Guyra dam levels
Guyra dam. image: Armidale Regional Council

Like many regional cities and towns, many homes in Armidale have beautiful gardens. This time of year is usually a joy for gardeners, as bulbs and fruit trees blossom after the freezing winter months. But there will be little joy for green-fingered folk in New England, this season, with the city currently on level four water restrictions that ban all watering, even with a bucket unless it’s with grey water from laundry or showers.

Armidale hasn’t received its usual winter rain, and the city’s water reservoir has also been servicing the nearby township of Guyra, where water supplies are critically low.

Armidale is not alone and there’s no relief on the horizon. The Bureau of Meteorology’s (BOM) drought update for August is a frightening reminder that large parts of NSW and other states will suffer serious water shortages for months to come.

The BOM says long-term rainfall deficiencies have affected water resources across the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB), which includes large parts of Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

July rainfall this year was below average for most parts of the southern mainland.

“The 31 months from January 2017 to July 2019 have been the driest on record averaged over the Murray-Darling Basin (32 per cent below the 1961-1990 average), as well as over the northern Murray-Darling Basin (38 per cent below average) and for the state of New South Wales (33 per cent below average),” it says.

“All three regions rank second-driest on record, for the 25 months from July 2017 to July 2019, and the 19 months from January 2018 to July 2019; only the 1900-02 peak of the Federation drought has been drier.”

It’s not just the MDB experiencing record-breaking dry conditions. The Macquarie-Bogan, Namoi, Gwydir and Castlereagh catchments have also recorded extremely low rainfall. The Hunter and Illawarra are also drying out.

Gippsland in eastern Victoria and the east coast of Tasmania are also under stress.

There’s very little capacity for riding out the dry. The BOM says water storages in the northern part of the basin had fallen to an average of 6.7 per cent of capacity at the end of June.

Low rainfall and shrinking water stores have implications not just for crops, communities, stock and the wider landscape alive, but also for the approaching bushfire season.

Warnings were issued this week that this bushfire season has started earlier and is expected to finish later, a sobering thought in light of our water shortages.

Political blame game continues

Meanwhile, the political blame game around water sharing arrangements in the Murray-Darling Basin continues. This week, The Guardian reported that the NSW Natural Resources Commission was unhappy with the state’s water minister’s criticism of it’s findings that water management arrangements in the Barwon-Darling brought on drought conditions in the Lower Darling three years early.

The Lower Darling made headlines last summer when a dire lack of flow in the river led to massive fish kills.

Debate continues about whether large irrigators, including cotton farmers, caused the drought to arrive sooner than it otherwise would have because they had pumped massive amounts of water out of the river into private water storages.

There is no consensus about whether this practice should be curtailed or managed better. And there’s been all manner of revelations around mates and relatives somehow getting a bigger share of the water, which makes it look like there’s a bit of “it’s not what you grow, it’s who you know” going on in terms of water-sharing arrangements.

Every drop is precious

In our cities, which also rely predominantly on regional and rural catchments to keep the taps flowing, water-efficiency is relatively ignored by the media compared with energy-efficiency.

The business case for water efficiency is well established; not only does it save on consumer-end costs when the water bill rolls in, it also saves on costs for water authorities.

There is also a clear cost equation between quantities of water treated and supplied, and energy use. Water has a carbon footprint, and the energy taken to purify it, pump it to consumers and then take the used water away all has an emissions impact. In a high-rise building there is also an emissions footprint for supplying water to top floors, and a corresponding element of energy bills.

These considerations were explored, along with the financial and regulatory aspects of increasing energy-and water efficiency retrofits, in a research report prepared by experts from Swinburne, Griffith and Curtin universities and the Queensland Department of Housing and Public Works.

Published late last year, their paper, examines the benefits and barriers facing water-efficiency upgrades, including the emissions and energy footprint reductions associated with urban water saving.

Which tools can help?

The National Construction Code (NCC) has requirements around water efficiency that are centred on the rating of individual water-delivery parts, such as tapware, shower heads and toilet cistern flush mechanisms. However, there is no overarching requirement in terms of whole-building or whole-home water use.

The home rating systems used around the country to meet NCC and state building code requirements in terms of home performance, with the exception of the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS), don’t include water. Victorian sustainability rating service First Rate does include rainwater tanks plumbed to toilets as part of the star rating, but NSW’s BASIX and other systems don’t.

The Liveability toolkit managed by CSIRO categorises water as one of the “17 things” that contribute to a sustainable home, but it’s not a rating system that can be used for NCC compliance purposes.

So, obviously, there’s an opportunity for water to be elevated in the toolkit used to confirm a home is sustainable and compliant in terms of the NCC.

In the commercial property space, the NABERS rating tool specific to water has been gaining traction. There are currently 907 published NABERS water ratings.

Sydney is the star performer, with 413 ratings. Melbourne has 166, Perth has 153, Brisbane has 140, Adelaide 23, and Darwin has five ratings. There is also a 5.5-Star rating for the Greenwell Building in Alice Springs, and a 4-Star rating for South Hedland Square shopping centre in South Hedland in Western Australia.

Has your office got a NABERS water rating? If not, put it on the action list and do your bit for conserving our nation’s dwindling water supplies!

How wise are you to water investment?

There’s a rising tide of investor interest in water. To mark World Water Week, US sustainability non-profit organisation Ceres has released a quiz to test how much investors know about being water wise. It is part of a suite of helpful tools and resources in the Investor Water Toolkit, which you can check out here.

From little things…

One final positive note: a young Australian student Macinley Butson – who was the 2018 NSW Young Australian of the Year – has this year been recognised internationally for devising a clever fix for one of the big issues around water quality.

Butson is the first Australian innovator to win the Stockholm Junior Water Prize. She invented the SODIS Sticker, an ultraviolet radiation sticker that can accurately measure the solar UV exposure required to sanitise drinking water.

One in three people around the world rely on a contaminated water source. Her cost-effective, solar-powered invention could have a significant impact in poorer communities.

“I have grown up in a country where I have access to a safe water source,” says Butson. “However, the water crisis which exists worldwide is constantly on my mind.”

“This inequality always drives me to try to help those less fortunate, providing access to this basic human right through science and engineering.”

The prize jury noted the project addressed public health through renewable energy and water.

“The project embodies simplicity and affordability leaving no one behind. Water for society: including all! This invention is practical, ready and globally deployable. The project demonstrates experience and expertise by a dedicated and creative young scientist.”

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  1. Discussion and research is necessary but that is the problem, it never gets as far as ACTION. We need simple solutions for complex problems. First and foremost let’s stop using drinking water for toilet flushing. this is just stupid, are we not clever enough to stop this practise? I am not an engineer but even I know how to bucket water from the washing machine to the toilet.
    Not ideal in a modern world but the critical nature of water shortage may require old practices until we catch up.

  2. The Murray Darling Basin is in its worst mess. The lessons learned from the Millennium Drought amount to nothing. And will remain so, so long as we allow the appointed authority to manage things properly. They continue to practice their green triple bottom line even though hard fought changes to the draft plan were exercised. We cannot continue to sustain the basin and waste freshwater in the Lower Lakes at the same time. There is a Solution for returning the basin to reasonable productivity at a low cost with a 2700GL/yr plus water bonus for growers. Check out the SA Royal Commission submissions and look for A Better Way for the MDB as an example of common sense when our basin is at its worst with water.

  3. No. 1 – issue all households with water saving capacities, the obvious being water tanks and a method to use grey water for toilet flushing.
    No. 2 – Cotton production must go. There are other means to utilise the land and make a living.

  4. Where is the discussion about the historical land use strategy that caused the drought.

    There have been many low rainfall eras in the past, without riverine ecosystem collapse.

    Clearing complex multilayered green polycultures is well known to reduce rainfall and soil and groundwater recharge. Flood mitigation,drainage, building construction and paving reduces recharge.

    Why is there so little capacity within public administration to pursue rational long term strategy for ecological productivity.

    No land owner should be allowed to reduce the total biological productivity of the site.
    Do humans deserve to be part of the sixth extinction?