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Stage 3A: Playing Politics with Water

G16th March 2010

C6 Comments

Tenvironment, politics

Has the setting of water restrictions in Melbourne become a political, rather than environmental concern?

I noted with considerable interest today’s announcement from the Victorian Premier John Brumby, that Melbourne’s Stage 3A water restrictions will be reduced to Level 3 as of Good Friday (10 April 2010).

In an election year where voter dissatisfaction with the government is growing, I cannot help but wonder whether this is just another cynical ploy to win votes, rather than consider the future of Melbourne’s water supply.

I care a lot about this issue. As a person with a deep concern for the health of the environment as well as the health of our agricultural sector, water policy is of particular interest. I have written previous blog posts documenting rainfall patterns, El Niño and the drought. Given the importance of water to Australia, the driest inhabited continent, I expect water policy decisions to based on science and data, not politics.

Unfortunately, I have a suspicion that today’s announcement that Stage 3A would be reduced to Stage 3 has a lot more to do with politics than science. Here’s why:

Let’s look at the data. Shown below is a graph illustrating the overall amount of water stored in Melbourne’s reservoirs as a percentage of total reservoir holding capacity at this time of year, for the past decade. The data has been taken from Melbourne Water, who publish weekly statistics in their Weekly Water Report.

Melbourne’s total water storage levels as a percentage of capacity on or around 16 March for the past 10 years. The period where “Stage 3A” restrictions have been in place is marked in red. (Data supplied by Melbourne Water Corporation, based on readings from Cardinia, Greenvale, Maroondah, O’Shannassy, Silvan, Sugarloaf, Tarago, Thomson, Upper Yarra and Yan Yean reservoirs.)

The graph clearly illustrates a drop in Melbourne’s water from 2007, but Melbourne’s water supplies had been dwindling prior to that. As a response (and in accordance with legislation), Stage 1 water restrictions were introduced on 1 September 2006 after that year’s dry winter. As the effects of the drought continued, Stage 2 restrictions were introduced on 1 November 2006, and Stage 3 commenced on 1 January 2007.

Then a curious thing happened.

Just as it appeared Melbourne would head into Stage 4 water restrictions (which would prohibit almost any outdoor water use), the then Premier, Steve Bracks, announced the creation of a new level: Stage 3A. Unlike Stage 4 (which was in place throughout much of the state, and in the city of Geelong), Stage 3A still allowed some watering of plants. But the real change in water policy was not the creation of Stage 3A, but how the restrictions were decided in the first place.

Up until that point, the various government water authorities made a decision about implementing water restrictions as per the Water Industry Act 1994. Whilst each decision about water restrictions had to be approved by the Minister for Water, the actual decision rested with the various water authorities who were at arms-length from government. This is detailed in the Victorian Uniform Drought Water Restriction Guidelines (PDF) which clearly specifies four water restriction levels (ie. Stages 1, 2, 3 and 4).

In 2007, the Premier announced that the government would make the decision about water restrictions in Melbourne in consultation with the water authorities. Suddenly, there was a chance for politics to enter the decision-making process, and suddenly Stage 3A was born.

Look at that graph again. You will notice that water storages were at 33.0% on 15 March 2007, just before “Stage 3A” was announced. Now, three years later, the levels are 34.6% and 3A is to be abandoned for Stage 3.

A paltry 1.6% more water seems to be the difference between Stage 3A and Stage 3. I wonder what threshold was crossed in that small rise? According to Yarra Valley Water’s Drought Response Plan (PDF), no threshold was crossed.

The table below is taken from Schedule 1 (p.8) of Yarra Valley Water’s Drought Response Plan. It shows the “trigger levels” for the four legislated stages of water restriction. You will notice no mention of “Stage 3A” in this document, any other water authority’s Drought Response Plan, in the Victorian Uniform Drought Water Restriction Guidelines or in the Water Industry Act 1994.

What you will note is that the trigger for Stage 3 water restrictions in March is a storage volume of 629 GL (gigalitres). Our current water storage is at 34.6% full, equivalent to 626 GL. Technically, this means we should be on Stage 2 restrictions!

Of course, this can’t really happen. The dams need to re-fill after dry periods, before we can reduce restrictions. We also need to ensure that Victorians learn from the experience of the drought, rather than redeveloping ‘bad habits’.  The Victorian Uniform Drought Water Restriction Guidelines and Water Industry Act 1994 both provide for consideration of these factors.

Those published documents mandate that water authorities must consider how quickly the reservoirs are refilling, patterns of consumer water consumption, recent climate patterns and predictions of future rainfall before reducing restrictions. In addition, the Drought Response Plan for each of Melbourne’s various water authorities actually provides a very sensible scientific evidence-based decision-making process.

Unfortunately this system has been corrupted by a State Government only too keen to use water policy to secure votes.

In its defence, the State Government had cited the commissioning of the (much hated) North-South (Sugarloaf) Pipeline, the ‘success’ of Target 155 and the construction of the Wonthaggi Desalination Plant as reasons to remove Stage 3A restrictions. I don’t wish to make comment on these various policy decisions nor their effectiveness, other than to remind you that there’s been no real change in water storage levels between 2008 and 2010 to justify a change in water restrictions.

The truth is that in Victoria, the setting of water restrictions is a complicated process described variously in Drought Response Plans, the Water Industry Act 1994 and the Victorian Uniform Drought Water Restriction Guidelines. It is my view that the Water Industry Act 1994 should be amended so that: (1) Trigger points are clearly published in law; (2) The decision about the imposition and removal of water restrictions are made independent of government; (3) that government water authorities are given legislative independence from government; (4) environmental considerations and consumption behaviour be considered in the decision-making process and (5) only the Governor of Victoria may revoke decisions.

It is only with these measures that we can have full confidence in the impartiality of water restriction decisions.

As it currently stands with a State election in November, declining government popularity and a government with a recent (alleged) history of corrupting public processes, I have little faith that the removal of State 3A was nothing more than a cynical pre-election ploy.

Water is our most precious resource. We need to start treating it that way at both the consumer and political levels.

   

Comments:

6 responses to “Stage 3A: Playing Politics with Water”

  • Written by Cafrine on 16 March 2010:

    The politics of it all goes over my head, but I will say that as a person from a country town where we struggle with a lack of water (which can not even be remotely compared to the limits of people further north west) we become furious at every report on Melbourne’s use of water. It is foolish to change or reduce restrictions when supplies are still so low. Severe restrictions need to be put into place and kept for many years until the threat ACTUALLY eases. If its a gamble for more votes, it backfired. This is enough for me to vote the other way.

    Don’t get me started on the people on the news who complain when water restrictions increase. (Oh, you’re sad your lawn might die off? Poor thing. Why don’t you think about that when you can’t shower and the water becomes undrinkable. Ugh.)

  • Written by isobel on 17 March 2010:

    A thoughtful and indeed, thought provoking blog,with your usual well researched comments making us think more deeply on the “decision” just approved.

  • Written by Donna on 17 March 2010:

    Interesting entry, Adam.

    A few points:

    It does seem like a strange time to lift water restrictions given all that you have mentioned plus the fact that we’re heading into the colder months when household water usage reduces, especially in the garden.

    Dam levels have also been boosted over the past two years due to flow restrictions placed on the Thomson and Yarra rivers.

    The desalination plant as well as the north-south pipeline are both atrocious projects that may secure our water supply but are environmentally irresponsible.

    The good thing to come from the restrictions is that a lot of people have changed their water usage habits. Let’s hope it continues.

  • Written by Andrew on 17 March 2010:

    No doubt the decision is political but by the end of 2011 there will be a need for us to use enough water for the desalination plant’s owners to make a profit. Meanwhile, treated waste water just flows out to sea.

  • Written by sreychilli on 18 March 2010:

    I can see why we were allowed to revert back to Stage 3 after April 2010. The water levels now are slightly more than that of 2007.

    As you have mentioned in your article, there are other considerations that must be taken into account by water authorities when deciding upon what stage we should be. Perhaps, it’s because we are facing winter and therefore, our water demands are less than if we were to face summer.

    However, personally, I do find it quite foolish to revert back to stage 3 while we are all able to save water. At least until our reservoirs reach the volumes in 2003 to ensure that our water does not run out.

    Overall, an interesting article. You’ve highlighted some interesting and contradicting facts. And I do agree, it is most probably a political ploy.

  • Written by Chris on 25 March 2010:

    This is a seriously flawed piece of analysis. The increased supply capacity from the pipeline and desal plant can not be ignored. And yet this is precisely what you have done.

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