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

  2. Fair call, Prof Q.

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

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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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