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Australia’s Drought-Busting Water Grid

In the driest continent, saving water means spending watts

15 min read
Photo: Brad DeCecco
“I love this place, and I love farming. But I like what we used to do, not what we’re doing now.” —Gerardine Hill, shown with her husband, Trevor, on their rice farm in Griffith, New South Wales, Australia.
Photo: Brad DeCecco

Trevor Hill stands knee-deep in water at the edge of his rice field. He reaches down with a weathered hand, plucks a green stalk, and carefully cuts a slit along the stem. He coaxes out the delicate strand of pale green rice kernels and then holds it up to the sunlight. It’s still more than two months to harvest time, but to his eye the crop looks good.

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The rice fields on Hill’s farm in New South Wales, Australia, form an emerald expanse that stretches to the horizon—until you turn around. Across the dirt road, the land is brown and bare. In wetter times, he’d plant rice on nearly a third of his 412 hectares; this year he has enough water to irrigate just 44. Like many local farmers, he’s hired contractors to smooth out even the slightest variations in his fields’ topography, and he uses satellite imagery to diagnose the health of the soil, measures designed both to reduce water consumption and boost production.

After the harvest, he’ll sell the rice stubble to cattle farmers. On the water that remains in the ground he’ll sow a crop of oats or barley. Throughout the summer, his lambs will munch on weeds and grass along the banks of the rice paddocks; eventually he’ll auction them off for about AU $130 a head. And after all that, Hill will be lucky to break even this year.

His wife, Gerardine, grew up on this farm, reachable by gravel road about 15 kilometers from Griffith, the agricultural heart of central New South Wales. The couple has raised three children here. Their yellow-brick ranch house is cheerful and inviting, and a rose garden adorns the foot of the sloping yard. There are animals everywhere—chickens, ducks, two sheepdogs, and a chatty long-billed Australian cockatoo named Charlie. But the Hills are seriously thinking about moving on.

“I love this place, and I love farming,” Gerardine says. “But I like what we used to do, not what we’re doing now.” These days, the state government sends a mental-health worker to monthly meetings in town, a routine prompted by an uptick in suicides in the past few years.

Being a farmer has never been easy. And Australia has never been the easiest place to do it. It’s a largely dusty continent where droughts can span decades, only to give way in a day to torrential storms that can go on until the dams overflow. Even so, there’s no precedent for what’s been happening here. The last eight or nine years have been the driest since European settlement began two centuries ago. And it’s unlikely to get better anytime soon. Computer models predict [PDF, 5 MB] that in coming decades much of Australia will become hotter, windier, and drier.

Even ordinary Aussies are starting to sound a little panicked. A talk-radio caller lobbies for relocating the country’s agricultural center to Tasmania. A taxi driver in Sydney wonders why the government isn’t building a giant pipeline to pump water from the country’s tropical north to the arid south. A retired academic suggests floating huge freshwater-filled balloons along the eastern seaboard to replenish depleted waterways.

The Australian government has responded to its water woes with a raft of big projects. Its 10-year, $12.9 billion (US $11.8 billion) “Water for the Future” plan, whose aim is to “prepare Australia for a future with less water,” includes $5.8 billion to modernize irrigation infrastructure. [Note: All figures in this article are in Australian dollars.] The program should save millions of megaliters of water but will burn many more megawatts, too. That’s because water-saving techniques like drip irrigation and pressurized pipelines carry a stiff energy penalty.

worker from Murrumbidgee

Photos: Brad DeCecco
A worker from Murrumbidgee iirrigation installs new pumps and pressurized pipelines that will replace old gravity-fed channels [lower right]. The move will save water but use more electricity.


New projects also tackle water usage in cities, where close to 90 percent of the population now lives. Of these efforts, the most ambitious is South East Queensland’s $9 billion water grid, which promises to drought-proof the region. In doing so, it’s also boosting the electricity consumed by the water system. That’s because of the new reliance on energy-intensive water technologies like desalination and wastewater recycling.

Even as this country of 22 million people contemplates its dry future, it is already facing a startling reality: From here on, there will be no easy solutions. The future will bring only complex and sometimes heartrending trade-offs.

“Forever uninhabitable and useless for all the purposes of civilized man.” And so Australian surveyor John Oxley dismissed the desiccated plains of central New South Wales nearly 200 years ago.

Now that same area abounds with citrus groves, vineyards, cherry orchards, and rice fields. What sustains all that lush verdure is an irrigation network that can move up to 8.5 billion liters of water every day from the mighty Murrumbidgee River to the sparkling irrigation channels that crisscross 120 000 hectares of farmland.

Those earthen and concrete channels, some nearly a century old, lose about 5 percent of their water through evaporation and leakage. Once the water reaches a farm, losses can be even higher if inefficient irrigation methods are used. So with funding from the government, Murrumbidgee Irrigation (MI), which is based in Griffith and operates the network, is replacing about a third of the channels. Instead of the old, gravity-fed network, high-pressure pipelines and pumping stations will now keep the water moving and under pressure. Those pipes and pumps, as well as the pipes and pumps on individual farms, all require electricity. The move will save water but will also consume $2.5 million worth of electricity a year, says MI managing director Brett Tucker.

“For nearly a hundred years, we’ve been a deliverer of water,” Tucker says. “We recognize now that we also deliver energy, because it’s embedded in the water, one way or other.” The electricity costs will be passed along to water customers. “Energy isn’t getting any cheaper,” he says. “Our customers are worried.”

But pricey electricity isn’t the farmers’ only worry. Water now carries a price, too. Each year, Australian farmers who rely on irrigation receive an allocation of available water, for which they pay a management fee; any extra water must be bought by the megaliter in a national market in which prices can fluctuate wildly. When it rains—no surprise here—water is cheap. But in a dry summer the price can soar, as it did three years ago, when a megaliter was trading at $1200.

For a farmer like Trevor Hill, who needs about 15 megaliters (ML) per year for each hectare of rice, unpredictable prices are a serious challenge. This past season, water started at about $300/ML, falling to a more reasonable $130/ML in late January. By then, though, with the season two-thirds over, the lower price meant almost nothing to Hill’s bottom line.

One of the goals of the market is to compel farmers to save water. Agriculture accounts for about 65 percent of Australia’s water use, so it’s the most logical place to look for efficiencies. In general, farmers have responded. About half of the fruit and other horticultural farms in the MI district have adopted drip irrigation or microsprinklers, which precisely release water, fertilizer, and pesticides right at a plant’s roots.

But the market’s rules can also lead to odd outcomes. In Griffith, everyone knows someone who’s decided to trade his water and sit out a season, turning a tidy profit by growing nothing. A few farmers have even sold their water rights permanently; you can do that in Australia, because water and land are now bought and sold separately.

Let’s say you own a wheat farm. You could sell your house, barn, and land to one person, perhaps a retiree who aspires to a rural lifestyle. Then you could sell your water rights to someone else, such as a farmer hundreds of kilometers away.

That last part of the scenario bothers Mike Neville, the mayor of Griffith. The last thing he wants is a waterless town. And so he’s come to view water as a community asset, like a good public library (which Griffith has) and nice green parks (ditto).

“We’ve got to make sure this area remains attractive so that people want to bring water into the district, as opposed to trading it out,” Neville says. “What good is it if there’s no water?”

interception scheme

Photo: Arthur Mostead/Murray-Darling Basin Authority
Interception schemes like this one in New South Wales keep salt out of the Murray-Darling Basin’s waterways. But drought and overallocation of water have left the basin “unbelievably stressed.”

dry lake and algae in creek

Photos: [Top] Irene Dowdy/Murray-Darling Basin Authority; [Bottom] Arthur Mostead/Murray-Darling Basin Authority
[Top] A dry lake bed awaits wetter times. [Bottom] Algae chokes a creek near Euston, New South Wales.

Just how much water Griffith has or doesn’t have at any given time isn’t always clear. A water license entitles the bearer to a certain allocation of water, typically measured in hundreds or thousands of megaliters. But the licenses were established in the much wetter days of the mid-1980s. Today the drought means that a Griffith farmer is often legally entitled to water that doesn’t exist. The same paradox exists for water users along the Colorado River in the United States [see “In the American Southwest, the Energy Problem Is Water”].

The Hills carefully track their water account on their home computer. Their license is for 1570 ML of water per year, but nearly all of that is designated as a “general security” allocation, meaning that during dry seasons, they may get only a small fraction of it or none at all; if they need more water, they have to buy it on the open market. Last October, MI informed them they would receive only 7 percent of their general-security water, so they decided to buy an additional 210 ML. That still wasn’t enough water for the 44 hectares of rice that Trevor intended to plant, but he took a gamble that either the allocation would grow or that the market price would stay low. His bet paid off: Rainfalls upped the allocation to 30 percent, which left the Hills with just enough water to finish the season. Three years ago, though, they made a similar play and wound up losing their entire rice crop.

“We’re always on the computer, worrying about water and trading,” says Gerardine. “You try to plan, but you can’t really plan, because the availability of water is so unknown.” 

Farming may soon get even tougher, at least for those who make their living in the Murray-Darling Basin, which has long been Australia’s food bowl. Named for the two main rivers that flow through it, the basin covers a little over a million square kilometers in southeastern Australia, encompassing portions of five states, including the rice farms of Griffith, New South Wales.

More than 150 years of farming and grazing have left the region in rough shape. For years, the biggest problem in the basin was salt. Australian soil naturally contains a lot of it, deposited by ancient inland seas and salt-laden winds off the ocean. Ordinarily the salt would have stayed where it was, but irrigation raised the water table in many areas and, along with it, the salt from deep below ground. At one point, an estimated 1200 metric tons of salt were being flushed into the Murray and Darling Rivers every day, and overirrigation had rendered nearly a million hectares of farmland either too waterlogged or too saline, or both.

Starting in the late 1980s, the government began limiting how much salt each of the basin’s five states could release into the rivers. At a number of sites, elaborately engineered schemes were constructed to intercept the highly saline groundwater before it reached the rivers and instead pump it into reservoirs or deep aquifers. This has prevented some 370 metric tons of salt per day from entering the rivers. (Unexpected epicurean bonus: Murray River Salt, pink and flaky, is now sold as a gourmet condiment.)

“We dealt with the salinity problem remarkably well,” says Mike Taylor, chairman of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, a federal agency charged with overseeing the region’s ecological revival. “What we weren’t dealing with were the environmental impacts from the overallocation of water. And now we find the system unbelievably stressed.”

“Stressed” can mean lots of things: pesticide and fertilizer runoff that triggers rampant algal blooms; healthy streams reduced to muddy puddles; infestations of carp that push out native fish; the dying off of native trees and grasses; the disappearance of entire wetlands, and with them, all the birds, fish, and animals.

Taylor’s organization is now drafting a plan, due out later this year, that aims to fundamentally change the way Australia manages water in the basin. This time, engineering fixes alone won’t do the trick. This time, people will simply have to use less water. Government scientists working with Taylor’s group are now figuring out how much groundwater and surface water is actually available. Next, they’ll set limits on how much of it can be used.

The goal is to ensure that enough water is set aside to keep the basin’s rivers, streams, and wetlands healthy. Only after the environment’s needs have been satisfied will the government consider other users—irrigators, towns, industry, electricity generators. The amount of water available to them “almost certainly will contract,” says Taylor. That process has already begun: Several years ago, the government began buying up water rights throughout the basin, primarily from irrigators. By the end of 2009, it had purchased 766 billion liters of water entitlements worth just over $1.2 billion.

Farmers are fretting about their water being diverted to swamps and billabongs. Alister Watt has lived and worked in Griffith since 1974, first as a livestock broker and now as a water broker. Although he earns his living from the same water market that eventually will allow the government to reduce the water allocation to farmers, he’s skeptical about the plan. “Everybody is making radical decisions on the management of water in times when it’s very, very dry,” Watt says. “One day, the old fella upstairs is going to make it rain, and everybody will get wet. What are they going to do with the water then?”

Australian rivers, he notes, aren’t like other rivers. It’s normal for the Murray and the Darling to dry up altogether during very dry years. Why exert so much effort to preserve a state of nature that may not, in fact, be natural?

Chris Davis, a water expert at the University of Technology Sydney and a member of Australia’s National Water Commission, concedes that “everybody’s perception of what’s natural is different.” Still, he says, it’s pretty clear that parts of the basin need urgent attention. “The plan will make or break the basin,” he says.

Taylor’s group has its work cut out for it, Davis adds. “The irrigators will be unhappy, the environmentalists will be unhappy,” he says. “If anybody is totally happy, then [the Murray-Darling Basin Authority] has got it wrong.”

southeast queensland

Photo: Brad DeCecco
South East Queensland engineered a drought-proof future for itself, but one in which energy consumption for water had soared.

graphic link to australia map

Illustration: Andrew Zbihlyj
Click on image for the full graphic view.

It’s pouring in Brisbane, Queensland, on a Sunday morning in February. Not a half-hearted sprinkle, not a spitting mist, but a hefty, healthy soaking, the kind that sends pedestrians dashing for cover in the nearest doorway.

By mid-March, a series of such deluges had almost completely topped the storage dams that supply water to this city, the capital of Queensland. Less than three years earlier, though, a prolonged drought had left those same dams at just 17 percent capacity and the entire region scrambling for options.

Now, there are a few things you can do in a drought: You can conserve water, you can channel it from where it is to where it isn’t, or you can find new sources of it. Brisbane did all those things and more. The region’s massive response revealed the importance of planning on a timescale greater than just a decade or two. But it also brought to light the inevitable trade-off between water and energy: South East Queensland engineered a drought-proof future for itself, but one in which energy consumption for water has soared.

The drought’s first surprise was the enthusiasm with which Brisbane residents embraced water conservation. The government urged them to reduce their personal water consumption to no more than 140 liters per day—about what it takes to fill a bathtub. People could water their gardens or wash their cars only with buckets and only during designated times. The government also pushed low-flush toilets, low-flow showerheads, and water-efficient dishwashers and washing machines. The local newspaper gave away vouchers for 4-minute shower timers.

Su-fern Tan, an architectural engineer who lived in Brisbane then, recalls that time with a certain fondness. “When we were stuck in traffic, those signs that normally say ‘Slow down, heavy traffic’ instead said ‘Come on, Brisbane, let’s get down to 140 liters per person per day,’” Tan says.

Much to everyone’s surprise, residents cut their daily water use from a predrought 300 L to 129 L. “It was so brilliant,” Tan says.

Around the same time, the Queensland government began building a $9 billion water grid extending across the state’s southeast end, a 23 000-square-kilometer area. The grid hooked up 14 existing dams and weirs as well as a new desalination plant and three advanced wastewater-treatment plants.

More than 4000 people worked on the construction of the water grid, but none with more zeal than Barry Dennien. “Barry’s like the evangelist of water,” says Chris Snape, a program manager in the South East Queensland Water Grid Manager’s office, which oversees the grid’s operation. “I’ve never seen anyone as passionate about water.”

When the drought started in 2002, Dennien was working for the Queensland Water Commission, where he was executive director for regional planning and policy. The job title was largely aspirational; water wasn’t handled as a regional issue. Each municipality set its own water restrictions, and there were 16 bulk water suppliers, each with its own territory.

“You could drive down a street and on one side people weren’t allowed to water their garden or wash their car,” Dennien recalls. “And on the other side, they had unlimited use of water. So they’d shoot water across the street to their neighbors! How crazy was that?”

As dam levels continued to drop, planners in the Queensland government, including Dennien, saw a way out of the crisis. Much like an electricity grid, a regionwide water grid could link up the storage dams and move the water to where it was needed. Rather than relying solely on rainfall flowing into the dams, they pushed for rain-independent sources: desalination and water treatment technologies advanced enough to turn sewage into drinking water.

In 2006, the water grid plan was adopted, and in just under two years, the desalination plant and advanced water treatment plants came online, with a total planned output of close to 300 million liters of water per day—about half the region’s needs. Hundreds of kilometers of pipelines were constructed, capable of moving up to 182 million liters of drinking water per day. And water management was streamlined and made truly regional: The 16 bulk water suppliers were merged into seven, each with its own specialized function, with the SEQ Water Grid Manager’s office at the top and Barry Dennien as its CEO.

australia coal power sidebar link graphic

Photo: Brad DeCecco
Click on image for the full story.

In early 2008, just as the pieces of the grid were coming together, a funny thing happened: It started to rain. Last November the drought was officially declared over.

At the height of the drought, opinion polls had shown more than 80 percent of the public in favor of adding recycled wastewater to the drinking supply. After the rains came, people changed their minds.

“It’s like a kid with three types of food on his plate,” says Snape. “If he doesn’t have to eat the one he doesn’t like, why would he?” An antiwastewater campaign by the pungently named “Citizens Against Drinking Sewage” played on people’s fear of “poo water” in public rallies, blog posts, and letters to the editors of major newspapers. The group sent out a half million copies of a glossy pamphlet called “Think Before You Agree to Drink.” Bottled water sales soared.

Scientists pointed out that the treated wastewater was so clean that kidney dialysis patients could drink it. Besides, they said, the water wouldn’t be piped directly into people’s homes but rather pumped into a storage dam, mixed with thousands of megaliters of other water, and then treated again before anyone got to drink it.

It made no difference. Bowing to public pressure, the premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh, announced that the treated water would be sent to the dams only when they fell below 40 percent. In the meantime, it would be piped to two coal power plants outside Brisbane. At that point, it was hard to justify the $2.5 billion investment in the treatment plants.

But as Queensland’s population grows—about 1500 newcomers now arrive every week—the government will eventually have no choice but to use that water. It has plans for two new desalination plants, too. They may not get built for another 20 years, Dennien says, but the planning has already begun.

And so Australia’s search for new water efficiencies goes on, sometimes with odd or unexpected repercussions that reveal the growing tension between energy and water resources—that gains in the one will increasingly come at the expense of the other.

Consider, for example, that over the past eight years, more than a quarter million homeowners in South East Queensland have installed rainwater storage tanks. The tanks seem like a no-brainer: Why not use the rain that falls on your roof to water your lawn or flush your toilet? With a purifier, you can even drink it. New housing developments in Brisbane are now required to install such collectors.

There’s just one problem, says Ted Gardner, a scientist in the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management. The cheap little pumps that power the tanks use a lot of electricity. Gardner’s team studied electricity usage in one posh neighborhood on the outskirts of Brisbane that touts its ecofriendly million-dollar homes. Each has an 18- to 22-kiloliter tank and an ultraviolet disinfection system.

Gardner found that the electricity used per kiloliter of water was up to 10 times as high as that for regular city water in central Brisbane; ignoring the UV system, it was still three times as much. The reason, of course, is that a single huge industrial pump that moves water to thousands of customers is much more efficient than the aggregation of thousands of tiny household pumps.

“People think big things are bad things,” Gardner says. “With water, big is actually efficient.”

Simply maintaining those small pumps also has an energy cost. An industrial-scale pump that serves 250 000 people may get serviced four or five times a year, while a little pump might need maintenance once a year or so. Now multiply that annual repair by several hundred thousand, add in the costs of fueling and running all those service trucks, and the energy penalty is vast.

It’s also true, though, that the water grid itself uses more electricity than the amalgamation of water systems that it replaced. In part that’s because water is heavy, and moving 182 ML of it around every day takes energy. Desalination and wastewater treatment are electricity intensive, too. The net effect is that the average household in South East Queensland now pays about $2 per kL for water, up from $1 a few years ago. Dennien’s office is working with researchers at the Queensland Cyber Infrastructure Foundation and the University of Queensland to construct a computer model that will analyze how the grid uses energy and help optimize its operation. Running the desalination and treatment plants during off-peak hours, for example, would cut electricity costs.

For South East Queensland and indeed for the entire country to continue to grow and prosper, people will need to recognize such trade-offs. Australia will never have all the freshwater that it wants. But maybe, with deliberate planning, bold initiative, and an eye to the future, it can have the water it needs.

“There’s a lesson for all governments in this: You cannot look out just 10 years or 20 years,” says Dennien. “We’re looking at 50 years from now—what’s the population going to be, and where’s our water going to come from?”

This article originally appeared in print as “Life in Drought.”

To Probe Further

Check out the rest of the special report: Water vs Energy.

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