from Perth, the premier (governor) drank a glass and quoted Isaiah from the Bible. "A way in the wilderness" had been carved, he declared, "and rivers in the desert."

Alas, the designer and engineer for the much-vaunted scheme, C. Y. O'Connor, was not there to share the toast and receive congratulations. Controversy over costs and general viability, fuelled by forceful campaigning by newspapers, had beaten him. A year before his water poured into the goldmining district that needed it so desperately, he had mounted his horse, ridden into the sea near Fremantle, Perth's port, and shot himself in the head.

Today a statue honoring the "great creator" stands a mile from the scene, but the vision of blood in the water is a reminder of the difficulty of moving mountains.

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This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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