I have no doubt there are many other cities in the world that would love to have some of Melbourne’s problems, but there is one issue which is fairly intractable and raises hackles in polite company.  That issue is, of course, water.  The City has been on Stage 3a water restrictions since April, 2007.  Even though It seems like it has rained every day this winter, the reservoirs are still far from full.  And we are entering the dry season.

Under Stage 3a water restrictions gardens can be watered on specified watering days only in the morning:

  • a hand-held hose fitted with trigger nozzle, a watering can, bucket and manual dripper system can be used to water from 6am to 8am;
  • an automatic dripper system can be used to water from midnight to 2am;
  • even-numbered houses water on Saturday and Tuesday and odd-numbered houses on Sunday and Wednesday; and
  • households with at least one resident aged 70 years or over, may water their gardens manually on specified watering days between 6am to 8am, or 8am to 10am.

These efforts have paid off.  Ordinary citizens have reduced use by 30% since the 90’s in Melbourne.  If the rainwater that fell on the city were captured with tanks or cachements, the problem would go away.  But that would require far more storage tanks than are in use now.  It is a low tech, decentralized solution.  The political honchos in the State Government of Victoria have signed on to two expensive fixes: a north-south pipeline from the Goulburn River that will bring in up to 75 billion liters (one liter is slightly more than a US quart).  and a desalinization plant in Wonthaggi, 150 kms south of here. (150 billion liters).

Both projects seem to be responding to the city’s anticipated growth rather than current requirements.  In an average year Melbourne consumes 500 billion liters of water. Compared to agribusiness users, city dwellers are rather stingy with water, consuming only 11% of daily water in the State.  But even the volume of water used on farms has slumped in recent years due to cutbacks in the supply available for heavily irrigated crops like cotton and rice. Victorian farmers have been turning, increasingly, to groundwater.

The desalinization plant is the most expensive, energy intensive, environmentally problematic solution to the water issue at hand.  It is expected to be online in the Fall of 2011.  Costing 3 billion dollars, fresh water produced by the plant will use 400% more energy than current supplies.  It will require 90 megawatts of power, most of which will have to be produced by coal.  200 billion tons of brine will be returned to the ocean and more than 1.2 million tons of greenhouse gas will be pumped out each year into the atmosphere.

Putting the three billion dollars into water tanks and pumps in Melbourne could provide more water than desalinization without pumping any water anywhere.  Household water bills are expected to double over the next five years to pay for the infrastructure.  Wonthaggi, the plant site, is on a spectacular bit of coastline.

We have reached a point in historical time when problems such as this are going to come up more and more frequently.  Our watery planet can’t afford many more uncaring, unintelligent solutions.  When nature can’t readily accommodate our needs, we must find a way to make fewer demands.  Like it or not, we are the stewards of the blue planet.  I would like to believe we’ll be doing that job for a long, long time.