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River deep, policy dry: Western Australia’s perpetual struggle for water

Drought is a key feature of Australian life. AAP

Much to the chagrin of Australian governments, water managers and farmers, the continent’s signature climate variability and unpredictability has meant that water is generally at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Look no further than the southwest of Western Australia to find that it has just experienced its driest year on record, while Queensland has had its wettest.

The responsibility of righting these water wrongs has historically lain at the feet of the nation’s governments and engineers, to whom generations of Australians have looked to secure and control the nation’s water supplies.

In terms of the nation’s water resources, the lessons of past droughts are quickly forgotten after the deluge has hit, as we have seen in the wake of heavy rains and flooding in eastern Australia.

But it is thirst that has shaped the nation. Since colonisation, settler Australians have been preoccupied with finding and securing reliable supplies of fresh water for the towns growing along the coast and later, the inland.

These supplies not only had to be drinkable but also available year-round, that is, impervious to the vagaries of the weather. In a continent of extreme climatic variability, a land characterised by cycles of boom and bust, this challenge was (and remains) especially difficult.

Western Australia: the canary in the climate cage

For the southwest of Western Australia, the challenge of securing permanent water supplies has dogged its people since the colonisation of the Swan River in 1829.

These difficulties continue today with the region earning the dubious title of the national canary in the climate change coal mine for its trend of declining rainfall since the 1970s.

Isolated from the rest of the continent by the desert and held hostage by the sea, the southwest has forced its people to go to great lengths to slake their thirst.

Early accounts of life in the Swan River Colony complain bitterly of the lack of water, the dry summer months, the flies and the sand.

Colonists relied heavily upon shallow wells, water carts and rainwater tanks for their water supplies until Perth was reticulated in the 1890s.

Water engineers dammed Munday Brook and Helena River in the Darling Ranges to conserve winter rains for the long dry summer. The Mundaring Weir supplied water to the eastern goldfields of Kalgoorlie-Boulder and Coolgardie through C. Y. O’Connor’s Golden Pipeline.

By this time, the thirst for water in those parts had already led to the destruction of the surrounding woodlands to feed the hungry condensers, which distilled the saline water for drinking.

Although only the wealthy could afford the benefits of reticulated water supplies at first, by the interwar years, more and more residents of Perth had become accustomed to this luxury.

Piped water supplies transformed their gardens, their laundries and their kitchens. Reticulation fundamentally changed the way they saw water and the ways they understood their relationship to it.

A connection to the water mains dramatically reduced the difficulties of acquiring water for sanitation and household activities. By virtue of the piped networks of the suburbs, water became invisible yet everywhere and consumption inevitably climbed.

With the nation under reconstruction after the Second World War, dam building soared across the country and the southwest was no exception. Some areas WA’s wheatbelt were reticulated from the new dams in the Darling Ranges, while many other farmers were left to persevere with their own groundwater supplies and dams.

The relatively wet post-war years buoyed the State government’s ambitions of clearing a “million acres a year” but left many people in the southwest unprepared for the succession of dry years during the 1970s.

Some farmers facing these dry conditions turned to the technology of cloud seeding to remedy their situation but they were left wanting.

For Perth, water restrictions alone would not suffice against the combination of poor winters and growing demand.

The search for “solutions”

The government considered the possibility of towing icebergs from Antarctica and mooring them off the coast to provide freshwater supplies to the region. It seems the irony of taking water from the driest continent on Earth to the second driest continent was lost on them.

Another idea that emerged at this time was the prospect of piping water from the state’s northwest to Perth and the goldfields.

It was an alluring vision that was revived by the ALP’s Ernie Bridge in the late 1980s and most recently by the state’s current Premier Colin Barnett, who maintains that it is only a matter of time before the drying conditions of the southwest necessitate the construction of a canal from the north. But with cheaper alternatives still available, this project remains on the backburner for now.

With such grandiose schemes put aside and the limited possibilities for further dam construction in the southwest, the government has relied increasingly upon the region’s massive reserves of cheap, fresh, accessible groundwater.

The extent of these ancient reserves was only realised in the 1960s but they have proven to be invaluable assets for the southwest’s public water supplies. These groundwater supplies have supplemented water from the region’s dams, which has, for better or worse, reduced the severity and duration of water restrictions in Perth’s suburbs over the past twenty years.

Yet the government’s desire to tap other groundwater reserves in the region has not been without problems. In the southwest, access to water continues to raise debates about water rights and water use – whose water is it and what is it being used for.

In the case of the region’s Southwest Yarragadee Aquifer, these arguments have centred on water being taken from rural areas (where it should be kept for “productive” purposes) and delivered to the city (where it will be “wasted” on suburban gardens), as well as the ecological implications of this abstraction.

The nation’s first desalination plant to supply water to a major city was also not without controversy. Concerns were raised about the environmental impact of the plant on the coast, its greenhouse gas emissions, and the likely increase in water rates.

But with the Southwest Yarragadee and Colin’s canal mired in controversy, the Gallop Labor Government went ahead with seawater desalination plant at Kwinana. It was completed in 2007 and another should be finished later this year.

Powered partly by wind-power, the desalination plant was heralded as the source of “climate-independent” water supplies for the drying southwest region.

This precedent inspired other drought-affected states like Victoria to invest in desalination technology, in preference to the politically unpalatable option of water recycling. But in the wake of heavy rains, questions have been asked about the wisdom of investing in this technology.

Limited options

As the southwest of Australia faces the possibility of another dry winter, public debate will once again turn to the security of the region’s public water supplies.

The ecological effects of the exploitation of some groundwater bores suggest that these reserves cannot be relied upon indefinitely. Likewise, rising energy costs will inevitably make desalination technology more expensive.

Meanwhile, the Productivity Commission has recently criticised the use of water restrictions to reduce demand and recommended relying on market mechanisms instead. For those that can afford more water under this scenario, where will this come from? Through what means? At who’s expense?

These are questions that have surfaced time and time again since Europeans colonised Australia and remain relevant in the face of an uncertain future of increasing climatic unpredictability and variability.

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