PPIC Logo Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · June 22, 2016

Lessons for California: How Australia Manages Water for the Environment

Environment Is Equal Player, With Tools To Reduce Damage To Ecosystems, Native Species

SAN FRANCISCO, June 22, 2016—Drought management tools developed to sustain the environment during Australia’s recent decade-long drought are broadly applicable in California. They could help the state’s water managers reduce the devastating effects of water scarcity on native species and ecosystems.

These are among the key findings of a report released today by the PPIC Water Policy Center.

Both California and Victoria, Australia are drought-prone states that face similar challenges in managing freshwater-dependent ecosystems and native species during dry times. Both states have experienced intense controversy over allocating water to meet environmental, agricultural, and urban needs.

However, while California’s environment has suffered greatly during the latest drought and many species have been pushed to the brink of extinction, Victoria’s water policies helped it avoid serious biological losses during an even longer drought. Victoria’s actions can be summarized in four lessons for California:

  • Plan for drought, rather than simply react to it. In contrast to Victoria, California lacks plans that specifically address how to prepare for drought, how to manage for species resilience during drought, and how to promote recovery of populations when the drought ends. Victoria’s planning process has helped improve community understanding of environmental water management, which helps reduce tensions.
  • Strengthen state and federal partnerships. Both California and Victoria manage water with their respective federal governments. But the Australian federal response has been substantial and transformative. It included reforming key federal laws to enable better management, and making multibillion-dollar investments to improve water supply systems and purchase irrigation water to improve environmental flows. Although federal-state coordination has improved in the western United States, the federal government—despite its key responsibilities in regulating and providing water resources—has not played a significant role in anticipating or reducing the effects of drought on California’s environment.
  • Recognize a water right for the environment. Australia and Victoria explicitly recognize that the environment is a lawful user of water and entitled to a water right. Although California has some water rights allocated to the environment, volumes are relatively small, and supplies cannot be flexibly managed. Purchasing more water rights for the environment requires reliable funding. But in California the environment is a “fiscal orphan,” with no reliable source of funding beyond periodic infusions of bond funds.
  • Give the environment equal status with urban and agricultural uses. Victoria made the environment a key stakeholder in water management with an equal “seat at the table” for constructing solutions. In California, integrating environmental protection into all phases of water management would better enable the state to achieve its co-equal goals for water supply reliability and ecosystem health. California has some experience with integrating the environment into water management through negotiated agreements, such as the Lower Yuba River Accord, but much more can be done.

“California needs to move away from its long-standing conflicts between water for the environment and water for farms and cities,” said Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center and coauthor of the report. “The Australian model shows that granting the environment a high-priority water right—supported by a robust water market and reliably funded, coordinated management—can help reduce uncertainty for all parties and increase flexibility for environmental drought management.”

One of the biggest differences between the two states is that unlike California, Victoria has the authority for resolving conflict over environmental water. Although policy reforms during the Millennium Drought proved highly controversial, Victoria enacted a suite of changes that have improved environmental water management and addressed key issues of drought preparation, response, and recovery.

“The current drought has given us a glimpse of what future droughts will look like,” said Ellen Hanak, center director. “California—along with the federal government—needs to rethink how we allocate water to the environment when it’s dry. Victoria’s adaptations provide a useful guide.”

The report, Managing Water for the Environment During Drought: Lessons from Victoria, Australia, was supported with funding from The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Water Foundation, an initiative of the Resources Legacy Fund. In addition to Mount, the coauthors are Caitrin Chappelle, associate director of the PPIC Water Policy Center; Jane Doolan, a professorial fellow in natural resources governance at the University of Canberra, Australia; Theodore Grantham, an assistant cooperative extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley; Brian Gray, adjunct fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center and professor emeritus of UC Hastings College of the Law; and Nathaniel Seavy, research director of the Pacific Coast and Central Valley Group at Point Blue Conservation Science.


The PPIC Water Policy Center spurs innovative water management solutions that support a healthy economy, environment, and society—now and for future generations. It connects timely, objective, nonpartisan research to real-world water management debates, with the goal of putting California water policy on a sustainable and construc­tive path. The center was launched in April 2015.


PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.