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When it Comes to Water, the Land Down Under Is Way on Top of the US

Our friends Down Under are light years ahead of the U.S. on some key water issues, and we need to catch up quickly.
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I recently traveled to Australia to address more than 100 water engineers in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, and I returned to the U.S. with a head full of important lessons. Our friends Down Under are light years ahead of the U.S. on some key water issues, and we need to catch up quickly.

Australia is the embodiment of the famous line from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner: "water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink." Growing up in Queens, NY, I was an avid reader of atlases and encyclopedias. I remember studying up on Australia, with visions of vast deserts and parched Outback, a true desert island continent. Even at eight years old, I knew Australians had a water problem.

Chronic water scarcity sure puts things in focus for a country -- the Australian government figures drought costs the nation 1 percent of its GDP each year. Agricultural exports are a significant chunk of the nation's economy, and they require a big portion of the country's water. But urbanites and industry want a share, too.

Decisions made during the early days of turning the Murray and Darling rivers into massive irrigation canals created some significant inequities -- for instance, the farms and towns that are the upstream users of the system's water consume 83 percent of the basin's water. At the very end of the pipe, more than 1 million citizens of Adelaide rely on the Murray-Darling system for 90 percent of their drinking water. The tug-of-war game is ongoing.

So far, that sounds familiar to most Americans. But what the Australians have done -- and we haven't -- is made water conservation a part of everyday life. Better conservation, better pricing and better trading markets show that Australians understand that water is a valuable commodity, not a simple fact of life that can be taken for granted.

In North Sydney Park, signs encourage residents to keep their stormwater clean. It's part of a campaign that shows citizens that everything that can go down the storm drain, from cigarette butts to dog poop to excess fertilizers, impacts water quality and requires expensive cleanup.

To the north, the state of Queensland has embarked on the Target 140 program, an effort to reduce residential water use to 140 liters (37 gallons) per person per day. That sounds like one of those noble efforts that would quietly fail here. But Queenslanders cut their household water use by 43 percent, to 34 gallons per day. They surpassed the goal.

Australians cheered the Bunnings chain of big-box home improvement stores (think Home Depot in the U.S.) when it invested $50,000 or so per store to capture and treat rainwater. Each of those locations now can meet 80 percent of its nursery's water needs in an average year. How are we doing on that here, Home Depot, Lowe's and Wal-Mart?

Water is metered and sub-metered, so users know how much water they're actually using. (That's not the case on our farms and ranches.) Water is expensive, so farmers have adopted technologies and practices that allow them to get as much value as possible from every drop, and they are increasingly shifting to higher value, water-efficient crops. On the flip side, excess water can be auctioned off to other users, creating incentives for conservation. (In the Western U.S., conservation can lead to a loss of the water right -- the biggest disincentive imaginable.)

In the cities, we see the same emphasis on conservation. The government's WaterMark means something to builders and consumers, Western Water in the state of Victoria has vowed to be carbon neutral by 2017, and rainwater harvesting projects are popping up like Stuart's desert peas after a rain in the Outback.

Those are real improvements, and not only are they on the public radar, they've engaged the public. People recognize the challenge, and they are part of the solution.

I don't think Vegemite will ever catch on here. But I sure as heck hope that we get a taste for Australia's approach to water management.