Thursday, 20 March 2008

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.

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