Wrap-up: Australian water delegation to California - December 2014

With California facing one of the most severe droughts on record, in January 2015 the state’s Governor, Jerry Brown, declared a drought state of emergency and directed state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for water shortages.
Rainfall in some of the most populous parts of the state has been all but non-existent; since July 1 2014, San Francisco has experienced about 35 per cent of its normal quota of rainfall, while Los Angeles has received less than 10 per cent of the average over the same period. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada basin – the water bank for much of California – stands at less than half of the average. By all accounts, California is in the grip of a truly historic drought that will cost the state and the country billions of dollars.

In major cities such as LA, unprecedented capital investments are being launched, with US$20 billion of works in the pipeline. There is great uncertainty among California’s water professionals as to whether traditional snow, rainfall and runoff patterns will return, and what are the most efficient and effective reform options to consider.

As the drought worsens in California, a major water conservation program with the slogan ‘Every Drop Counts’ is being ramped up in order to conserve the precious supplies left. Lady Gaga and Conan O’Brien are fronting the campaign and members of the public are pulling their weight – a target of a 30 per cent reduction has been set and punitive sanctions apply for non-compliance. All supply security options are on the radar – dams, desalination, indirect and direct potable re-use, managed aquifer recharge, stormwater – their merits being debated by politicians, professionals and the public.
The irrigation sector in California, worth US$39 billion per
annum in agricultural output to the US economy, is confronting a future of significant reductions in water availability, in addition to serious challenges in addressing over-allocation and return of surface and groundwater systems to sustainable levels of extraction. Water accounting, monitoring and compliance are limited, creating barriers to addressing over-allocation and the development of open water markets – a much-desired outcome in California. 

Governor Brown has taken leadership of the situation and enacted new legislation and funding accordingly.

Proposition 1: The Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014 is a $7.545 billion general obligation bond measure approved by Californian voters in a November 2014 ballot.

The Bond includes:

  • $2.7 billion for water storage;
  • $1.495 billion for watershed protection and restoration projects;
  • $900 million for groundwater sustainability;
  • $810 million for regional water reliability;
  • $725 million for water recycling;
  • $520 million for clean drinking water;
  • $395 million for flood management.

Does all of this ring a bell? 

Remember when the National Water Initiative was signed in 2004, or even when the National Competition Policy was agreed in 1994? The challenges, priorities and funding programs between Australia in 2004 and California in 2015 sound eerily similar. The difference is that Australia is already on the reform journey and achievements to date have been impressive.

Reform in Australia’s water sector has led to an increase in productivity of more than 50 per cent and water use efficiency that is among the best in the industrialised world. Water supplies have been diversified and desalination, recycled water, stormwater, groundwater, rainwater and water conservation programs are all part of the supply/demand mix.

The Australian agricultural sector has benefited from the development of open markets for water trading and the implementation of modern irrigation systems, helping farmers to consistently deliver high-quality produce across the globe at competitive prices. The mining sector is a world leader in the reuse of water, mine water use efficiency and in the securing of water supplies in remote, difficult-to-serve areas.

Australia’s reform journey then, and the services and products that enabled it, constitutes a much sought after export commodity. 

The delegation

In response to an invitation from Governor Brown, AWA coordinated a delegation of Australian water professionals and companies to tour California in December 2014 to discuss lessons and innovative solutions for water reform. The delegation, co-led by AWA President Graham Dooley and the Hon Senator Birmingham, and supported by NSW Trade and Investment and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, departed on 1 December 2014 and included
the following companies: 

  • NICTA (www.nicta.com.au) 
  • Frontier Economics Pty Ltd (www.frontier-economics.com.au )
  • University of Technology Sydney/Institute for Sustainable Futures (www.isf.uts.edu.au) 
  • SaltFree Desalination (www.saltfree.com.au)
  • GHD (www.ghd.com/australia) 
  • Flovac (flovac.com) 
  • Aerofloat (www.aerofloat.com.au) 
  • STAR Water Solutions (www.starwater.com.au) 
  • Hydrosmart (www.hydrosmart.com.au) 
  • AWMA Water Control Solutions (www.awmawatercontrol.com.au)
  • NSW Trade and Investment

The delegates showcased their products and services to the Californian water market at conferences and trade exhibitions, met with government agencies and water experts during technical tours, dinner and breakfast functions and participated in business-to-business matching. Following is a brief rundown of the itinerary.

San Diego (2–6 December 2014)

The tour commenced at the Association of California Water Agencies 2014 Fall Conference & Exhibition in San Diego. Professor Stuart White from ISF opened the conference to a packed venue with his keynote address. Business meetings were held during the day at the AWA booth and at networking dinners and breakfasts.
Delegates were taken on a guided tour of the Olivenhain Dam and Reservoir and the Lake Hodges Hydroelectric Facility by the
San Diego Public Water Supply. The City of San Diego then provided
a tour of its indirect potable re-use scheme and gave valuable insights into business opportunities for Australian companies.

Los Angeles (6–8 December)

The delegation then travelled to LA, where it was joined by the Hon. Senator Birmingham for breakfast and discussions on trade opportunities. The Senator accompanied the tour of the Orange County Indirect Potable Reuse scheme and heard about the treatment barriers and risk management systems in place to treat wastewater to drinking water standards. Business meetings were held with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California
and the City of Los Angeles.

Sacramento (8–10 December)

The final leg of the mission saw the delegates travel to
Sacramento, the location of the ‘G’Day USA – Australia Dialogue
on Drought Solutions’ event. High-level policy discussions were
held between the Australian contingent and Governor Brown’s
office before Australian delegates presented their reform experiences to a full auditorium.

Tours and business meetings were held with the State Water Resources Control Board, the California Department for Water, The California EPA, the California Public Utilities Commission, the City of Sacramento and the Sacramento Suburban Water District. Australian knowledge, technologies and experience were much sought after during the mission, with delegates making a number of promising business leads. 

The contribution Australia can offer California was particularly evident in the areas of:

  • Reforms to legislation, regulation and policy;
  • Implementing an entitlement, allocations and trading scheme, particularly:
    - Balancing between environmental and consumptive use
    - Water entitlements in various classes
    - Allocations based on water availability
    - Trading of entitlements and allocations;
  • Drought response at the macro (state and bulk) level:
    - Bulk water supply improvement and supply diversification
    - Metering of all irrigation water
    - Allocation between agriculture and cities
    - State-wide water conservation measures
    - Stormwater and Water-Sensitive Urban Design
    - Large-scale reclamation in big cities
    - Desalination
  • Drought response at the micro (utility) level:
    - Water efficiency measures and water conservation campaigns
    - Pricing and price regulation
    - Leak reduction
    - Waste management
    - Asset management
    - Fit-for-use “right” water, purple pipes, greywater, etc
    - Urban stormwater, WSC, liveability.

The extremes of climate that Australia has become accustomed to are now being felt in California. Australian knowledge, technologies and experience in providing innovative solutions in a volatile environment are much sought after.