Is Perth really running out of water? Well, yes and no


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The future of Perth’s urban wetlands is in doubt.
Orderinchaos/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Don McFarlane, University of Western Australia

As Cape Town counts down to “day zero” and the prospect of its taps being turned off, there have inevitably been questions about whether the same fate might befall a major Australian city. The most striking parallels have been drawn with Perth – unsurprisingly, given its drying climate, rising evaporation rates (which increase consumption and reduce water yields) and growing population.

So is Perth really running out of water? The answer depends on what type of water is being considered, and what constitutes “running out”.




Read more:
Cape Town is almost out of water. Could Australian cities suffer the same fate?


When faced with this question most people think of drinking water, which is of course essential for household use.

It often ignores non-potable groundwater that is heavily relied upon in Perth to irrigate gardens, lawns, ovals, golf courses and market gardens. This water is also used by light and heavy industry, as well as being crucial to the health of wetlands and vegetation across the coastal plain.

Lake Jualbup in Perth’s western suburbs showing periods of low and high water level. Photos by Geoffrey Dean.
saveourjewel.org, Author provided

Perth’s drinking water supplies are largely safe, thanks to early investment in the use of groundwater and in technologies such as desalination. But somewhat ironically, as this recent book chapter explains, the future supply of lower-quality water for irrigation and to support ecosystems looks far less assured.

A drying climate

Perth’s annual rainfall has been declining by about 3mm per year on average, while the number of months receiving at least 200mm of rain has halved. Meanwhile, the annual mean temperature anomaly has increased by 1℃ in southwest Western Australia in the past 40 years and possibly by more in Perth, given the urban heat island effect.

Perth’s rainfall trend, as measured at Perth Airport’s rain gauge.
Bureau of Meteorology

The overall effect is that soils and vegetation are often dry, meaning that rainfall will be lost to evapotranspiration rather than running off into rivers and dams, or recharging underground aquifers.

At the same time, Perth has made major changes to its drinking water supply. The city now relies chiefly on groundwater and desalination rather than dams. For a variety of reasons, drinking water use per person has declined, most notably since the early 2000s when sprinkler restrictions were introduced. Some have switched to self-supply sources such as backyard bores, so for them total water use may even have increased.

Perth’s trends in runoff, population, and water supply.
Water Corporation

The reduction in per capita use of drinking water is just as well, because inflows into Perth dams have fallen from 300 billion litres a year to less than 50 billion. This disproportionate drop in stream flows, even against the backdrop of declining rainfall, means that evaporation from reservoirs can exceed inflows in very dry years.

Since the late 1970s, Perth has increasingly used groundwater rather than dam water. Seawater desalination has also grown to almost half of total supply. Even more recently Perth began trialling a groundwater replenishment scheme to recharge aquifers with treated wastewater.

With the declines in rainfall and streamflow predicted to continue, water security will continue to be an important policy issue over the next few decades. Although both are much more expensive than dam water, desalination and groundwater replenishment look set to secure Perth’s drinking supply, because seawater is virtually unlimited, and wastewater availability increases in line with the city’s growth.




Read more:
This is what Australia’s growing cities need to do to avoid running dry


Why are non-drinking water supplies less secure?

Boosting drinking water supplies with desalination or groundwater replenishment is unlikely to resolve the pressures on non-potable supplies. To understand why, it is necessary to understand Perth’s unusual hydrology.

Most of Perth is built on permeable sand dunes, which can soak up even the heaviest rainfall. This allows runoff from roofs and roads to be directed into nearby soak wells and absorption basins.

As well as cheap disposal of stormwater, the sands provide Perth with a place to store excess water from winter rains, which is then relied upon for summer irrigation. As a result, local governments have been able to provide many irrigated parks and sports ovals, and more than a quarter of Perth households use a private bore to water their gardens.

This arrangement isn’t as sustainable as it once was. Groundwater levels are falling under many parts of Perth, forcing the state government to reduce allocations and to introduce a range of water-saving measures such as winter sprinkler bans.

Unlike dam inflows, we don’t yet know the full scale of the reduction in natural groundwater recharge rates. But the question still remains: what can we do to halt the decline of this important water store, particularly as Perth’s population is expected to grow to 3.5 million by 2050?

About 70% of local road runoff and half of roof runoff already recharges the shallow unconfined aquifer, because it is the cheapest way to dispose of excess water in areas with sandy soils. As well as reducing discharge costs, this practice helps to ensure that bores do not run dry in summer.

Perth also has large main drains that are designed to lower groundwater levels in swampy areas and prevent inundation. Some of these waters could be redirected into the aquifer where there is a suitable site.

Don’t waste wastewater

About 140 billion litres of treated wastewater are discharged into the ocean every year in the Perth-Peel region. A further 7 billion litres are infiltrated into the sands as a means of disposal where there isn’t an option for ocean outfall. Recent investigations of these land disposal sites have shown them to be effective in protecting wetlands from drying and providing water for public and private irrigation.

Investigations have also shown that the quality of treated wastewater can be greatly improved when infiltrated through the yellow sands into the limestone aquifer in the western part of Perth. It is suitable for irrigation after a few weeks’ residence within the aquifer.




Read more:
‘Drought-proofing’ Perth: the long view of Western Australian water


Without these kinds of measures, local governments will struggle to water parks and sports ovals, to protect Perth’s remaining wetlands, and to safeguard the trees that help keep us cool.

The ConversationSo while drinking water supplies for an affluent city like Perth are reasonably secure, our vital non-drinking water supplies need to be augmented using some of the water we currently discharge into the ocean. As Perth gets even hotter and drier, and green spaces and wetlands are needed to provide much-needed cooling, we can no longer afford to let any water go to waste.

Don McFarlane, Adjunct professor, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Fixing cities’ water crises could send our climate targets down the gurgler



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Water treatment plants can’t afford not to think about electricity too.
CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Peter Fisher, RMIT University

Two cities on opposing continents, Santiago
and Cape Town, have been brought to their knees by events at opposing ends of the climate spectrum: flood and drought.

The taps ran dry for Santiago’s 5 million inhabitants in early 2017, due to contamination of supplies by a massive rainfall event. And now Cape Town is heading towards “day zero” on May 11, after which residents will have to collect their drinking water from distribution points.




Read more:
Cape Town is almost out of water. Could Australian cities suffer the same fate?


It’s probably little comfort that Santiago and Cape Town aren’t alone. Many other cities around the world are grappling with impending water crises, including in Australia, where Perth and Melbourne both risk running short.

In many of these places governments have tried to hedge their bets by turning to increasingly expensive and energy-ravenous ways to ensure supply, such as desalination plants and bulk water transfers. These two elements have come together in Victoria with the pumping of desalinated water 150km from a treatment plant at Wonthaggi, on the coast, to the Cardinia Reservoir, which is 167m above sea level.

But while providing clean water is a non-negotiable necessity, these strategies also risk delivering a blowout in greenhouse emissions.

Water pressure

Climate change puts many new pressures on water quality. Besides the effects of floods and droughts, temperature increases can boost evaporation and promote the growth of toxic algae, while catchments can be contaminated by bushfires.

Canberra experienced a situation similar to Santiago in 2003, when a bushfire burned through 98% of the Cotter catchment, and then heavy rain a few months later washed huge amounts of contamination into the Bendora Dam. The ACT government had to commission a A$40 million membrane bioreactor treatment plant to restore water quality.

At the height of the Millennium Drought, household water savings and restrictions lowered volumes in sewers (by up to 40% in Brisbane, for example). The resulting increase in salt concentrations put extra pressure on wastewater treatment and reclamation..

The energy needed to pump, treat, distribute and heat water – and then to convey, pump, reclaim or discharge it as effluent, and to move biosolids – is often overlooked. Many blueprints for zero-carbon cities underplay or neglect entirely the carbon footprint of water supply and sewage treatment.

Some analyses only consider the energy footprint of domestic water heating, rather than the water sector as a whole – which is rather like trying to calculate the carbon footprint of the livestock industry by only looking at cooking.

Yet the growing challenge of delivering a reliable and safe water supply means that energy use is growing. The United States, for example, experienced a 39% increase in electricity usage for drinking water supply and treatment, and a 74% increase for wastewater treatment over the period 1996-2013, in spite of improvements in energy efficiency.

As climate change puts yet more pressure on water infrastructure, responses such as desalination plants and long-distance piping threaten to add even more to this energy burden. The water industry will increasingly be both a contributor to and a casualty of climate change.

How much energy individual utilities are actually using, either in Australia or worldwide, will vary widely according to the source of supply – such as rivers, groundwater or mountain dams – and whether gravity feeds are possible for freshwater and sewage (Melbourne shapes up well here, for example, whereas the Gold Coast doesn’t), as well as factors such as the level of treatment, and whether or not measures such as desalination or bulk transfers are in place.

All of this increases the water sector’s reliance on the electricity sector, which as we know has a pressing need to reduce its greenhouse emissions.

Desalination plants: great for providing water, not so great for saving electricity.
Moondyne/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

One option would be for water facilities to take themselves at least partly “off-grid”, by installing large amounts of solar panels, onsite wind turbines, or Tesla-style batteries (a few plants also harness biogas). Treatment plants are not exactly bereft of flat surfaces – such as roofs, grounds or even ponds – an opportunity seized upon by South Australian Water.

But this is a large undertaking, and the alternative – waiting for the grid itself to become largely based on renewables – will take a long time.

A 2012 study found large variations in pump efficiency between water facilities in different local authorities across Australia. Clearly there is untapped scope for collaboration and knowledge-sharing in our water sector, as is done in Spain and Germany, where water utilities have integrated with municipal waste services, and in the United States, where the water and power sectors have gone into partnership in many places.

The developing world

Climate change and population growth are seriously affecting cities in middle-band and developing countries, and the overall outlook is grim. Many places, such as Mexico City, already have serious water contamination problems. Indeed, in developing nations these problems are worsened by existing water quality issues. Only one-third of wastewater is treated to secondary standard in Asia, less than half of that in Latin America and the Caribbean, and a minute amount in Africa.

The transfer of know-how to these places is critical to reaching clean energy transitions. Nations making the energy transition – especially China, the world’s largest greenhouse emitter – need to take just as much care to ensure they avoid a carbon blowout as they transition to clean water too.

Just as in the electricity sector, carbon pricing can potentially provide a valuable incentive for utilities to improve their environmental performance. If utilities were monitored on the amount of electricity used per kilolitre of water processed, and then rewarded (or penalised) accordingly, it would encourage the entire sector to up its game, from water supply all the way through to sewage treatment.




Read more:
This is what Australia’s growing cities need to do to avoid running dry


Water is a must for city-dwellers – a fact that Cape Town’s officials are now nervously contemplating. It would be helpful for the industry to participate in the strategic planning and land-use debates that affect its energy budgets, and for its emissions (and emissions reductions) to be measured accurately.

In this way the water industry can become an influential participant in decarbonising our cities, rather than just a passive player.


The ConversationThis article is based on a journal article (in press) co-authored by David Smith, former water quality manager for South East Water, Melbourne.

Peter Fisher, Adjunct Professor, Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Hidden depths: why groundwater is our most important water source



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Deep dive: water flows from a bore in Birdsville, Queensland.
Lobster1/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Emma Kathryn White, University of Melbourne

Vivid scenes of worried Cape Town residents clutching empty water vessels in long snaking queues are ricocheting around the globe. Everyone is asking, “How did this happen?” Or, more precisely, “Can it happen in my city?” The importance of effective water management has been shoved, blinking, into the limelight.

In Australia we’re watching somewhat nervously, grateful to have been spared the same fate – for now, at least. Experts tell us that the key is “water divestment” – that is, don’t put all your eggs in one basket (or, perhaps more appropriately, don’t get all your water from the same tap).

Perth is held up as a shining example of Australia’s success in water divestment. The city now relies partly on desalination and crucially gets almost 70% of its supply from groundwater.




Read more:
The world’s biggest source of freshwater is beneath your feet


Groundwater, the great salvation of parched cities and agricultural development, is the world’s largest freshwater resource. The volume of fresh water in all the world’s lakes, rivers and swamps adds up to less than 1% of that of fresh groundwater – like putting a perfume bottle next to a ten-litre bucket.

What’s more, because it’s underground, it is buffered somewhat from a fickle climate and often used to maintain or supplement supply during times of drought.

Yet caution is required when developing groundwater. Sinking wells everywhere, Beverley Hillbillies style, is unwise. Instead, robust groundwater management is required – defining clearly what we want to achieve and what are we prepared to lose to get it.

Despite the common perception of its abundance, groundwater is not inexhaustible. Its management is fraught with minefields greater and more enigmatic than those of surface waters. It is, after all, much easier to spot when a reservoir is about to run dry than a subterranean aquifer.

Subsidence can be surprisingly rapid, as in the case of this example in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
USGS

Only when aquifer depletion is already quite advanced do we begin to see the tell-tale signs at the surface: metres and metres of subsidence, huge cracks in roads, and dried-up wetlands clogged with dead trees and dried-out bird carcasses.

For the most part, however, groundwater remains out of sight, hidden beneath many metres of soil and rock. We only remember it is there when something goes wrong, such as a drought, at which point people begin raving about groundwater, location, yield, salinity, stygofauna – wait, what?

Actually hardly anyone cares about stygofauna; most people have never heard of these tiny subterranean creatures, and you will certainly never see one as a state emblem. Mound springs? What are they? Clearly being underground has left groundwater with an image problem.

There was much media coverage of water theft from the Murray River, with broadcast journalists reporting breathlessly from tinnies, and dramatic footage of huge pumps sucking swirling brown water from a sluggish river. Film of groundwater pumps sedately slurping water is much harder to get, because bores tend to be on private property, often hidden inside little tin shacks and kind of boring, really.

Groundwater just doesn’t capture the public imagination. Great reservoirs and rivers are evocative of wilderness and adventure; they almost make you want to build a little raft and float lazily away, Huck Finn style. But the thing is, groundwater feeds many great rivers, supplying base-flow, so when we suck water out of wells, in many instances we may as well be sucking out of rivers.

Despite this connectivity, in many regions groundwater and surface water are managed separately. This is akin to treating to your left hand as a separate entity to your right. Regulation of groundwater lags behind that of surface water and, in many parts of the world including the United States, China, India and Australia, groundwater is overexploited and pumped prolifically, leading to severe social and environmental impacts.

Mound springs support unique and endemic ecosystems and bubbling clear cold water, a welcome sight for dusty travellers. And as for the aforementioned stygofauna, well, what could be cooler than a blind cave eel?




Read more:
Squeezed by gravity: how tides affect the groundwater under our feet


Groundwater will become increasingly important as a water source as we grapple with growing cities and burgeoning populations, not to mention climate change, which is projected to reduce rainfall across eastern Australia.

It is crucial that we ensure our groundwater management is effective and robust in the face of drought. It is no longer enough just to write management plans; we must put them to the test by running our groundwater models through a range of future climate and management frequency scenarios. We need increased investment in groundwater management planning, and for management to be conducted in conjunction with surface water management.

The ConversationWith many cities’ water supplies drying up before our eyes, we also need to remember to think about the water we cannot see.

Emma Kathryn White, PhD Candidate, Infrastructure Engineering, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Cape Town is almost out of water. Could Australian cities suffer the same fate?


Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

The world is watching the unfolding Cape Town water crisis with horror. On “Day Zero”, now predicted to be just ten weeks away, engineers will turn off the water supply. The South African city’s four million residents will have to queue at one of 200 water collection points.

Cape Town is the first major city to face such an extreme water crisis. There are so many unanswered questions. How will the sick or elderly people cope? How will people without a car collect their 25-litre daily ration? Pity those collecting water for a big family.




Read more:
Cape Town’s water crisis: driven by politics more than drought


The crisis is caused by a combination of factors. First of all, Cape Town has a very dry climate with annual rainfall of 515mm. Since 2015, it has been in a drought estimated to be a one-in-300-year event.

In recent years, the city’s population has grown rapidly – by 79% since 1995. Many have questioned what Cape Town has done to expand the city’s water supply to cater for the population growth and the lower rainfall.

Could this happen in Australia?

Australia’s largest cities have often struggled with drought. Water supplies may decline further due to climate change and uncertain future rainfall. With all capital cities expecting further population growth, this could cause water supply crises.




Read more:
This is what Australia’s growing cities need to do to avoid running dry


The situation in Cape Town has strong parallels with Perth in Australia. Perth is half the size of Cape Town, with two million residents, but has endured increasing water stress for nearly 50 years. From 1911 to 1974, the annual inflow to Perth’s water reservoirs averaged 338 gigalitres (GL) a year. Inflows have since shrunk by nearly 90% to just 42GL a year from 2010-2016.

To make matters worse, the Perth water storages also had to supply more people. Australia’s fourth-largest city had the fastest capital city population growth, 28.2%, from 2006-2016.

As a result, Perth became Australia’s first capital city unable to supply its residents from storage dams fed by rainfall and river flows. In 2015 the city faced a potentially disastrous situation. River inflows to Perth’s dams dwindled to 11.4GL for the year.

For its two million people, the inflows equated to only 15.6 litres per person per day! Yet in 2015/6 Perth residents consumed an average of nearly 350 litres each per day. This was the highest daily water consumption for Australia’s capitals. How was this achieved?

Tapping into desalination and groundwater

Perth has progressively sourced more and more of its supply from desalination and from groundwater extraction. This has been expensive and has been the topic of much debate. Perth is the only Australian capital to rely so heavily on desalination and groundwater for its water supply.

Volumes of water sourced for urban use in Australia’s major cities.
BOM, Water in Australia, p.52, National Water Account 2015, CC BY

Australia’s next most water-stressed capital is Adelaide. That city is supplementing its surface water storages with desalination and groundwater, as well as water “transferred” from the Murray River.

Australia’s other capital cities on the east coast have faced their own water supply crises. Their water storages dwindled to between 20% and 35% capacity in 2007. This triggered multiple actions to prevent a water crisis. Progressively tighter water restrictions were declared.

The major population centres (Brisbane/Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide) also built large desalination plants. The community reaction to the desalination plants was mixed. While some welcomed these, others question their costs and environmental impacts.

The desalination plants were expensive to build, consume vast quantities of electricity and are very expensive to run. They remain costly to maintain, even if they do not supply desalinated water. All residents pay higher water rates as a result of their existence.

Since then, rainfall in southeastern Australia has increased and water storages have refilled. The largest southeastern Australia desalination plants have been placed on “stand-by” mode. They will be switched on if and when the supply level drops.




Read more:
The role of water in Australia’s uncertain future


Investing in huge storage capacity

Many Australian cities also store very large volumes of water in very large water reservoirs. This allows them to continue to supply water through future extended periods of dry weather.

The three largest cities (Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane) have built very large dams indeed. For example, Brisbane has 2,220,150 ML storage capacity for its 2.2 million residents. That amounts to just over one million litres per resident when storages are full.

The ConversationIn comparison, Cape Town’s four million residents have a full storage capacity of 900,000 ML. That’s 225,000 litres per resident. Cape Town is constructing a number of small desalination plants while anxiously waiting for the onset of the region’s formerly regular winter rains.

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Some remote Australian communities have drinking water for only nine hours a day



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Communities in Cape York are among those with restricted access to mains water.
NomadicPics/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Cara Beal, Griffith University

Some remote Australian communities have access to drinking water for only nine hours a day for part of the year, but these households can still use up to ten times the average of urban households.

Many communities in the Torres Strait Islands have their mains water supply limited to nine hours a day during the week, and 16 hours a day at weekends, during the six-month dry season from May to October. Some remote Aboriginal communities in mainland Australia have similar restrictions.


Read more: Water in northern Australia: a history of Aboriginal exclusion


The vast majority of these residents do not pay directly for water, as they live in public housing. A three-year research project has been using smart meters to monitor water use as well as promoting community discussion. We found the water is largely used for things that might be viewed as luxuries in an urban setting but which play an important role in community life, such as dampening roofs for cooling and washing fishing gear.

The challenge, therefore, is finding ways to manage this unsustainable water use, apart from physically turning off the water. By understanding the challenges of life in remote Australia and working closely with locals, we identified some reasonable and realistic ways to reduce water use.

Revealing the reasons for high water use

Water restrictions, which have been in place on and off since the early 2000s, exist for a simple reason: there is not enough water to meet demand, especially during the dry season.

Providing water to remote and isolated communities is expensive, whether it comes from a desalination plant (which turns seawater into drinking water) or from a groundwater bore. Typically a diesel generator is used to generate power for water extraction, treatment, pumping and sewage management.

Leaking taps contribute to high water use in some remote communities.
Cara Beal, Author provided

For the past three years I have led a team of Griffith University researchers investigating how water was being used, and how it could be reduced. We installed smart meters in three remote communities, across the Torres Strait Islands, Cape York and the Northern Territory.

The data revealed an average daily use of 900 litres per person, rising to more than 4,000L per person per day in some cases. (The average southeast Queensland household daily use is around 180L per person.) Once the energy costs of pumping and treating this water via diesel-fuelled generators are included, it’s clear this is unsustainable.

We then broke down household water use into categories such as showering and outdoor, and discussed water use habits with each participating household. This gave unprecedented insights into how, where and why water is being used in remote community households.

Beating the dust and heat

Outdoor water use makes up, on average, at least 75% of total household water demand. This can get even higher in the dry season. Leaking taps are also a major contributor.

Average residential water use per person in three remote communities from Far North Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Cara Beal, Author provided

We spoke to participants in Cape York and the Torres Strait about their water use during the middle of the dry season. We found five key drivers for this high outdoor water use (aside from leaks):

  • dust control (and flea control) from non-surfaced roads and yards
  • cooling down (watering the house roof and bare earth or concrete driveways to create an evaporative effect)
  • washing down boats and fishing or hunting equipment
  • physical amenity (gardening or greening)
  • social amenity (having a continuous source of tap water was an important resource during social gatherings, including sorry camps, tombstone openings, cultural events and extended family gatherings).

Reducing drivers of high water use

In urban areas, outdoor household water use is often described as “discretionary”. This implies that the water is associated with “wants” (like car washing, irrigation or filling pools) more than “needs” (drinking, cooking or personal hygiene).

But in the case of these remote communities, our research suggests that outdoor water use is often linked directly to health and well-being. In areas where temperatures during winter regularly climb above 30℃, dust suppression, cooling and flea control are not trivial desires.

Water is used for controlling dust from unsealed roads and bare earth in remote communities.
Cara Beal, Author provided

This means that simply adopting the typical urban water management approach is unlikely to reduce demand. Poor sanitation in many Indigenous communities further complicates the situation.


Read more: It’s a fallacy that all Australians have access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene


The challenge is to reduce water demand, to allow restrictions to be eased in the future, while maintaining a sustainable level of water use in these communities.

Community-involved solutions

We asked our participants from two communities in western Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands how they would reduce high outdoor water use.

Overwhelmingly, they observed a need for more education and awareness of why water conservation is important. Before piped water systems, people were deeply connected to their water sources and could self-manage their supplies.

Nowadays many communities have only one or two good-quality water sources, and the Western-style built infrastructure acts as a barrier to this previous personal connection to water. The economic value of water is also poorly understood in many remote communities.

Similarly, service providers (and others) need to develop a greater understanding of the cultural, social and spiritual value of water from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island person’s perspective.


Read more: The role of water in Australia’s uncertain future


Our team, together with the participants and local service providers, trialled a water efficiency pilot program. This involved both residents and local councils learning about the importance of conserving water and offering suggestions on ways to do this. Talking with the residents, it become clear that high outdoor water use was not purely driven by the fact that water is free for them.

Many of the activities were centred on health (cooling and dust suppression) and food provision (fishing and hunting). Nevertheless, ways of reducing water use were identified. These included watering after dark, reporting leaks, using tap timers and washing hunting and fishing equipment on grass.

The ConversationThe pilot programs have shown promising results, although their funding will shortly end. The challenge will be to change behaviour over time. If this can be done, it will go a long way to reducing the need to limit some communities to nine hours of treated water a day.

Cara Beal, Senior research fellow, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Preventing Murray-Darling water theft: a space agency can help Australia manage federal resources


Andrew Dempster, UNSW

This is the first article in the series Australia’s place in space, where we’ll explore the strengths and weaknesses, along with the past, present and the future of Australia’s space presence and activities.


An independent report into allegations of water theft and corruption in the Murray-Darling Basin has recommended fundamental reforms to the system.

Solutions suggested in the report focus on the state of New South Wales, and involve metered pumps and public access to information. Others have proposed a space-based solution: wide application of “random audits” of water meters by an independent monitoring system: satellites.

But what if we went further. Forget the random audits – why not use satellites to monitor everywhere in the Murray-Darling Basin, all the time?

It’s another argument supporting Australia’s need of a space agency.


Read more: Is the Murray Darling Basin plan broken?


Australian solutions to Australian problems

Among the many arguments in favour of Australia having its own space agency, the use of satellites to collect local data to solve local problems is a vital one.

Under the Australian Space Research Program (the ASRP, which ended in 2013), my colleagues and I developed a design for a pair of Synthetic Aperture Radar satellites that would map soil moisture for all of Australia, every 3 days, to a resolution of 10 metres. We called it “Garada”. This system could readily detect overuse of water of the type noted in the Murray Ddarling Basin, as it was occurring.

Our report was delivered to the Space Policy Unit (which later became the Space Coordination Office), and then the idea stopped dead. There was no mechanism within the public sphere to advance the project: it fell into the hole where a space agency should have been.

The Garada satellites are big and expensive, not exactly the low-cost, “Space 2.0”-focused solutions where most of Australia’s opportunities lie (such as small satellites and startup companies).

However, when we did the study, we showed how the satellite system could be viable if it was considered to be infrastructure. We showed that despite a hefty price tag of A$800 million, the satellite would pay for itself if:

  • its data led to an increase of 0.35% in GDP for non irrigated agriculture, or
  • its data led to a decrease of 7% of irrigation infrastructure, or
  • it was able to save 1% of Murray-Darling water flows.

Read more: Ten reasons why Australia urgently needs a space agency


In a practical sense, the space agency, which needn’t have a big budget itself, wouldn’t have to pay for such a satellite; it just needs a seat at the infrastructure table and compare benefit-to-cost ratios with other projects such as roads and railways. In my opinion, one part of the agency’s role, should it exist, is to make sure infrastructure such as this is considered.

Another important thing to acknowledge here is that both the problem and solution here are federal, with multiple states as stakeholders. An agency that functions to solve problems of this type is not consistent with the sort of “go it alone” approach recently put forward by the ACT and South Australia.

Satellites forge ahead

Even without a space agency, recent years have started to see satellites used to solve Australia-specific problems. The NBN “Skymuster” satellites deliver broadband to remote areas where fibre and wireless solutions were impractical. But they were 100% imported – not an Australian solution.

Start-up Fleet in Adelaide has recently received first-round funding to deliver internet of things services to remote areas from a constellation of cubesats. This may have been achieved against the odds without a local ecosystem, but the company’s official stance is “Australia can no longer afford not to have a space agency”. A number of other start-ups are also starting to gain traction.

Australian universities have been successful in launching and operating cubesats in the QB50 constellation, such as our own UNSW-EC0. These are the first Australian-built satellites to be launched in 15 years. My own group has also delivered GPS receivers as payloads on Defence missions Biarri and Buccaneer.

Australia not at the space table

The world’s largest space conference, the International Astronautical Congress is to be held in Adelaide, September 25-29 2017.

When members of the global space community – NASA, the European Space Agency, the Chinese National Space Agency, the UK Space Agency, and others – meet at the congress to make decisions on missions, strategy, collaborations and other global directions in space, Australia will not be at the table, because we do not have a space agency.


Read more: The 50-year old Outer Space Treaty needs adaptation


The more general commercial and scientific implications related to this have been well outlined. What I have tried to highlight here is simply one example of a possible great many: there are local, practical implications linked to failed advancement of an infrastructure project that relies on expertise in space.

Submissions to the Federal Government’s Review of Australia’s Space Industry Capability closed in August, with many in the industry hoping that its report in March 2018 will recommend an Australian space agency.

The ConversationThe benefits can be broader than most Australians realise – we need to imagine better.

Andrew Dempster, Director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research; Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

We can have fish and dams: here’s how


John Harris, UNSW Australia; Bill Peirson, UNSW Australia, and Richard Kingsford, UNSW Australia

Fish are the most threatened group among Earth’s freshwater vertebrates. On average, freshwater fish populations have declined by 76% over the past 40 years. Damaged fish communities and declining fisheries characterise global freshwater environments, including those in Australia.

Fish migrate to complete their life cycles, but water-resource developments disrupt river connectivity and migrations, threatening biological diversity and fisheries.

Millions of dams, weirs and smaller barriers – for storage and irrigation, road and rail transport and hydropower schemes – block the migration of fish in rivers worldwide.

These barriers serve our needs for water supply, transport and energy. But, by obstructing fish migrations, they also degrade ecological integrity and reduce food security.

This is bad news for those who depend on fish for food. For example, in the Mekong River fish supply over 70% of the people’s animal protein, but catches are falling drastically following dam building.

In our paper published today in CSIRO’s Marine and Freshwater Research, we take stock of the impact these barriers have on our freshwater fish, most (perhaps all) of which migrate, and how we can help them.

Dam it all

There are countless barriers across Australia’s rivers. Roughly 10,000 barriers of all kinds obstruct flows in the Murray-Darling Basin. Flow is unobstructed in less than half of the basin’s watercourse length.

Native fish numbers in the basin’s rivers have declined by an estimated 90% through habitat fragmentation by barriers together with altered flows, overfishing, coldwater pollution and invasive species.

Similar problems also affect coastal river systems. One or more barriers obstruct 49% of rivers in southeast Australia.

Local species extinctions and loss of biodiversity have occurred nationwide in developed regions, especially upstream of large dams.

Overcoming barriers

One way to help fish overcome barriers is to build fishways (or “fish ladders”).

Fishways are designed to aid fish travelling upstream or downstream at high (dams, weirs) or low (road crossings, barrages) barriers. These are classed as “technical”, with hard-engineering designs, or “nature-like”, mimicking natural stream channels.

The raised Hinze Dam on the Nerang River, Queensland, with Australia’s first trap-and-haul fishway.
Author provided

Recognition that dams threaten freshwater fish communities lagged well behind their construction. Nonetheless, European and American observations of declining fisheries for species moving from the sea to breed in rivers prompted early attempts in Australia to provide for fish passage.

The first Australian fishway was built near Sydney in 1913. By 1985, 52 had been built, but they adopted Northern Hemisphere designs for salmon and trout. These were unsuitable for Australian species, which rarely leap at barriers, and their flow velocities, turbulence and other aspects were excessive.

Seeing the failure of these fishways, New South Wales Fisheries sought advice in 1982 from George Eicher, an American expert, who advised on research to create designs for local species.

This led to expanding fishways research and construction in eastern states. The result was markedly improved performance, for example in the Murray-Darling’s Sea to Hume program.

Fishway performance

Our research shows that regrettably few Australian fishways have yet been shown to meet ideal ecological criteria for mitigating the impact of barriers. Furthermore, fishways are in place at relatively few sites.

In NSW, for example, only about 172 in total serve several thousand weirs and 123 dams. They can be expensive to build and operate, so costs retard mitigation at numerous important sites.

Fishways have seldom been built on dams (fewer than 3% of Australia’s 500 high dams have one); they have generally cost tens of millions of dollars; and most operate, with limited effectiveness, for less than 50% of the time. The need for much greater investment in innovation, research and development is pressing.

How to store water and also rehabilitate fish

To reduce the impact of dams on fish we need to look at resolving problems at river-basin scale; improving our management of barriers, environmental flows and water quality; removing barriers; and developing improved fishway designs.

The modern vertical-slot fishway at Torrumbarry, near Echuca, on the Murray River.
Author provided

One way to accelerate improvements nationally would be to pass legislation for routinely re-licensing waterway barriers at regular intervals. This would mean that older barriers are re-evaluated and upgraded or removed where necessary. Under the NSW Weir Removal Program, 14 redundant weirs have already been removed, with others under assessment.

We are developing an innovative pump fishway concept at UNSW Australia. It combines aquaculture fish-pumping methods for safe fish transfer with existing fishway technology.

Young Australian bass during trials of an experimental model of the pump fishway.

We hope the project may help transform past practices through less-costly modular construction, adaptability to a wide range of barriers and improved effectiveness.

Better fishway developments will mean that we can store and supply much-needed water while also restoring fish migrations. This will be increasingly important as climate change reduces streamflows in many regions, and will help rehabilitate fish populations.

The Conversation

John Harris, Adjunct Associate Professor, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW Australia; Bill Peirson, Adjunct, Water Research Laboratory, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UNSW Australia, and Richard Kingsford, Professor, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.