As California continues to deal with a drought, a study predicts that the state will only get dryer. How will it adapt? Here we dive into the 17 year drought of Australia and lessons learned from these trying times.

The 2000s drought in Australia, also known as the Millennium drought, is said by some to be the worst recorded since settlement. The drought began in 1995 and continued Australia wide until late 2009 with the final areas in drought ceasing to be eligible in early May 2012.With the official end of the drought declared in 2012, the Federal Government had provided $4.5 billion in drought assistance.

By 1995 the drought had spread to many parts of Australia and by 2003 was recognised as the worst on record. Despite slightly above normal summer/autumn rainfall, in 2006, the late-winter to mid-spring rainfalls failed, resulting in the 2006 annual rainfall being 40—60% below normal over most of Australia south of the Tropic of Capricorn. The average rainfall in the state of South Australia was the lowest since 1900 recorded compared to the normal winter/spring averages. Across Victoria and the Murray-Darling Basin the season was the second driest since 1900.

Most Australian mainland capital cities faced a major water crisis with less than 50% of water storages remaining. For example, Melbourne had rain up to 90% below the average for September and October 2006, compounding the problem of extremely low rainfall from the preceding winter months. Melbourne had also experienced high temperatures throughout October causing increased evaporation of water in dams and reservoirs, which resulted in their levels falling by around 0.1% a day. As a result of all these factors Melbourne was put on tight water restrictions and as of July 2009, water levels in its dams were at a mere 27% of capacity.

Agricultural production was severely affected. Australia’s cotton production had dropped, with the smallest area planted in 20 years, a 66% reduction compared to five years earlier which was considered a “normal” year.

Response to the ongoing drought

Australia had previously relied solely on water from dams for agriculture and consumption. The drought changed the way Australia treated its water resources. Because of the long-term effects of the drought now showing, many state governments attempted to “drought-proof” their states with more permanent solutions such as grey-water water-recycling, government rebates for home-owners to install water tanks, and tougher restrictions on industries.

The citizens of Toowoomba voted on, and rejected, a referendum on using recycled sewerage water. As a result no recycled sewage was added to Toowoomba’s drinking supply,Brisbane organised to be supplied via larger dams, a pipeline and possibly also recycling. A desalination project was initiated on the Gold Coast, Queensland.

Can we learn from this hisory and use some of the tactics that Aus did to manage their water during times of hardship?  If the future of water in southern CA looks to be bleak we must look to the past to help solve upcoming problems.