Learning from Australia’s lessons

June 13, 2009
Gardens and the gardening industry died, but enough water was saved after almost-draconian measures were implemented so that residents of Queensland, in southeastern Australia, did end up with enough water to drink, despite a record drought the past few years.

Kirk Stinchcombe was speaking Thursday to members of the Water Stewardship Council, a technical advisory body that reports to the Okanagan Basin Water Board.

Stinchcombe now works for the environment ministry here in water management, but he worked in water conservation in Australia during the first few years of 2000 when that country endured a record-long drought.

In 2007, the Wivenhoe Dam on the Brisbane River was at 18 per cent of its capacity, which is 1,165,000 million litres, following six years of drought.

It supplies water to 2.5 million people, and relies on the rainfall during three months of the year for its annual supply.

Because of the drought, Stinchcombe said there are now three advanced water treatment plants which use reverse osmosis to treat sewage—230 million litres of it a day, at a huge cost.

As well, they have one desalination plant treating 130 million litres of seawater a day, using coal-fired power plants.

Stinchcombe said $9 billion was invested in four years to combat the drought with a wide variety of traditional and sometimes innovative solutions.

To begin with, he said, outdoor watering was banned. Then, a target of reducing personal water use to 140 litres a day per person was established.

In B.C., water use averages 426 litres per person a day.

To achieve the reduction, Stinchcombe said they came up with a variety of strategies, ranging from a communication campaign to a home rebate scheme that cost $50,000 a day at its peak, just for low-flow shower heads, taps and such.

Then, there were business savings programs, home retrofits and a special program for heavy users. The latter involved sending plumbers into homes to fix whatever was wrong.

They went to 30,000 homes a week and set up a full-time call centre to organize it. It saved the equivalent of a milk tanker truck per year, per house. The program was very well-received with 228,551 homes involved, and a savings of 13 mega-litres a day.

Next was a pressure and leakage management program that saved 60 million litres of water a day, but it was on a huge scale and cost $70 million. Nearby, he was a consultant on a project for the Gold Coast, in Pimpama Coomera, where dual reticulated homes have been built this year. (Google the name for more information.)

Two water systems supply water for each home. One supplies high quality recycled water for use in flushing toilets, outside use, watering gardens and other non-drinking purposes.

The other supplies drinking water.

In addition, each home has a 5,000-litre rainwater tank to supply cold water for the washing machine and some external watering.

Stinchcombe said one lesson from the experience was that assumptions about water security can change very quickly.

Another was we should be ready for when the time comes that drought management is required, and that a governance system for drought management should be established early on. “Think bigger. We can do so much more than we do,” he concluded.