When visiting friends in the water starved towns of Warwick and Stanthorpe, it does not take long for the local message to sink in – ‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down’.
This is a water-saving tip for times of drought – seemingly a more or less a permanent state of affairs in south-east Queensland.
Southern Downs residents are currently on a per capita water limit of 120 litres per day and there is talk of introducing emergency measures (90 litres per day). Given that modern toilets use between 6 and 10 litres every time you flush, you can see why mellow yellow is the gold standard. Likewise, a shower will use about 10 litres of water per minute. So a three-minute egg timer is a handy gadget to stick on the bathroom wall. The other common water-saving measure is to keep a bucket in the shower to collect water for the garden. Many people wash dishes in a plastic basin and use the grey water on the garden.
The lack of significant rainfall coupled with rapidly declining dam levels led to Warwick, Stanthorpe and outlying villages being placed on extreme water restrictions in mid-March. Stanthorpe and Warwick are the hardest hit by the ongoing drought and declining dam levels. Warwick’s Leslie Dam is down to 6.33% and its back-up water source, Connolly Dam, at 36.5%. Storm King Dam, Stanthorpe’s only source of water, is at 26.7% capacity.
Southern Downs Regional Council estimates that without rain, Stanthorpe will be out of water by December 2019/January 2020. Warwick has a 17–month buffer, to January 2021.
Mind you, they have been here before. In February 1995, the Leslie Dam was at 3% capacity. And how soon we forget what happens when it does rain! In early January 2011, South East Queensland had so much rain the Leslie Dam’s seven spillways were opened for the first time in 22 years.
SunWater’s decision to open the flood gates in 2011 and take pressure off the dam left motorists and residents stranded. Sandy Creek flooded, closing the Cunningham Highway between Warwick and Brisbane. SunWater responded to a request from then Warwick Mayor Ron Bellingham to reduce the rate of release and extend it over a longer period so the highways could re-open.
“I guess part of the issue may be that it’s been 22 years since Leslie Dam was last full and perhaps there is no one around who remembers how that was managed,” Cr Bellingham told the Warwick Daily News at the time.
Extreme water restrictions mean residents cannot wash vehicles, hose gardens or fill swimming pools. Hosing hard surfaces like driveways or hardstand (industrial) is an absolute no-no.
The upside of going through a water crisis is that water-conserving habits learned at the time tend to stick with you. When Brisbane residents had to deal with level 6 restrictions during the Millennium Drought, per capita water usage fell from the Australian daily average of 340 l/p/d to 140 l/p/d.
If you look at the global situation, in which 3 out of 10 people are without reliable access to potable water, Australia’s urban residents have relatively little to complain about.
The 2019 United Nations World Water report also states that only 4 out of 10 people have access to safely managed sanitation services.
World water use has been increasing at 1% a year since the 1980s, the UN report says. Increasing water use is being driven by a combination of population growth, socio-economic development and changing consumption patterns.
As you may have read about major cities like Chennai, Cairo, Tokyo, Mexico City and Cape Town, you can’t take abundant, safe running water for granted. This list of 10 cities at risk of running out of water includes Melbourne in 9th place. Scary stuff.
The seven million inhabitants of Chennai in southern India (it was Madras until 1996), are so short of water residents have to line up every day for a truck-delivered allocation. As reported in the Pacific Standard, the four reservoirs that provide the majority of the city’s water supply have dried up. Restaurants, businesses and schools have been forced to close and residents wait hours in queues to draw water from municipal tankers. As always, wealthy residents can afford to pay the premiums for water from private tankers. The calamity in Chennai can be blamed largely on domestic and industrial over-use which has depleted ground water.
Don’t think it can’t happen here. According to a report in The Australian this week, up to a dozen towns across regional New South Wales and southern Queensland are confronting a crisis that’s been dubbed “day zero”.
Local Government NSW president Linda Scott told The Australian some regional cities and towns, including Armidale, Dubbo, Stanthorpe, Tenterfield and Tamworth are preparing for a day zero that’s less than 12 months away.
SDRC Mayor Tracy Dobie told Steve Austin on ABC Drive on Monday that if there was no inflow into Storm King Dam, Council could have to cart water from Warwick to Stanthorpe as early as December.
“Warwick is a different situation. We will have to set up a network of bores if there is no inflow into Leslie Dam,” she said.
Cr Dobie said that normally Leslie Dam has three years’ supply of water; Storm King Dam holds two years’ supply.
“That may have been OK a couple of decades ago, but climatic conditions are changing and we need bigger and longer-term water facilities in our region.”
Cr Dobie told Austin there had been “no rain in our region since March 2017” by which she means sufficient falls to filter into dams.
Data kept by farmsonlineweather.com.au shows that Warwick had a total of 130.4mm between January 1 and July 18 2019 (the long-term average for this period is 405mm).
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was not alone in taking the view that Australia needs alternative sources of water. Several Australian States have developed desalination plants, with varying degrees of success. But as can be seen by the Murray-Darling Basin fiasco, there is no reliable, long-term water security plan.
Farmers and residents of outback Australia rely on steady rain to replenish rivers, creeks, dams and water tanks. The normally dusty red landscape north of Cunnamulla in far western Queensland is displaying a sea of green not seen in the outback for eight years. Heavy rain and floods in April has left this part of the west with full dams and green grass on both sides of the road (although in reality, it is a ‘green drought’, in which the country looks good, but the green cover will soon become parched through frosts and lack of follow-up rain).
You have to be watchful when traversing these often unfenced roads. As this photo shows, cattle are often left to forage for themselves, although She Who Drives Most of the Time said they seemed intent upon grazing.
After spending 10 days in the outback, I can but offer but this observation from a remote outback town: three large caravans queued up to fill their tanks at a public water outlet (that’s about 240 litres just there).
Fair crack of the whip, fellas. Go to the supermarket and buy your drinking water. We do.
More reading: FOMM back pages
Update: While Cape Town’s dire water crisis is over, authorities are wisely sticking to the 50 l/p/d limit set in 2018.