Americans look to Melbourne to learn how to handle drought in California

Beating the heat in Melbourne. Craig Sillitoe/Getty Images

Researchers have taken the first comprehensive look of what worked and what didn’t to save water during the decade-long dry spell called the Millennium Drought in southeastern Australia.

The scientist say the drought forced Melbourne to successfully implement innovations which are critical lessons for water-stressed regions around the world.

Utilities and government agencies agencies worked together to bring a culture shift among water users, according to the study in the WIREs Water journal.

By the time the drought ended in 2010, one in three Melbourne households had a rainwater tank.

Many had built retention ponds to contribute to the urban water supply and they still earn credit for this on their bills.

Residents and commercial users cut their water use to 155 litres a person per day by 2010, about half the rate of 1997 when the dry years began.

“Documenting what happened in Melbourne during the Millennium Drought was a real eye-opener,” said Stanley Grant, a University of California Irvine civil and environmental engineer. “It’s like looking into what the future could be for California, if we got our act together.”

Four years into California’s drought, average residential water use in Los Angeles is twice as high as Melbourne’s.

“You need education, you need public outreach, and you need all these people working on it,” said planning, policy and design professor David Feldman. “During the drought in Australia, if you watered your lawn, you heard about it from your neighbors. Come the next drought, they’re going to be in far better shape. That’s probably the biggest lesson.”

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