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

Wealth and privilege have long enabled better access to water in Perth. jimmy_ray

What is the future of Australia’s wealthiest state? The Conversation, in conjunction with Griffith REVIEW and Curtin University, is publishing a series of articles exploring the unique issues facing Western Australia.

When he visited Perth in 2012, Arizona water specialist Robert Glennon remarked: “I expected a dry city on the driest continent would be at the cutting edge of water conservation and instead I’m hearing stories about groundwater wells in everyone’s backyard and everyone has a lush lawn.” Had he known the state’s water history, he might not have been so surprised.

What Glennon observed in Perth is the persistence of what historian Jay Arthur describes as “the default country”, a settler Australian ideal of a green, well-watered landscape against which the continent does not measure up.

It was an ideal that inspired generations of “water dreamers”, to use Michael Cathcart’s term, to search for an inland sea in the continent’s dead heart. And when water was found to be wanting, they designed schemes to turn the rivers inland and to make the deserts bloom.

In 1896, Western Australia’s own water dreamer, the engineer C.Y. O’Connor, designed a system to transport water from the Darling Range near Perth via a pipeline to the thirsty mines of the Kalgoorlie Goldfields, nearly 600 kilometres away. Even the engineering schemes of ancient Rome had not been so bold as to pump water such a distance, let alone uphill.

At its opening in 1903, Sir John Forrest, the state’s first premier, referred to Isaiah (43:19) when he suggested that future generations would remember this achievement: “They made a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

O’Connor’s ghost – along with those of other local visionaries such as the sirs John Forrest, James Mitchell, David Brand and Charles Court – continues to haunt Western Australian politics. It has inspired bold schemes to pipe water from the state’s tropical north-west, to attempt cloud seeding in the Wheatbelt, and to moor Antarctic icebergs off the west coast near Fremantle.

Such water projects, bound to ambitions for the state’s economic progress, remind Western Australians of their state’s unique brand of developmentalism.

Successive governments have taken great steps to help Western Australia overcome its Cinderella status in order to attain, as historian Lenore Layman argued in the early 1980s, a “‘greatness’ to match its geographical area”. Water, or a lack thereof, has long been perceived as a significant limit to the state’s progress and prosperity.

According to this logic, drought-proofing is future-proofing Western Australian development.

Since the gold rushes of the 1890s, water infrastructure has been a means of social engineering that prevailed long after the second world war as a way for state governments to promote development and to plant populations in particular places in a vast and seemingly empty landscape.

Reticulated water supplies helped to overcome sandy soils and hot dry summers, and improved public health and hygiene. They transformed Perth into a green oasis of carefully trimmed lawns and manicured flowerbeds.

Near Harvey, the construction of dams, drains and ditches allowed for the development of intensive irrigation for dairy farming and horticulture. In the Wheatbelt, which Public Works Department engineers once described as “hydraulically difficult country”, reticulated water supplies allowed for farming families to embark on the postwar mission to clear “a million acres a year”.

And the expansion of water resources south of Perth was vital to the postwar transformation of Kwinana into the state’s industrial hub. But this “just add water” philosophy has had its problems. As the handmaiden to the development of the Western Australian Wheatbelt and irrigated areas, water has contributed to making the largest area of salinity-affected land in the country.

The scourge of secondary salinity has not only reduced the productivity of millions of hectares of land, but has also threatened the water catchments that supply Perth and the agricultural areas. Although the relationship between land clearing and salinity was observed in the 1920s and earlier, it was not until the 1970s that the state government banned clearing in metropolitan catchments. But this was too little, too late for Wellington Dam, which is now only fit for irrigation purposes.

In the suburbs, water consumption skyrocketed after the second world war, when newfound affluence and household appliances made washing and watering easier than ever. Nowhere was this more evident than in the gardens of Perth.

During these postwar decades, more than half of the city’s water consumption took place in suburban gardens; in the dry summer months this proportion rose to almost three-quarters of water use. Watering Perth’s gardens was, as one wit described, “as necessary a daily routine as regular breathing is to the survival of man”.

Total water restrictions in 1978 came as a rude shock to many households, as it shattered their illusions of endless water supplies. Combined with the introduction of user-pays water rates, these restrictions provoked outraged gardeners to accuse the government of turning Western Australia, the “Wildflower State”, into the “Dead State”, the “State of Dehydration” and the “State of the Desert”.

Another complained, “Is our choice only to be brown lawns, wood chips or paving bricks?” Such was the public backlash to the bans on watering suburban gardens that state governments vowed never again.

In 2005, the Gallop Labor government renewed this commitment and pledged to reduce the likelihood of a total ban on water sprinklers to just one year in two hundred. Compared to other Australian capital cities, this was an extremely conservative approach to water planning. In parts of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, residents were prevented from washing their cars and using scheme water on their gardens.

What made the pledge all the more extraordinary was that Perth, water managers and climate scientists agreed, was experiencing a drying trend that was affecting the entire south west of the continent. They believed this region was the canary in the national climate-change coal mine. And they expected the drying trend to continue.

At the opening of the recently expanded Southern Seawater Desalination plant near Binningup in January 2013, Premier Colin Barnett reportedly declared that despite these climate challenges, Perth was now “basically drought-proof”. Barnett has not always been such a champion of desalination. In opposition, he had campaigned against the Labor government’s plans to invest in desalination technology as the prospect of an impending water crisis in Perth was gaining ground in the lead up to the 2005 state election.

Tim Flannery. Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Just a year earlier, mammologist Tim Flannery had predicted that Perth would become a “ghost metropolis” because of the impact of anthropogenic climate change on the city’s water supplies. Where water is in short supply, water security tends to equal electoral security.

Tapping into popular support for harnessing the rivers of the country’s north, Colin Barnett, then leader of the opposition, declared that a Coalition government would build a canal to bring the vast water resources of the Kimberley to Perth. But “Colin’s canal”, as the plan became known, cost him the 2005 election.

Since taking government in 2008, Barnett has changed his tune. Seawater desalination technology and wastewater recycling are now at the centre of the Western Australian Water Corporation’s 10-year strategy to ensure what it hopes to be “water forever, whatever the weather” for its 1.9 million customers in Perth, Mandurah and the eastern Goldfields – more than three-quarters of the state’s population.

In the past decade, Western Australia has set the pace for desalination with its first plant providing water to Perth in 2006. Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast followed suit, perhaps prematurely. Water managers from the US have been similarly impressed with Western Australia’s desalination investments, with experts from California visiting the state in search of solutions to their own water woes.

Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast all opened desalination plants following the West Australian example. Thiess/AAP

The sea and the sand, once sources of the Western Australian sense of extreme isolation, are now its salvation. Over the past two decades, innovations in reverse osmosis seawater desalination technology have made the Indian Ocean a viable source of water supplies for households and businesses. Two desalination plants south of Perth now provide nearly half of the city’s water supplies and, as the Premier has noted, should demand rise “you can always build more”.

But there are the environmental costs of “drought-proofing” to consider. The marine environments of Perth’s desalination plants are sensitive to the hypersaline discharge that is produced in the purification process. These plants not only have the potential to pollute the marine environment, but also the atmosphere due to their carbon emissions.

When desalination technology was first mooted as a solution to Perth’s water crisis, critics were quick to point out the irony of the situation: a desalination plant would emit atmospheric gases – the very gases causing anthropogenic climate change, which was contributing to the region’s drying trend. Mindful of this carbon footprint, the Water Corporation has offset the energy requirements of its desalination plants with wind and solar technology.

Meanwhile, extensive groundwater reserves lie beneath the sandy soils of Perth’s Swan Coastal Plain, which have sustained the suburbs since the 1970s. Increasing demand and a drying climate have taken their toll on these fragile ecosystems; but a recently implemented strategy offers the possibility of improving the health of these groundwater reserves, while increasing the water supplies available to the Water Corporation’s customers.

Under this scheme, treated wastewater is added to these aquifers where it blends with the groundwater and is extracted later for water supplies. Recycling water in this way, the Water Corporation hopes, will ensure the people of Perth have “water forever”.

The nature of this plan has been surprisingly uncontroversial – Perth has certainly been no “Poo-woomba”. In 2006, residents of the Queensland town of Toowoomba voted against plans to add recycled wastewater to local water supplies, despite the prospect of severe water restrictions. Mindful of the potential for this outcome, the Western Australian government has not sought the people’s permission, but instead surveyed Water Corporation customers and found three-quarters in support of the scheme.

Significantly, the recycling of wastewater in Perth is an altogether different prospect than that which faced the residents of Toowoomba, where recycled wastewater was to be added to dams. Perth faces a more palatable alternative: following methods long practised in California’s Orange County, recycled water is now replenishing groundwater reserves under the suburbs, which, as the state’s Water Minister promised in 2013, will “underpin Perth’s water security”.

The recycling of wastewater has also helped Kwinana’s industrial sector to reduce both its dependence on public water supplies and its impact on nearby Cockburn Sound. The region’s industries depended heavily on local groundwater resources, but by the late 1990s it was clear that further supplies would be necessary for industrial expansion.

Meanwhile, three decades of industrial development, eutrophication and sand mining had taken their toll on this marine environment.

In the 1980s, industrial discharge was cut to 40% in an effort to curb this problem, but the damage was already done: nearly 80 per cent of the region’s seagrass meadows had been destroyed. This combination of economic and ecological pressures encouraged industry to turn to recycled wastewater in 2004, which has since halved the sector’s reliance on scheme water and lowered the amount of discharge flushed into the Sound.

But “water forever” comes at a price. Desalination is an energy intensive source of water supply, and rising electricity costs suggest that water prices will soar. According to figures published by the Western Australian Council of Social Service on the eve of the 2013 state election, the average Perth household’s water bill has tripled since 2005–06, even though water consumption per capita has dropped substantially over the past decade. More expensive water is only adding to the cost of living in Perth, which is already an expensive place to live.

Wealth and privilege have long enabled better access to water in Perth. Outward signs of this status, such as the cultivation of gardens, became increasingly significant in the late 19th century when the introduction of reticulated water supplies widened the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

Perth’s long, dry summers made gardening during those months especially difficult without easy access to water, and only those with private supplies or with enough money to pay for reticulated water could cultivate summer gardens in the sandy soils. A year-round garden was a sign of prosperity, for the garden, like the house, had become an important symbol of middle-class status.

It was a way of thinking that still associated a green garden or a leafy suburb with affluence and prestige, which may well account for the boom in backyard bores during the bans on garden watering in the late 1970s. Even though lawn has lost its appeal in some quarters, the association of a dry, unkempt garden with an uncivilised household remains particularly powerful in Perth.

Cleanliness is another late 19th-century symbol of affluence that, without a reliable water supply, is very burdensome to maintain. Once piped water became available in Perth in the 1890s, many affluent residents invested in bathrooms, which allowed them to bathe more frequently than they had previously.

By this time, cleanliness had assumed a civic importance in Australia, Britain and the United States, whereby its absence amounted to moral decay and social decline. These concerns prevailed well into the 20th century, where they became a mechanism for discrimination and exclusion, particularly against the state’s Aboriginal population.

Forced off country as the suburbs and agricultural areas grew, many of the region’s Aboriginal families were expelled from towns in the South West after the first world war and thrust onto local reserves or into native settlements.

Among the reasons for their expulsion was the view that they were carriers of disease and needed to be kept separate from the otherwise healthy (white) population. They were forced onto small reserves often situated near town rubbish dumps and sanitary depots, where there were inadequate water supplies and sanitation facilities.

In the Wheatbelt, future Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck observed, “Clothing is seldom washed – how can it be when there are no facilities for doing so or even vessels in which to carry sufficient water into the dwelling? The human body goes unwashed because there are no baths and often little water…”

Although Hasluck was sympathetic to their plight, more often than not white Western Australians blamed Aboriginal people themselves for their state of health and living conditions.

Excluded from schools and hospitals due to their apparent disregard for hygiene and cleanliness, they were denied the very institutions that could have helped to improve their living standards and employment prospects. Their lack of access to clean water not only restricted access of the South West’s Aboriginal families to education and healthcare, but also initiated a cascade of discriminatory effects that continued to be realised even after the policy of assimilation was introduced in the 1950s, promising equal citizenship and access to government services.

These suburban standards of civility reinforced the perceived need to ensure the provision of water supplies to the state’s agricultural areas, especially after the Second World War. But although the reticulation of the Wheatbelt now supplies an impressive proportion of people living south of Geraldton, the sheer distances in the west mean that some must go without.

Recent conditions in the state’s eastern Wheatbelt have made this painfully clear. A five-year run of bad seasons has hit many farmers particularly hard as mounting debts take their toll on families and rural communities.

What their experiences show is just how much rural policy has changed in Australia.

As that agrarian vision has faded, and economic policy and the climate have dried, farmers have become expected to “drought-proof” themselves and to ensure their own “climate independence” with very little assistance from state and federal governments. Once “heroic victims of fickle nature”, as historian Judith Brett has observed, drought-afflicted farmers have become “merely bad risk managers”.

It seems as though an act of collective amnesia has allowed these governments to forget the efforts of their predecessors to encourage agricultural settlement in climatically marginal areas that are vulnerable to water scarcity.

Growers closer to Perth, however, appear to fare quite differently. Those in the northern suburbs of Wanneroo and Gingin rely on the Gnangara Mound for the water they need to irrigate their fruits, vegetables, nurseries and turf farms. Despite the importance of this aquifer for public water supplies, the metering of the thirstiest groundwater users did not commence until 2007 and the Department of Water has since been extremely reluctant to police the extraction of water in the area.

This approach seems to conflict not only with efforts to revive Perth’s aquifers with recycled wastewater, but also with the Water Corporation’s more hard-nosed approach to household violations of water restrictions. The contrast between the regulation of residential and horticultural consumers highlights a long history of political sensitivity surrounding productive and unproductive water use, as well as the ongoing inadequacy of groundwater protection in the South West.

In light of this water history, it is less surprising that the state government would celebrate the triumph of “drought-proofing” the capital. South-west of Geraldton, Western Australians have developed a dependency on water that desperately demands more. They have a thirst that a government can ill-afford not to slake. But the region’s drying climate remains a challenge. Since the mid-1970s, rainfall in the South West has declined by about 15%, which can be partly attributed, climate scientists believe, to anthropogenic climate change.

But Western Australia is not alone. Despite the isolation of desert and distance, of sea and sand, Western Australians are not somehow separate from the rest of the planet, as the state’s mining sector makes abundantly clear. Export wealth and job growth are the spoils, to paraphrase historian Geoffrey Bolton, of spoiling: Western Australian carbon emissions per capita are now the highest in Australia and among the highest in the developed world. And, in the drier conditions affecting the South West, this spoiling is plain to see.

In 2002, Nobel Laureate chemist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer proposed that the enormous expansion of the use of fossil fuels since the 18th century has transformed humankind into a geophysical force causing planetary change. This “hot breath of civilisation”, to borrow from author Ian McEwan, has therefore given life to a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene.

When seen in such planetary terms, “drought-proofing” Perth seems like a drop in the ocean.



This essay was originally published in Griffith REVIEW 47: Looking West.