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Six Lessons For California From A Drought Halfway Around The World

Photo credit: USGS

Lake Oroville, the State Water Project’s principal water source, sits less than half full on May 25, 2015.

A new study outlines how Melbourne, Australia, cut its water consumption in half during a recent drought. Here's what California could learn.

Drought-stricken California has a lot to learn from Melbourne, Australia, according to UC Irvine civil and environmental engineering professor Stanley Grant.

He's the senior author of a study published Tuesday outlining how Melbourne slashed its water consumption in half during a recent drought that lasted more than a decade.

By 2010, Melbourne residents were down to using just 41 gallons per person per day. Californians currently average 109 gallons daily.

"We can take inspiration in the degree of leadership, the very public debate, and the experimentation," Grant said.

Here are six drought lessons for California, courtesy of Melbourne:

1. Centralize the water system

California's water is distributed through a fragmented patchwork of local water districts. When faced with drought, some prove to be better at conservation than others.

In contrast, Grant said Melbourne benefited from a centralized water system that could craft uniform water restrictions, send clear messages to the public and take the lead on conservation efforts.

"Melbourne's response was a bit more monolithic because the supply — the wholesaler — was operating in a pretty monolithic way," he said.

2. Find new ways to water crops

With rivers low and fresh water in short supply, farmers near Melbourne had to get creative to irrigate their crops during the drought. So they turned to recycled water.

Starting in 2006, Melbourne farmers began watering their fields with more than eight times the amount of water from highly treated sewage they'd used the year before.

"The farmers were faced with water shortage just like urban consumers," Grant said. "And they found innovative ways of responding to that."

3. Capture more rain water

By the end of the drought, one in three Melbourne households had installed a barrel to catch rain flowing off roofs. Residents used rainwater on their gardens and in their flush toilets.

Grant acknowledges that rain barrels wouldn't catch as much water in California. It simply rains more in Melbourne. But he said every drop of rain caught is a drop of potable water saved.

"It became a matter of pride," he said. "In Southern California, we worry about what car we drive. In Melbourne, they were more concerned about how big their water tank was."

People who installed rainwater tanks were eligible for rebates of up to $1,500. Which brings us to lesson No. 4 ...

4. Rebates, rebates, rebates

The state of Victoria, which includes Melbourne, provided residents with rebates for a wide range of water-saving appliances. More efficient shower heads, toilets, washing machines and hot water recirculators were all covered.

Grant said it was crucial to have these rebates offered by a centralized state government, rather than through various city and local agencies, as is often the case in California. Recently, the city of San Diego's rebate program to help residents replace water-wasting lawns ran out of money in just one week.

"Having a statewide policy which is really clear would be great," said Grant.

5. Don't rely on desalination

Melbourne achieved all of its water savings before the giant Victorian Desalination Plant was brought online. The plant was finished only after the drought ended.

Grant said San Diegans shouldn't count on the Carlsbad Desalination Plant to fix all of the region's water woes.

"We have relied on technology to address all of our water needs," he said. "We need to ask ourselves whether we could've done better by simply looking inwardly in our homes, assessing how we could change how we consume water."

6. Charge water hogs more

Throughout Australia's drought, the price of water held steady. But Grant said pricing did play a role in reining in water consumption.

That's because price incentives had been in place from the get-go. Under a tiered pricing system, some of Melbourne's biggest water consumers paid more for their water than those who used less.

This approach has been the subject of controversy in California, though. A court recently ruled San Juan Capistrano's tiered water rates were unconstitutional.

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