The Big Dry

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Irvine, Ca, May 24th, 2013. Nineteen-ninety-seven marked the beginning of a long national nightmare for a wide swath of southern Australia.

The area, which includes the city of Melbourne, experienced the last significant rainfall it would see for more than a decade. The parched region sweated through higher-than-average temperatures as well – a deadly combination that ushered in nearly 13 years of drained water reservoirs, raging bush fires, devastating crop failures, blinding dust storms and loss of life. 

PIRE: Partnerships for International Research and Education seeks to study Australia's approach to drought and its aftermath in order to apply those lessons to the American Southwest.

The Millennium Drought – Australians called it the Big Dry – ended up being the worst drought in the continent’s recorded history. Between 2009 and 2010, the situation radically reversed course in parts of the drought-inflicted area. The dehydrated landscape was pelted by torrential rain; the ensuing floods left a trail of death and destruction.
Climate scientists suggested a direct link between the region’s weather patterns and ongoing climate change. Even more ominous: they warned there could be more of the same in store.

The government sprang into action. It committed $12.9 billion to fund research, improve irrigation efficiency, develop new infrastructure and fund water-conservation programs.
Australian citizens sprang into action too. They conserved, cutting back water usage by 37 percent from 2003 to 2008. They collected rainwater in cisterns and tanks. They built bioswales to collect storm water runoff and devised bio-filters to clean it. They reused “gray water” from their sinks, washing machines and showers. 

Last fall, the National Science Foundation awarded $4.8 million to a trio of Southern California universities to study the technologies and policies implemented during the drought and its aftermath. The goal: to transform the Australians’ successful approaches into effective solutions for the American Southwest.  

Stanley Grant, a UC Irvine professor of civil and environmental engineering, leads the five-year collaboration, which includes researchers from UCI, UCLA and UC San Diego. They are partnering with scholars at Australia’s University of Melbourne and Monash University. The collaboration is known as PIRE: Partnerships for International Research and Education.

Learning from the past
“Australia faced an enormous challenge and came up with all sorts of innovative approaches to dealing with it,” Grant says. “What can we learn from them that would help us adapt to what, almost certainly, will happen here as well?” 

In addition to adopting wastewater recycling and rainwater-capture technologies, the Aussies responded to their predicament by creating low-energy methods for treating and reusing storm water runoff, building desalinization plants, and developing technologies to reverse the effects of stream degradation to return the hydrology to a more natural state.
The Southern California researchers are focusing on four features of low-energy water management: removing pollutants from storm water runoff; reducing public health risks; identifying social, economic and policy obstacles to new technologies; and measuring the impact after implementation of these approaches on water supplies, water quality and the environment.

“We are leveraging an enormous amount of their research activity,” Grant says. “Their national priority was to deal with this problem, and it may well become our national priority at some point.”
One important research area is bio-filters, also called bio-retention systems. These manufactured structures mimic wetlands, capturing rainwater runoff and filtering it through sand or soil.
Available in different sizes and configurations, they can be deployed on a local level, capturing and treating storm water before it gathers urban pollutants. The bio-filtered water can be re-used for non-potable applications like gardening, flushing toilets and washing cars.

In addition to the bio-filters, researchers are investigating a new approach – using titanium dioxide nanoparticles, which interact with sunlight, to treat storm runoff for reuse. “It might look like a fountain, with water running over the glass, but these nanoparticles are embedded in the glass,” Grant says. “It’s an aesthetic element but it also has a very practical side to it.”

Researchers are also investigating ways to preserve the natural ecosystem. Rainwater once took months to reach a stream, which, when healthy, acts much like a liver, purifying water in a process called hyporheic exchange. But paved roads and increased urbanization can cause runoff from heavy storms to deluge a stream in minutes. The powerful flow and heavy pollutants collected as rainwater surges through urban areas can damage – and even destroy – the streams’ natural filtration systems.

Computer modeling is playing a role in restoring the environment by helping to create urban streams to replace those that no longer function. “You can create an ecosystem where there used to be one,” says Grant. “From an environmental engineering perspective, you can design those systems so they look like natural streams.” 
No one disputes the importance of technology in creative water management. But without buy-in from the public, it can be for naught.

Citizen education and participation
In Melbourne, the Australians instituted public-education campaigns, and included the community in drought-dictated decision-making and policy-implementation processes.
“It’s not so much that they know something we don’t but they have applied [it] in a way we haven’t,” says project researcher David Feldman, UCI chair and professor of planning, policy and design. “We know there are a number of innovations that can conserve water, reuse or reclaim it. What we don’t know much about, however, is how to get the public to accept these technological approaches and how to mitigate any possible impacts from them.”

The Australians have implemented many of the adopted solutions, including rainwater collection systems and bio-filters, locally. “The government works with homeowners and commercial property owners to develop these things on a very small, incremental scale,” Feldman says.

And that “gray water”? The Aussies clean it using low-tech filtration systems and reuse it in their gardens and plumbing systems. “These are technologies we don’t have yet,” says Feldman. “But it’s not a technological problem; it’s a public acceptance problem.”

Can the Australians’ techniques and methods be effective in places like the Santa Ana watershed or other parts of the arid Southwest? It’s essential to “get down to ground level” to answer that question, Feldman says. “We have to see what they’re doing, how they compose regulations and develop urban plans, how they consult and confer with the public.

“Secondly, we have to better understand what impediments they’ve encountered because it’s not all smooth sailing. They’re still struggling with a lot of issues, and learning how to deal with those can help us understand how to use these technologies in the U.S.”

Local progress
He does see some progress here at home. Efforts are underway to reclaim wastewater, implement conservation policies and recharge aquifers. Orange County currently recycles about 40 percent of its wastewater, and San Diego and Los Angeles have plans to ramp up their programs. Las Vegas recycles gray water for non-potable municipal uses.

The importance of understanding community and policy ramifications, however, can’t be overstated. 
Communities with a history of water, waste or energy mismanagement can harbor distrust and will resist new policies, according to Feldman. Agencies have to reach out to them, much like the Australians did. “You’ve got to be able to convince people that these techniques are safe and they’re actually beneficial,” he says.

Americans also need to better understand the true cost of water, which he says, is now “just too cheap.” And they must come to terms with the fact that there are no easy solutions.

“There’s got to be a fundamental change in the way we value water,” he says, “and it’s got to be change from the ground up. It can’t be done by the government imposing a solution.”

Feldman remains cautiously optimistic about our chances.

“Water is a sustainable commodity if we treat it as something that needs to be reused, recycled, conserved and used in a highly prudent way,” he says. “I think the odds are pretty good that we can make some radical changes but I think we’re kind of running out of time.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to do these things – and we’ve got to do it quickly.”