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Managing Water for the Environment During Drought: Lessons from Victoria, Australia

Summary

Over the past 30 years the Australian state of Victoria developed innovative approaches to planning and setting priorities for environmental water, along with new tools to manage it. These sweeping reforms were in part a response to the Millennium Drought, a decade-long record dry spell that severely affected all water use in Victoria. California—currently in its fifth year of drought—has many similarities with Victoria, including significant challenges in managing the health of rivers and wetlands during times of extreme water scarcity. In this report, we examine the reforms enacted by Victoria and compare them to current environmental water management policies in California. This comparison highlights some key lessons learned by Victoria that may help guide how California adapts environmental water management to address future droughts. The environmental policy reforms enacted by Victoria were difficult and at times highly controversial. While it will take years to fully understand whether these reforms had their intended effect, there is no doubt that the state’s new approach to managing environmental water avoided some serious biological losses during the drought. Additionally, it is clear that the state is much better prepared for the next drought.

Four general lessons could be of high value to California:

  • Better planning prior to droughts can improve drought resilience of native species and reduce conflicts.
  • Strong federal-state partnerships—involving both policies and funding—are vital to reducing drought impacts.
  • Granting the environment a water right that can be traded improves flexibility in environmental water management during drought.
  • Integrating the environment as an equal priority to other water uses improves drought preparation and response.

Much more needs to be done to improve the drought resilience of California’s freshwater ecosystems. The efforts of Victoria can offer a useful guide in this effort.

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