Time to relax water restrictions

Thanks to the rain that is still falling heavily, the water stored in Brisbane’s dams has now reached 60 per cent of their capacity. That was to have been the trigger for a relaxation of the (very stringent) water restrictions now in place, but the Water Commission has now decided* that regardless of how much water there is, the restrictions will remain until December.

This strikes me as a very foolish decision. The restrictions are socially very costly, and the risks associated with their removal very small. The construction of the water grid and the existence of a recycling plant (to be used if supplies fall below 40 per cent), combined with a sustained reduction in use, mean that the risk of a sharp decline in availability is small, and the restrictions could always be reimposed if necessary.

On the other hand, there is a significant risk that the water we are saving will end up being released to flow out to sea. The only dam in the system with any significant capacity remaining is Wivenhoe, which was built for flood control. Once it reaches 70 per cent capacity or thereabouts (that would correspond to about 80 per cent for the system as a whole) the operators will have to open the gates. More rain like we are seeing now, combined with an early and heavy wet season, would see this level reached by December or even earlier.

I’m not sure if this decision is related to the restructuring of the water industry, which has been modelled on the approach used for electricity. The electricity reforms have scarcely been an unqualified success and water is a very different commodity, so I’m dubious about the merits of this idea, which looks like a stalking horse for privatisation. Or maybe (though again I can’t see the rationale) the restrictions are being maintained to ensure that the Traveston Dam project isn’t derailed. The only other explanation for the decision is hair-shirt bloody-mindedness, which is plausible enough I suppose. I can’t really connect these dots.

*Elizabeth Nosworthy, identified with the promised relaxation, has been given the boot as Water Commisssioner.

34 thoughts on “Time to relax water restrictions

  1. “Wivenhoe, which was built for flood control.”

    I remember hearing that this was the public rationale for the construction of Wivenhoe, but I’ve also been told that when Brisbane floods, it’s mostly from the Bremer River which is downstream of the dam. Eyeballing the graphs at http://www.bom.gov.au/hydro/flood/qld/fld_history/brisbane_history.shtml I don’t see any Brisbane flooding that’s not associated with flooding in Ipswich.


  2. Darryl

    While the Brisbane River only floods if the Bremner River floods this does not necessarily mean that the floodwater is mostly from from the Bremner River. To state the bleeding obvious, the common factor causing both to flood is heavy rainfall with water from both causing problems in Brisbane.

    Also since the upgrade to Wivenhoe Dam after the 1974 floods, there have been moderate to heavy floods in the Bremner River but only associated with minor flooding in the Brisbane River.

  3. If releasing ‘unproductive’ water is the only option,I guess there is little rationale for maintaining the current level of restrictions,which as you say,could always be reimposed if necessary.
    However, shouldn’t projected climate change, and the recent past convince us this level of rainfall may not be sustained?
    I’m one of 100,000 or so people just up the hill in and around Toowoomba, and though a linking pipeline is under construction, even with this rain, our dams will still reach only approx. 15% capacity. The situation in the Lockyer Valley is also likely to be little changed.
    The welcome and excessive rain in some areas should not obscure the fact that the Premier’s talk of the drought being broken in all S.E. Qld. is premature.

  4. John Mashey,

    Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but the generation of power was privatised some time ago. In Queensland the retail business was sold off by the government in 2007 (I worked on a tiny bit of the software for the Full Retail Contestability project).

    At the time the then premier (Peter Beattie) promised that privatisation would reduce the cost of electricity (or at least the cost wouldn’t increase). It has now been acknowledged by his party that this is in fact not the case and the cost of electricity will continue to rise in the coming decade. But given where most of our electricity comes from it’s probably not a bad thing.

    The maintenance of the transmission and distribution networks is however still performed by corporatised government entities.

  5. I’d lay odds its “hair shirt bloody mindedness”. Once bureaucrats have found a set of regulations to push people around with and to justify their own existence they are always reluctant to remove them.

  6. JQ
    “On the other hand, there is a significant risk that the water we are saving will end up being released to flow out to sea.”

    Oh government being too slow… or as you suggest pumping up supplies (dams) to attract potential investors to pay a higher price based on full dams?
    Cant connect dots either …but my bet is with a privatisation carrot.

    Another stupid decision in the pipeline…

    The latter

  7. Terje you’re probably right, but this just highlights the fraud that privatised services are more “efficient”. Like many other services though, it’s not really privatised when the tax payer subsidises the system.

  8. Actually Terje, it’s an interesting claim similar to one that Michael Moore used in his movie Sicko. While I haven’t seen the whole movie, I recently saw a clip in which Moore talks to a doctor in the UK NHS where he points out how well off the doctor is. The GP makes the point that he’s not extremely wealth, but he drives a Audi and can afford to live in a fairly large house.

  9. Mark U,

    My recollection, which may be faulty and for which I can produce no support, was that in 1974 85% of the floodwater in Brisbane came out of the Bremer river. One of my first year physics lecturers at UQ made a throw-away comment along the lines of ‘don’t you believe any of that rubbish about Wivenhoe protecting Brisbane from a flood’ and since then I’ve been idly curious about the effectiveness of Wivenhoe for flood mitigation.

    Looking at the graphs again it does seem like Brisbane was either very dry in the 20th century, or very wet in the late 19th century compared to Ipswich.


  10. 9# Terje says

    “Does that mean that if we privatise education teachers get better paid?”

    Yes and the students get charged more and many more cant afford an education. I guess you cant understand Terje that Id actually rather be paid less..

  11. As an old country boy dependent upon private water storage, I say the time to relax water restrictions is when the dams are all overflowing, because that’s the only time you can be sure you’re not wasting the precious stuff. There is every sign that a new el nino weather pattern will reestablish later this year, plunging us all back into drought.

    “More rain like we are seeing now, combined with an early and heavy wet season, would see this level reached by December or even earlier.” Well, yes, but that’s another way of saying ‘if we get lots of rain, we won’t have to worry about water.’ The only water we’re sure about is the stuff that’s already in the dams.

    The behavioural response of Brisbane residents in response to disastrously low water levels is something surely we’d want to maintain in the long run. Easing water restrictions will encourage people to plant inappropriate water-hungry gardens, install in-ground lawn watering systems and go back to all the wasteful habits that they’ve only just been weaned off. Not to speak of all the immigrant population that continues to settle SEQ at the rate of 1000 a week.

    I’m also a bit confused about the ‘socially very costly’ comment, Prof Q. What evidence do you have to support that conclusion? IMHO, the reverse is the case. Water restrictions have rather tended to engage Brisbane residents more with their social environment, just as natural disasters and wars do – albeit on a smaller scale.

  12. The socially costly level of water restrictions is surely where people can’t participate in and and enjoy their gardens.

    I might agree that having to bucket water could discourage people from gardening, but I’m in favour of low level ongoing water restrictions. ie, water only every second day.

    The way Brisbanites used to water during the 80s and 90s was pretty excessive, and if you’re not going to charge them the full price, on-going low level water restrictions could help people use water appropriately.

  13. There is already water going over the spillway of the Hinze Dam so I guess that is valuable water going to waste. But, I think the problem SE QLD faces is that there are now too many people for the available water storages to allow water use to return pre restriction rate. I found this following Courier Mail article that I beleve describes the situation:

    Click to access features-02_3.pdf

    This article discusses a report published by Professor Quiggin’s colleague Professor Trevor Grigg in 1978 that forecasts the Wivenhoe Dam would meet SE QLD’s needs until about 1995 at the 1970 population growth rates. (I won’t claim to have read the report but the The National Library reference for the report is as follows if anyone is interested.)


    As there are no more significant storage catchments available in SE Queensland and population growth rates have actually increased since the 1970s, my guess is that we will need to get used to restrictions on the use of water in Brisbane. I suspect that is why the political powers are reluctant to relax the restrictions.

    The other point the article is that up until the Somerset Dam came on stream in the 1950s, Brisbane was always a dustbowl. (Hard to believe at the moment give the couple of hundred of millimetres of rain that dump on us!) Perhaps the city’s environment is just returning to the norm and we will just look back on the second half of the 20th century as the Brisbane’s green years.

    Given that this is a economic blog, I guess it is over to the economists as what is the best way to ration the available water. Water restrictions verse higher water prices and/or a water futures trading system? And whose water is it?

  14. Well considering that the Water Comission is in the process of being wound up/restructured following the election, I can’t see any reason for rent seeking. I think it may have more to do with a risk management approach…

  15. Ben #18. I think you are very close to the money. But given that:

    1) The water bureaucrats know that the SE Qld storages cannot sustain the unrestricted use of water in the long term.
    2) There is no incentive for them to be less risk adverse and to lift restriction in the short term despite the economic & social benefits in doing so given their is a high probability that water will be going over the spillways in six months time.

    How does one get a Qld Water bureaucrat to realistically access the risks and cost of their continuing restrictions in the short term? (Perhaps put a KPI in their bonus package that penalises them for water that goes over the spillway? (Somehow I think that doesn’t make a lot of sense given the random nature of weather.)

  16. “their [sic] is a high probability that water will be going over the spillways in six months time”

    What evidence do you have for this? We are entering the driest time of the year. An el nino event is threatening. The high probability is that your statement is baseless, and that on the contrary in six months’ time we’ll be facing another prolonged drought, albeit this time with a bit more water storage and infrastructure to back us up.

    “How does one get a Qld Water bureaucrat to realistically access [sic] the risks and cost of their continuing restrictions in the short term?”

    You don’t. You get them to assess the risks and cost in the long term. That’s what we pay them for. Otherwise it’s water regulation by tabloid radio.

  17. JQ says: “The only other explanation for the decision is hair-shirt bloody-mindedness, which is plausible enough I suppose. I can’t really connect these dots.”

    Who knows, the internal workings of government can be beyond rational analysis.

    That said, here’s two may be plausible but certainly un-testable theories:

    a) political stasis: it requires a fair amount of political capital to impose behaviour restrictions on the population. So politicians will be reluctant to remove restrictions just in case an expectation is established that “things have got better” in an environment where predicting the future of water supplies is fraught with high levels of uncertainty. Even if it is easy to impose restrictions and then remove them, the perception may be that the political cost of an on-again off-again system is too high. After all politicians seem to have their DNA wired so that the worse criticism you could make is that they flip-flop on decisions.
    b) misguided belief that water restrictions are effective green politics: that is, water restrictions are regarded by the politicians who support them as a way of showing to the electorate that the politicians are aligned with the current mood of conservation and environmentalism. Given the rise and rise of green politics (see for example the recent result in Fremantle WA) this may be a reasonable position. In this scenario removing restrictions is seen as tantamount to the politicians returning to the bad old days where concern for the environment is not as important as allowing people to do what they like.

  18. North Pine is full and Somerset was at 106 per cent this morning
    http://oldsite.seqwater.com.au/content/standard.asp?name=DamOperationsandMaintenance. Hinze is full and its catchment is sodden, to the point where it can be counted on for a spare 50ML/day for many weeks to come, even with water going over the spillway.

    Wivenhoe is the only big dam in the system left with any spare capacity (this AM at 55 per cent, but will presumably pass 60 per cent by tomorrow).

    The last four weeks (IIRC) of zero rain reduced average levels by about 1 per cent, which is indicative of the balance between current usage levels and runoff from the catchment.

    Even with a return to dry conditions over the next six months, I’d guess that a normal wet season will push Wivenhoe over 70 per cent. Rather than waiting for this happen and for precious water to go to waste we should relax restrictions a bit now.

  19. I don’t want to get into an argument with you, Prof Q, since I generally agree with you on most things. However I’m curious about your line here.

    For a start, water use behaviour is surely a long-term thing. If you plant a yard full of citrus trees based on a liberal water regime, you’ll want to keep them alive and bearing when the water regime tightens up. Citrus uses a lot of water. Similarly, water thrift requires investment in all sorts of devices and infrastructure even at a domestic level.

    The sort of behaviour pattern needed for the projected drought-prone future bequeathed to us by climate change requires a paradigmatic shift, which – amazingly – SEQ achieved over the last few years. As any farmer knows, you use the most irrigation water in dry conditions – no-one will be watering their lawn this weekend, but after a week of dry westerlies they will. Relaxing water restrictions sends all the wrong signals about this sort of behaviour and will encourage investment in water-hungry plants and lifestyles.

    I’m not myself much concerned, since I’m not connected to town water and have always had to live with effective restrictions, but I do know my sibling and parents have made decisions about removal of fish ponds and substitution of hydrangeas, camelias and the like for native plants based upon a long-term assessment of the likelihood of water restrictions continuing.

    Second, and not trying to be narky, but I still have seen no evidence for the ‘socially very costly’ remark. What costs? Or at least, what costs that shouldn’t have been, or shouldn’t be borne? I’m ready to be convinced.

    Last, what do you mean by a ‘normal’ wet season? Brisbane, not being in the monsoon belt, doesn’t get them. We either get a drier than normal one, or a wetter one. I’m betting on a drier one, and I for one am hoping our water bureaucrats are doing the same, rather than betting our resources on the la nina continuing for another year.

    As I say, if the dams are actually overflowing, go for broke. But they’re not yet. Storage at 74% is not overflowing.

  20. There is no need to have water restrictions anywhere in Australia – and no the answer is not water trading.

    Each meter gets an allocation depending on how many people it serves. When we have less water in dams we charge people more if they go over their allocation and we give the money to the people who are below their allocation.

    We require the money the people get for being below allocation to be invested in ways to increase supply or decrease consumption.

    That is we use price as the rationing mechanism but we direct the money raised to solving the problem.

    The system has an automatic control mechanism but without the need for trading.

  21. As regards socially costly, removing things like fishponds reduces welfare, as does spending hours in the garden doing a job that could be done by a sprinkler. It seems likely that lots of people would prefer to pay for water for uses like this, while, if the price reflected social cost, others would be willing to invest in (for example) more water-efficient washing machines, which aren’t encouraged in any way by restrictions. If we raised prices instead of maintaining restrictions, there would be a much more reasonable allocation of water. Long-term restrictions for water make no more sense than for any other commodity.

    On the question of making the decision, it’s one of balancing risks. If the dams are nearly full leading up to summer, it’s much more likely that we will lose water through overflow than that we will be unable to meet a demand of 230 kl/person/day, the target with relaxed restrictions. And we have the recycling plant ready to go, as well as much more experience that would enable reimposition of restrictions if necessary.

  22. #26, true, but I don’t think this is a big issue in the context of the Brisbane river.

  23. Fair call, Prof Q.

    I think that should be 230 litres and not kilolitres/person/day 🙂

  24. Kevin @ 24 – I agree, except that what you have described is pretty much how the temporary water market works right now 🙂

  25. Ben @ 29

    The temporary water market has some fundamental differences. In what I am suggesting you get paid if you do not use water – you do not have to sell water rights. At the operational level one is passive the other requires an action. One has a fixed price the other has a variable price.

    However, the big difference is what you do with the money you receive. With water markets you can spend the money you receive on anything you want. With what I describe you must spend it on ways to increase the water supply or to decrease consumption.

    These changes make the transactions fundamentally different and lead to quite different emergent properties of the total system.

  26. I agree with JQ. I can see no objective reason for keeping “60% restrictions” in place when we go over 60% capacity. If the graded restrictions were objectively correct before then they are objectively correct now.

    Surely the major dams can be used in a manner to optimally mitigate the two kinds of risks; running out of water on the one hand and flood damage along the main river systems on the other. The probability of each risk and the associated costs need to be balanced off against each other.

    Admittedly, the damage done by a prolonged period at 0% reserves is certain to be worse than even a major unmitigated flood event. On the other hand, the essential factor to look at is the increasingly marginal likelihood of guarding against a 0% reserves situation by keeping excessive restrictions in place when reserves are already relatively high. At this point you must start factoring in the increased probability of flood damage due to lack of mitigation capacity.

    Look, the public have shown they are reasonable and adaptable in their water use. The government will only do damage to public good will and compliance by moving the goal posts when they don’t need to be moved.

  27. Keeping restrictions in place sends the (correct) message that our current water use is not particularly sustainable. And focuses us on coming up with better solutions for future supply than more desal or Traveston.

    There are also benefits (economic and social) to having restrictions. People buy water tanks in the market economy. People are more aware and connected to environmental issues. Recycling water in a household – grey water treatment for gardens or toilet use – has an economic stimulus. It also encourages decentralised water supply options – which may have more resilience in extreme drought periods (or at least buffer).

    disclaimer – like Hal – I live off grid for water – and am shocked at the view that 230 litres a day is in any way a “restriction” or has negative social benefits.

  28. I’m not sure what dire social consequences you are talking about? If you mean conserving water as though it was a precious resource then I guess thats something we all need to get used to.

  29. Shane, Prof Q responded to this point at 25. His argument revolves around the inconvenience of, for example, using a hand-held hose rather than a sprinkler. He goes on to recommend rationing by price rather than coercive restrictions.

    I’m not at all sure, however, that the conspicuous squandering of water by the rich that such a measure would allow wouldn’t also have rather more dire social consequences than the mere inconvenience Prof Q has fingered in this post. IIRC, the conspicuous (mis)use of water by Israeli settlers is one of the principal sources of antagonism among the thirsty locals in the West Bank occupied territories. I also note that water price hikes (admittedly, following takeover of the utility by a foreign multinational) led to riots in Bolivia not long ago. Somehow water is treated by stubbornly irrational human beings as not just another commodity – some rubbish about the ‘staff of life’ or some such religious crankery, no doubt.

    Whatever, I note that a variation on Prof Q’s inconvenience argument features prominently in the arguments of the packaging lobby against South Australia-style container deposits, as was revealed at the recent environment ministers’ council meeting in Hobart. I’m not sure how he feels about lining up among that company.

    Last, I’m not convinced by Prof Q’s argument in his post that “Once [Wivenhoe] reaches 70 per cent capacity or thereabouts (that would correspond to about 80 per cent for the system as a whole) the operators will have to open the gates.” Now, it is true that prudent dam managers like to have a little to play with in terms of capacity, in the event of a massive sudden downpour overwhelming the system. Somerset was overfull last week and sufficient water was let go (into Wivenhoe) to allow it to fall to 92% today (see http://www.seqwater.com.au/). Wivenhoe stands at 63% full. I also note that massive bywash spillway works were undertaken at Wivenhoe last year to provide an extra emergency spillway were the dam to overfill. The water level last weekend was many metres below this point. Of course, I might be wrong, and if so I’m sure Prof Q will point this out, but I see no reason why Wivenhoe shouldn’t be filled to over 90% before any wastage of water occurred. This would require another rain event this year like the one last week. Possible, but surely not likely.

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