In Search Of A Drought Strategy, California Looks Down Under : The Salt Australia suffered through a truly epic drought, and it survived. But some of Australia's solutions — like a free market for water — may be too radical for the Golden State.
NPR logo

In Search Of A Drought Strategy, California Looks Down Under

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/432885101/432910358" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In Search Of A Drought Strategy, California Looks Down Under

In Search Of A Drought Strategy, California Looks Down Under

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/432885101/432910358" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sometimes when you're facing a crisis, it helps to hear how someone else dealt with a similar situation, say, a really severe drought. That's why scientists from California have been getting on planes to Australia. NPR's Dan Charles explains.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: California and Australia have a lot in common. They're both warm, sunny places, relatively prosperous. Australia is drier than California, though, even in normal times. But from 1995 to 2009, it suffered through the so-called Millennium Drought, longer and deeper than anything California has seen. And yet, says David Feldman from the University of California Irvine, Australia came through it...

DAVID FELDMAN: With no discernible decline in the quality of life. I think there's a lesson there.

CHARLES: Feldman and several colleagues have taken several trips to Australia in recent years trying to figure out what that lesson might be. Lots of Californians, in fact have gone on this pilgrimage.

FELDMAN: Australia is seen as a model that has prevailed, has created a kind of a resiliency.

CHARLES: Feldman says the thing that really struck him in Australia was the level of public awareness about water.

FELDMAN: On the billboards, there were actually postings about the level of water remaining in the city's reservoirs.

CHARLES: Australians now treasure their water in a way that most Californians still don't, Feldman says. In Melbourne, the average person has been using just half as much water as the average person in LA, and you won't see nearly as many of those green, grassy lawns. But the biggest use of water, by far, in both Australia and California is for irrigation on farms. Agriculture is a huge industry in both places. And a lot of water experts say the single most important thing that Australia did was to create a new way of managing all that irrigation water. The old system in Australia was a lot like how it still works in California. If you owned a particular piece of land, you had a right to a particular amount of water, either from wells or from rivers.

TOM ROONEY: It was really just seen as something that would come to your property. It was joined to the land.

CHARLES: Tom Rooney is the founder of an Australian water trading company called Waterfind. He says even before the drought hit, Australia had done a giant reset of water rights. The government put a cap on the total amount of water available for farmers, and then farmers got shares of that total amount. A farmer owns a share of the Australian water supply the same way you own shares of a company.

ROONEY: Just like you have a property title or a deed for your property, we have got the same title or deed now for water in Australia.

CHARLES: And farmers can buy and sell those shares. So when the drought hit, water became scarce. The price of each share went up. Farms where water was most valuable because those farms were growing the most valuable crops bought more shares. Other farmers found that selling their water was more profitable than growing the crop. The end result - more efficient use of the country's water and less economic pain. Richard Howitt, an economist at the University of California, Davis, has been pushing for something similar in California.

RICHARD HOWITT: This idea was very heretical a few years ago. And I can remember being disinvited from meetings for saying it.

CHARLES: Now, he says, thanks to the Australian example, it's gaining ground. It is getting more common for farmers to trade water in California, although it's still cumbersome and secretive. And Tom Rooney, whose company helped set up the Australian water market, now is setting up a branch of his water management company in Sacramento. Dan Charles, NPR News.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.