Thursday, 31 July 2008

Fiddling with files while Adelaide dries and dies

Text of a letter submitted to "The Advertiser" on 27th July 2008:

Is there any hope for Adelaide, because the endless kilometres of dying citrus trees lining the Murray indicate that the rest of SA has been forgotten?
Salisbury Council’s engineer Colin Pitman has shown how to waterproof Adelaide, but how about the Government emulating this success before hydrologically potentially valuable areas like the Cheltenham Racecourse are lost forever through insane plans to boost SA’s population even more.
SA Water’s Neros are fiddling with a mis-managed and illogical water-billing system while Adelaide’s reservoirs hover at 50% capacity. Even if they were full, the big city would be safe for only 11 months.
So would someone in power please wake-up and bang some heads together? Short of an unprecendented cloud-burst in the Australian Alps, nothing will raise river levels to sustain the pumps on the banks of the Murray before Adelaide really starts to run out of water later this year.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Short-sighted Greed and Water-shortages in South Australia

A speech held at the opening of India Flint's "Watermarks" exhibition at the "Artspace" of the Adelaide Festival Centre.
Recent natural events such as the extended drought and record heat wave of March 2008, have helped to emphasise the effect on our lives and environment of the weather, and as time progresses, the accumulated experience it leaves us with which we know as the climate.
When it comes to persuading politicians and their public of the wisdom of applying scientific truths, I believe it to be essential to be both honest and forceful as well as to be aware of people’s reactions while not forgetting the lessons of history. Adelaide’s founding planning father, Colonel William Light discovered the need to be resolute soon after his arrival on our coast just over 171 years ago. If he had not been so firmly insistent, then the experiment of establishing Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s model colony of S.A. would have either failed quickly, or needed a second attempt, as in the case of the first settlements in both Victoria and W.A. Thanks to Light’s observational powers and climatic acumen, Adelaide’s gravity powered water resources proved to be adequate for more than the city’s first century.
Problems initially began to manifest themselves not from over-population, but from short-term economic greed, a malaise whose enthusiasts can always find a way to overcome less aggressive obstacles, including passive communities and the natural sciences. Logically, it might have been silently assumed that the natural water resources of the Mount Lofty Ranges would have been protected for ever. But following an article in “The Bulletin” in the 1960s describing the MLR as an under-developed golden opportunity, an orgy of mindless sub-division commenced which continues unabatedly. While the value of the MLR water was underrated because the supply from the Murray could apparently so easily be drawn upon, the story has now changed with incredible speed. The pleas of people like Peter Dormer, who since the 1960s begged planning authorities to be more cautious in their callous carving up of Col. Light’s natural water supply, were simply trampled on in the greedy rush. No one stopped to think that even 30 years ago, each hectare of unspoilt land on the slopes of Mt Lofty yielded water under-valued at $1,000 per annum.
It is less than 35 years since not only the late Professor Denis Jordan of the University of Adelaide who chaired the State Government’s Committee on the Environment but also I, as Chairman of the Aust. Academy of Science Committee on Iceberg Utilisation, independently warned that SA would run short of water by the turn of the last century. As it turned out our estimates were out by only 2 years. Whether or not the concept of iceberg utilisation deserved official derision from some who should have been more thoughtful is still debateable. In the case of WA my suggestion was that this method would have given that State time to get some serious defects in its hydrological policies in order. While our western neighbour has now done something to alleviate its water supply problems, SA Govt. bodies have not yet created anything. In marked contrast, the Salisbury Council, through managing one of the driest areas on the urban Adelaide Plain, has encouraged its Engineer Colin Pitman to harness the region’s stormwater for the benefit of the District. I am pleased that Colin is present this evening, so that if necessary, he may be able to offer reassurance as to the safety and value of such water, which elsewhere in Adelaide is casually cast off to the detriment of the nearby sea. This technique of purification and storage is as close to the way nature used to operate as is possible in an urban setting. Furthermore, the wetlands and ponds that have been contrived in Salisbury offer a wonderful public amenity as well as refuges for bird-life. The actual storage area is deep underground where it is shielded from the ravages of not only casual human vandalism but of evaporation, a process which not only removes water from our reservoirs at a rate of more than 10 mm/day during summer, but simultaneously increases the residual’s salinity.
Water salinity, one of Australia’s legacies from the ocean which once covered it, is the bane of those who value natural plants, fibres, fabrics and dyeing techniques, all matters of concern to India Flint, the exhibitor who made this function possible. Ironically, the network of pipelines which sustains most parts of SA will ultimately spell doom in those areas where the ever increasing dissolved salt-load is allowed to accumulate. For 1000s of years, history on several continents warns us that all irrigation schemes based on a too frugally rationed water supply, unequal to the essential task of flushing accumulated salt from plant root zones, lead to horticultural distress and ultimate failure.By now I hope to have persuaded you that the availability and distribution of life-giving water is not only dependent on good science and technology, but also on political decisions sensitive to the needs of real people, not just corporations. When economists are left to their own devices, the shaping of their solutions may need considerable guidance from others who are sufficiently informed about nature as well as compassionate. While heed needs to be paid to economists, planning based on a response to institutional greed alone is unconscionable. An economy substantially dependent on greed dooms its citizens to the pillage of their natural environment, including soil and water, and consequently to an unsustainable future. History warns us that not only capitalist but also communist states fall into this trap. In Eastern Europe, the demise of communism two decades ago was greatly hastened by the collapse of many key environments including major river systems. By encouraging our Nation’s population to increase to levels beyond those which can survive on its naturally available bounties, especially pure air, vegetation and water, we condemn ourselves to become dependent on ever higher levels of technology, the uncertain reliability of which creates yet another undesirable stress factor in our lives. Perhaps it is the realisation of this that motivates so many to seek life-style changes that remove their daily lives from dependence on incomprehensively complex schemes.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

A Tale of Two Seasons

After the wet year of 2005, by 2008, water availability fell drastically in South Australia's Eastern Mount Lofty Ranges. The above photo-pair shows the same farm dam in those two respective years. The aquatic abundance of 2005 gave way to unprecedented aridity in 2008.
On a more serious scale, 30 km to the east, the Murray River at Mannum, illustrated by the background for the MOPS heading, reveals the extensive dry flats which have replaced the wide lagoons regarded as characteristic of this, the lowest of the river's pools. In mid-2008, the Murray River level at Mannum had sunk to 1.5 metre below "normal". Until the river receives more flow below Lock No.1, the outlook for Adelaide's supplementary water supply derived by pumping just downstream of Mannum is truly grim.

The driest state on the driest continent

A Contribution to the "Watermarks" exhibition held by
India Flint [1]
at the Artspace of the Adelaide Festival Centre.
Nowhere does the inseparability of historical, geographical and social factors become more apparent than in the study of environmental resources and the question of their ultimate sustainability. The 171 year story of European settlement in South Australia provides a salutary example. This State was fortunate in having such an outstanding and sensitive founding planner as Colonel William Light. He, in turn was fortunate in having as his palette an area of Australia which was initially totally independent from the competitive needs of settlers in other States; only the unfortunate aborigines initially formed a minor obstacle to remorseless European expansion. Colonel Light identified water resources in the Mount Lofty Ranges which were entirely sufficient, not only initially, but for more than another century.
Only in the early 1950s, when Adelaide’s population was about 0.5 million, did the need to look further afield to the Murray River arise. With that rude awakening, the relentless path toward Adelaide’s competition for water resources, not only with some of its vital rural communities, but with a vast area of eastern Australia began. Worse still, with the advent of globalisation and consequent “faceless” investment in vast horticultural enterprises dependent on irrigation, the commercialisation of water rights accelerated. Initially this placed only family sized horticultural activities under pressure but recently cities such as Adelaide have had to take serious note as well.
In the 1970s, the problems currently being faced were being forecast with remarkable accuracy, both by an SA Government Committee (on the environment) and by an Australian Academy of Science Committee (on iceberg utilisation), but these words of caution were generally regarded with hilarity. Those words of warning came true early in the 21st century. A kaleidoscopic nightmare of options manifested themselves for public debate and urgent political decision making. Unfortunately for rural South Australians, their urban cousins hold most of the power in decision making, while both are being held to ransom by economically powerful, but environmentally destructive pursuits not only upstream in the Murray-Darling system but outside of the sphere of local political influence, in other States.
Unless a truly rational and socially equitable scheme for allocating available water rights is devised on a National basis, it is likely that this once great natural hydraulic system will topple into an irreversibly catastrophic condition. It will be an example of the universally applicable principles embodied in Darwin’s theory of evolution, viz. competition leads to the survival of the fittest and strongest. While in the animal world this has been well comprehended and supported by the fossil discoveries of paleontologists, human economic factors, only very occasionally tempered by moral and ethical considerations, tend to blind all but a few.
Over a period of time, which may even be short by the scales used by geologists, seemingly terminally exploited natural systems will recover, but only after the disappearance of the current vandalistic forces shaping civilisation. Pending a new system of Government which recognises the fact that Australia’s water resources pay no heed to State boundaries, States like South Australia will need to become increasingly independent of water from interstate sources, because the costs will be driven ever higher by competitors bidding for the same commodity in areas outside of our State where, measured by a purely economic yardstick, it can be used more efficiently.
How can life in the desert sands compete with the allurement of an oasis? Of course it cannot, but this stark conclusion offers no hope for the communities of rural South Australia! As long as Adelaide hangs on the benevolence of its upstream neighbours controlling the flow of the Murray-Darling system, it too will be held to economic ransom. But the manner in which the laws of economics rule society dictates that the needs of the populations of urban Adelaide and its rural cousins must be considered separately.
While morally Adelaide cannot be allowed to forget its obligations to the regional centres, it is appropriate to consider first currently feasible solutions for the city. How much water does a city of 1,000,000 people require?
By other global standards, 0.1 km3 = 108 m3 = 1011 L = 100 GL (per annum) should suffice, but Adelaide actually uses about 0.17 km3 = 1.7x1011L = 170 GL
In a city of a million, this equates to 170 kL per person! What have we allowed to happen to our primary sources in spite of our perceived needs?
From the 1960s on, at an ever accelerating pace, urban Adelaide launched an onslaught on the water catchments which Colonel Light had so painstakingly identified over a century before. An increasingly trendy jargon justified this rape of an absolutely essential resource by cleverly referring to it as “multi-purpose” land-utilisation. The absurdity of these claims was illustrated by the alacrity with which water from the gutters of Aldgate and Bridgewater as well as the occasionally overstressed sewerage systems was eagerly harvested via the flow of the Onkaparinga River in Mount Bold Reservoir, while even better quality water flowing down the gutters of Burnside and other eastern suburban streets was shunned and shunted out to sea in concrete drains. In summary, estimating the urbanised area of Adelaide to be 500 km2 over which a mean of about 500 mm of rain falls annually, it follows that the city actually receives 2.5x1011L
If carefully husbanded, Nature’s gift from above might be regarded to be both adequate and bountiful. Only one District of Adelaide, the City of Salisbury, has recognised the monstrous illogicality of prevailing waste. The brilliantly designed storm-water utilisation of this city stores excess water underground where evaporative losses are low and in a manner in which pollution can be minimised. Furthermore, in spite of the fact that Salisbury is in one of Adelaide’s areas least endowed by natural precipitation, this intelligently designed water supply system suffices to potentially be able to supply not only all of its industrial enterprises but also all of its residents. The system has won international acclaim with some of the World’s major cities such as Berlin lining up as enthusiastic emulants! But where is South Australia’s SA Water? It appears to be so consumed by its own inadequacy, if not jealousy, that so far it only cautiously peeps over the fence! The Salisbury Engineers have developed a relatively thorough comprehension of the potential of Adelaide’s underground hydrology and its supplementation, but there is no doubt that a detailed evaluation of these should be undertaken for all of metropolitan Adelaide. Particular attention should be devoted to future land-use of areas which should be used for ground water re-charge, e.g. Cheltenham Racecourse.
It is highly probable that Adelaide could become totally independent of the Murray-Darling system, but this would require a thorough flushing of short-term economic thinking from currently all-powerful State supported agencies. Desalinisation of sea-water has become heralded as the new panacea for an ever thirstier State. While there are very few settled parts of S.A. where natural rainfall is inadequate for carefully husbanded domestic applications, it is equally true that small scale desalination could provide for much sought security and desirable amenities, including gardening. However, on the basis of the Salisbury experience, Adelaide does not need a sea-water desalination plant and its attendant marine environmental problems. The future of rural South Australia does depend on wider scale innovations which will either increase natural precipitation in the identified eastern catchments or reduce the use of water by a careful “weeding out” of some current institutional users who do nothing to contribute to the long-term social well-being of all of South Australia. In rural and irrigation areas more land and water management decisions must be based on real physical facts and first answer questions such as: “Why promote the flow of saline Eastern Mount Lofty Ranges streams to contaminate the lower River Murray without encouraging appropriate land-use to rectify the problem first”?
It is essential for evaporation to be recognised as a major factor affecting water use just as it is important to ensure sustainable use of the Murray River, currently Australia’s agricultural sewer. Furthermore Cooper Creek must not be forgotten, as it brings almost as much, but better, water into SA. Particular attention must be devoted to examining the concept of water licences and their trading. Present water licences are an unsustainable nonsense since the historically allocated quantities of water are not based on actual availabilities. Inspite of the obvious shortfall, State governments have continued to approve irrigation schemes to areas such as the Barossa and Clare valleys where, moreover, simple estimates of the accompanying addition to the regions’ salt load point to inevitable environmental doom!
A new philosophy for surface water use could be developed on the following lines:
1. Rain falling on rural property should be regarded as the potential asset of the owners for on-site use, since contour ploughing, viticulture or forestry can retain most of it anyway! Since rain can either be an asset or a liability, its mean value is already reflected in property values and associated levels of taxation.
2. Water-flow transiting a property (both above and below ground) must become a
public asset and its use should be determined by an appropriate, but not private, agency. Major streams must be regarded as publicly owned aqueducts. Good forward estimates of river flows are available from National bodies such as the Bureau of Meteorology and can be used to set seasonally dependent water prices for all non-self-sufficient users.
3. Costs should reflect scarcity and be based on scientific and not only on economically driven advice!
Finally, it must be recognised that all Australians’ activities which involve urbanisation, de-vegetation, air-pollution and industrialisation can affect precipitation negatively. Recent proposals based on internationally acclaimed Israeli cloud seeding technology must be treated seriously and not be lampooned out of consideration. This “head in the sand” mentality projected by some major publicly funded institutions must not be allowed to send Australia into hydrologic oblivion.

Friday, 15 February 2008

People, People everywhere...and not a drop to drink!

The drive to dramatically increase South Australia’s population, ("The Advertiser", 15. Feb. 2008, p.5) reflects a basic instinct exhibited by all forms of life, but in the case of humanity, flies in the face of the mounting evidence all over the World that there are too many of us for the available essential resources, principally water and nutritious food. In our case, water is the problem requiring the most serious expert attention.

Our State is an example of singularly poor planning, in that by being so urban-centric, no appropriate thought has been lent to the stimulation of regional centres. No other Australian State suffers from this level of imbalance.

The key to the success of many smaller cities in successful Nations all over World has been the establishment of key educational facilities. The latter should not be confused with financially strapped institutions desperately attempting to raise funds by flogging trendy topics to unsuspecting youngsters. With a more enlightened population, the meagre lateral thinking resources of our Government will be augmented by a more diverse range of rational solutions to our State’s singular problems.

Monday, 28 January 2008

South Australia's incompetent water supply regulators

The State Government and its ineffective, semi-privatised Department, SA Water, are becoming ever more immersed in complex regulatory schemes which have now spread to debatably inequitable subsidisations. Little or no concern is being shown for the reward of individual effort and sacrifice.
Documentation of the ever changing details of these idiotic regulations and processing claims for subsidies diverts an inordinate number of highly paid people and costly resources from the solution of real problems. Unfortunate farmers and others in unserviced locations who need to devise their own water supplies are left out of this loop which distributes largess funded by taxpayers, all of whom are paying for this indefensible nonsense.
While the Government’s Ministers and henchmen fiddle with papers, opportunities with fantastic potential are being ignored.
Take the Salisbury Council Storm Water processing scheme as offering but one example. Salisbury storm water now supplies most of the nearby major industries, 18 schools and 3 sub-divisions with water of lower salinity and more cheaply than the SA Water product. But has the SA Govt. or SA Water done anything except peep over the fence? No!
Worse still, the Minister has been peddled really misleading and bad advice, as evidenced by her claim on ABC radio that the Salisbury scheme was still in the planning stage. Colin Pitman, the Master Mind behind this successful and still expanding scheme must have been hopping mad when he heard the Minister’s statement, but political niceties undoubtedly required him to keep his mouth shut. That’s the way a modern society run by political factions, rather than by proven facts and common sense, appears to operate.
We need to remind ourselves that in spite of this potential for self-sufficiency, Salisbury is one of the driest parts of metropolitan Adelaide. Before we prove to the world that we are the dummest State, not only the driest, in Australia, we should extend the benefits of the Salisbury solution to other suburbs. Most importantly, before we allow some of the last remaining urban areas suitable for wet-land development to be built upon, as seems to be the intention for Cheltenham Racecourse, we should encourage and finance thorough hydrological studies of the Adelaide Plains.
A more complete appreciation of the coupling between rainfall, surface run-off and underground water would stop politicians from happily being able to claim that there is no need for controls on bore-water use in the eastern suburbs. By all means let us keep Adelaide looking as green as possible, but we should know where water is being applied and where it comes from. Since SA Water’s meters, because of that Government instrumentality's inappropriate charging policies, are not being put to any sensible use for the surveillance of water consumption , perhaps they could be more gainfully employed to measure the rate of withdrawal from ground water reserves.

5 things for the South Australian Government to do:

1. Always ensure that local resources are used sensitively and appropriately with the guidance of accurately researched information. These facts need to be comprehensively researched for all locations and in particular need to discover the dynamic relationship between surface and underground water as well as evaporation. The work needed to achieve this fundamental aim cannot be simply carried out by people slumped in front of computer screens in air-conditioned city offices.
2. Realise that rural, including most importantly horticultural, and urban water supply needs are fundamentally different. Important as the needs of a State capital are, they do represent only a small fraction of the total volume of water to which the State as a whole has been accustomed in earlier years. Current desalinisation technologies will not help irrigators!
3. Help people to understand what is happening and what is being done, then confidently charge realistic prices for water, whether it is delivered by pipes, surface or underground streams. But set differential charges which should weigh the relevance of the use and the value of any social benefits as might flow from primary and industrial production. It is important to ascertain whether such activities help in de-centralising S.A.'s population.
4. Help people to make decisions on how best to achieve economies and thus allow them to decide whether to invest in rain-water tanks. Confidence must be created by firmly endorsing the following rules: (i) Rain cannot be taxed, as long as it is used on a given property, because if taxation were attempted, the Government would imply ownership and hence could be sued in case of damaging over-abundant supply in a storm! (ii) Water running off from such private property becomes a public asset (iii) Underground water, like any valuable mineral, is also publicly owned and as such its use may be monitored and charged for.
5. Devise subsidisation schemes to support ethical social and environmental policies rather than strew funds over the entire community, irrespective of need.