Episode 6      24 min 54 sec
Dry and Getting Drier

Professor Nancy Millis and Professor John Langford discuss the need for radical changes in water management in Australia with Jacky Angus.

Guests:
Emeritus Professor Nancy Millis AC MBE, Microbiologist and pioneer in fermentation technology in Australia
Professor John Langford AM, Director of the Melbourne Water Research Centre

Topic: The need for radical changes in water management in Australia.

"... we have to face the fact that our water supply from the surface is going to be a very stringent problem." - Professor Nancy Millis





           



Professor Nancy Millis
Professor Nancy Millis

Emeritus Professor Nancy Millis AC MBE, Microbiologist and pioneer in fermentation technology in Australia

Professor John Langford
Professor John Langford

Professor John Langford AM, Director of the Melbourne Water Research Centre

Credits

Host: Jacky Angus
Producers: Kelvin Param and Eric Van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Miles Brown
Theme Music performed by Sergio Ercole. Mr Ercole is represented by the Musicians' Agency, Faculty of Music
Voiceover: Paul Richiardi
Photography: Kelvin Param

Series Creators: Eric Van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

Melbourne University Up Close is brought to you by the Marketing and Communications Division in association with Asia Institute, and the Melbourne Research Office.

 

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Dry and Getting Drier

VOICEOVER

Welcome to Melbourne University Up Close, a fortnightly podcast of research, personalities, and cultural offerings of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Up Close is available on the web at upclose.unimelb.edu.au That!|s upclose.u-n-i-m-e-l-b.edu.au.

JACKY ANGUS
Hello and welcome to Up Close, coming to you from the Melbourne University, Australia. I!|m Jacky Angus. Today!|s topic is water. Yes, that familiar stuff we all need, enjoy and take for granted. In Australia, we are realising just how precious water is as a natural resource. As climate change now emerges across the globe, the fragility of the natural environment is increasingly evident. Ours is the driest continent in the world. It is also relatively flat. We have few mountains to promote rain and our climate is variable. In the less settled areas of north eastern Australia, rain is plentiful, but only in season, not as a regular event. And thus farming in the north is generally avoided by the realists. Unfortunately, early settlers in Australia weren!|t so realistic. Agricultural projects in semi arid areas were encouraged, despite failures. Pastoralists proved successful, but the result of sheep and cattle farming was gradual environmental degradation. This season, farmers in Australia face their sixth consecutive year of drought, and relief currently amounts to over two billion dollars. There are also problems of salinity, algae infestation and sickening trees. Most big cities face water restrictions in Australia. So, we need to manage our water resources as never before. To that end, the Australian government!|s new national water initiative seeks to address the errors of the past. It sets out an environmentally sustainable infrastructure to regulate water reallocation and to encourage innovate research and water technology. The aim is to balance the demands of human consumption including agriculture, industry and the economy with the impacts on the environment. With me in the studio today, are two eminent academics from the University of Melbourne. Each is well qualified to address what is clearly a matter of mounting urgency in resource management in this country. They are Emeritus Professor Nancy Millis and Profession John Langford. Emeritus Professor Nancy Millis began her extensive career in industrial microbiology in the 1950s, following work on fermentation at the Universities of Wisconsin, Tokyo and Melbourne. Professor Millis!¢FD interest shifted to microbiology of genetic engineering. In recognition of her work as a scientist, Professor Millis has been awarded a Member of the British Empire. Professor John Langford is a well known figure in Australian Hydrology at both state and national level. He!|s had numerous awards for his work as a hydrologist and he!|s also been awarded the Order of Australia. In 2003 Professor Langford was appointed Professorial Fellow and Director of the newly formed Melbourne Water Centre at this university. I!|d like to start by establishing what the problems with Australian water management actually are, and then turn to the solutions and current research being undertaken.

Well Professor Langford if I may start with you. We!|ve heard a lot lately about the National Water Initiative. What exactly is it, can you sketch it out for us?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
Well, Australia is a federation and the responsibility for managing water is a state affair, and the Commonwealth or Federal government's really major role is the power of the purse. They hold the money and going back to the early 90s, the Prime Minister and Premiers of each of the six states and two territories set up a water reform agenda. And it was aimed at improving water efficiency in cities, getting cost recovery in irrigation, setting up water markets.

JACKY ANGUS
This is 1990.

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
1994. And this National Water Reform Agenda is a follow up to that Reform Agenda of 1994. And it is about water accounting. It!|s about environment flows and environmental protection for sustainability. It!|s about water markets and water trading, and it!|s about sustainable urban water supply and water systems.

JACKY ANGUS
Does it sound good to you, is it going to make things better?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
It has some very powerful elements in it. It!|s a question whether governments fully implement it or not?

JACKY ANGUS
You mean the state governments?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
Well, the state governments have a financial incentive to do so, but there are a lot of !V there!|s a lot of politics in it. Water is a very political subject. At the core of it, which might sound a boring subject is water accounting !V how much water is there and who!|s using it and what!|s happening to the inefficiencies in water use. It!|s very important. We measure water in this country with elastic sided buckets. So, we!|re very poor [with] measurement - inaccuracies. and that!|s got to be fixed. It!|s not a popular subject, but it!|s very important to our future.

JACKY ANGUS
Look, Professor. What!|s been done since 1994, that!|s a while ago?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
Yes. Well, user pays water pricing has been made universal. The water markets have been extended and made more sophisticated. There!|ve been significant water savings in the cities and in fact those programs go back to the early 80s I might add, so we!|ve been at it for 25 years. And there!|ve been improvements in cost recovery and irrigation.

JACKY ANGUS
Now water marketing is different from water trading isn!|t it? Water trading is a new initiative?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
No, water markets and water trading are the same thing.

JACKY ANGUS
The same thing, because there!|s been a lot of talk about this water trading. Now how would that actually work say in a situation of farmers having to trade water?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
Well, it!|s always been determined by government and by bureaucrats as to who got water. And particularly in a drought like we have at the moment, the ability for farmers to temporarily trade water with each other is a great means for them to manage their way through. The horticulturalists who!|ve got trees, that need protecting, they can buy water from rice growers or from dairy farmers, people with pasture, so that they protect the core productive assets of their enterprise. And it!|s made the politics of managing these droughts lot better because the irrigators themselves share out the water. And indeed I!|ve got an irrigation research project, very important one and I!|ve had to go into the market and buy water. 30 megalitres, that!|s about 20 Olympic swimming pools full at $440 a megalitre, so I can do my research.

PROFESSOR MILLIS
But I think it!|s important to recognise the trade in water, as John said, helps us to use the water that!|s extracted out of the rivers more efficiently. It doesn!|t, in fact, save water. It is making that water do its job in a better fashion.

JACKY ANGUS
And is that going to happen, do you think, Professor Millis, with this new initiative?

PROFESSOR MILLIS
Well, I think there!|s a real incentive to do this because if a person buys water from his neighbour, he!|s going to be very sure about the way in which he uses it. He!|s going to use it !V because he won!|t buy it unless he!|s got a very real expectation of a decent yield from that purchase.

JACKY ANGUS
Well, the assumption is, of course, that he can afford to buy it.

PROFESSOR MILLIS
Well, that!|s a decision every farmer makes all the time as to whether or not he!|s going to stay in the business, even. Because if he doesn!|t get the water, maybe he goes out of business. So, that it!|s a very real economic decision for him as well.

JACKY ANGUS
Well, has this initiative come too late? That!|s what the critics say?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
Well, better late than never, I would say. But one should recognise these reforms have been going on for a very long time and Australia has a very good reputation internationally for both its rural and urban water management. We might think we!|re !V we!|re backward, but indeed the international community regard us as very advanced.

JACKY ANGUS
Now, I understand that in the cities water has now become an increasing problem, Professor Millis.

PROFESSOR MILLIS
Yes. Well, certainly the !V in the state of Victoria which is down in the south east of the continent, we!|ve had a realisation that our dams which were quite considerable, were, in fact, becoming under stress as the demands of individuals increased in the amount they actually per head, and our water supply was not in fact in any way increasing and in fact over the past decade we have experienced dry conditions with lower than expected average input into our reservoirs. So that, instead of being running at 70 to 90% full which they did some perhaps 40 years ago, now they!|re running at from 60 to 40 odd percent. And at this capacity is really serious. So that at around about 2002, a report was written which offered a number of different ways in which the community of Melbourne could reduce its demand for water, because always you have this problem. If you can reduce demand then it more nearly meets the supply you have. And our task, is to cope with that mismatch of demand and supply. And, as the citizens of Melbourne want more population, you have a double whammy.

JACKY ANGUS
Well what are the sorts of ways in which one could in fact use the water that we have better in the cities.

PROFESSOR MILLIS
Well certainly the use of dual flush toilets to which John has referred goes right back.

JACKY ANGUS
What is a dual flush toilet !V perhaps you can tell me John?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
Well, if there!|s liquid in the toilet bowl, you can use half flush and in the modern cisterns that!|s three litres of water. And if there!|s solid in the bowl, then you use a six litre flush. On an average, you reduce the flush volume to about four litres. So, we reduced from 11 litres in 1984 to an average of four now in new cisterns.

JACKY ANGUS
Have we saved water in this way?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
We certainly have saved very large volumes of water and there!|ve been measurements taken in various parts of the country including in Perth where they!|ve used smart water meters. They!|ve demonstrated very large savings of water.

PROFESSOR MILLIS
But on !V if you really want to be environmentally keen about it, hush your flush, my proposal is dry disposal.

JACKY ANGUS
Very good.

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
Very good, I totally agree with that Nancy.

JACKY ANGUS
What other ways are there of minimising the use of water or perhaps recycling water?

PROFESSOR MILLIS
I would like perhaps to comment on the fact that one of the major users these days is washing machines. If you use a big tub style washing machine you use three times as much water as if you use a front end loader. And that!|s a major consideration, especially for large families.

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
Well I!|m advocating that we make minimum efficiency standards for all appliances, showers, toilets, dishwashers, washing machines mandatory in the same way we did for dual flush toilets, so the water hogs, the washing machines that use large volumes of water and there!|s at least a four to one ratio in litres per dry kilogram of clothing between the inefficient and the efficient, so there are large savings to be made here, not only in water, but in energy, chemical use and in waste water produced.

JACKY ANGUS
Well, that sounds all very good. Can we look, at, now, actually, using water? I mean most of our cities are actually coastal cities. Is it practical to think of using water from the sea?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
Yes, and in fact, if you look at the state of Israel which is an exemplar of how to survive in a dry environment, they!|re building and have built desalination plants along the coast to feed a national water grid. And then they!|re using the recycled water from the cities to supply water for agriculture, for irrigation. Australia, 90% of our population lives within about 150 kilometres of the coast, and indeed the city of Perth are just commissioning a desalination plant as we speak. That city has suffered climate change. In 1975 the rainfall has decreased at least 15% and stayed down and the flow into Perth reservoirs has halved, and stayed less than half the original average for over 30 years. They!|ve done a whole set of measures and I think one of the important things here, it!|s not about one iconic project to drought-proof the place. It is really about a diverse portfolio of initiatives and one of them desalination is now cost competitive and the city of Perth are using renewable energy from a wind farm and they!|re planting plantations of trees to offset the greenhouse gas, so it is cost effective, it is practical, it!|s one element in a portfolio. To deal with an uncertain climate we need some !V one component of our supply that!|s independent of climate which is desalination or indeed potable recycling of water.

JACKY ANGUS
Professor, I!|ve heard it said that desalination is not in fact very satisfactory, that the water isn!|t really potable, that is drinkable, that it tastes salty and that it can even be toxic if mixed with waste. Is that true?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
Well I !V I!|d strongly object to the word toxic, and the modern desalination techniques are a physical process, not applying chemicals. If you actually took all the salt out of the water, it would be very unpleasant to drink and it also corrode the water supply systems. So whether it!|s 50, 100, 200 milligrams per litre you do need to leave some of the salt there. But large numbers of communities around the world including Israel as I said, the Middle East, Singapore, Tenerife ...

PROFESSOR MILLIS
South Africa.

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
South Africa, Tenerife, Kangaroo Island, the city of Perth, Eden- Edenhope in Western Victoria, so it!|s happening in Australia, it certainly is.

JACKY ANGUS
And people are drinking this water and !V and not objecting. What about waste water !V people are objecting to that aren!|t they? Sewage I mean?

PROFESSOR MILLIS
It!|s not sewage.

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
It is not sewage. Once !V once you treat the !V the sewage, and remove material that was in it, metals, biological material, you disinfect it to remove the pathogens, then you take that treated effluent and you put it through an advanced waste water treatment plant. It reaches a potable standard. And people have been drinking this water for over 30 years in Windhoek in South West Africa, and that!|s in Namibia. And in Singapore new water is in fact recycled effluent and in the major cities of Europe, or in America they are using a high proportion of recycled water. But it!|s what I call the magic kilometre. If the !V the outlet of the sewage effluent is far enough away, at least a magic kilometre away from the input to the water supply system, people will accept it. So if one city discharge effluent into a river, downstream another city picks it up, treats it and puts it into their water supply system. So the longer the two are far enough apart, at least a magic kilometre, people accept it. But if you get two things too close together they object violently.

JACKY ANGUS
What about pathogens and the possibility of a contamination of water? You!|re the microbiologist Professor Millis, what do you say to that?

PROFESSOR MILLIS
Well I believe it!|s perfectly possible and the technology is well and truly established, in which you can remove pathogens we experience, of bacteria and protozoa, in all sewage treatment plants. The viruses are more difficult to remove by conventional sewage treatment plants. So that the !V a further purification process has to be undertaken, and the first of these is what they call micro filtration where the water is passed through membranes of quite small size, and then passed through ultra filtration which removes even the last of the viruses. Now if people are concerned about things like endocrine disruptors, these can be removed by advanced oxidation processes. So that you can finish up with water purer than you would get in an ordinary water supply.

JACKY ANGUS
So, you!|re quite satisfied with that obviously.

PROFESSOR MILLIS
If the process is well run and those processes are in place, it is perfectly potable.

JACKY ANGUS
You!|re listening to Up Close, coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia. I!|m Jacky Angus and I!|m talking to Professors John Langford and Nancy Millis about water management in Australia. I wonder if we might now consider the other ways of saving water, surface water and ground water. Perhaps Professor Langford you!|d describe those briefly. What do they mean?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
Well groundwater is in the ground and can be pumped out. The city of Perth for example in Western Australia relies heavily, at least 60% of their water supply comes from ground water. The city of Newcastle in New South Wales just north of Sydney and the City of Geelong to the south of Melbourne in Victoria, they rely on ground water. It!|s a very good source of water. You!|ve got a large reservoir in the ground and you don!|t have to build a dam, but you!|ve got to be very careful that you use it sustainably, and don!|t draw down that resource at a greater rate than it!|s recharged.

JACKY ANGUS
And the aqui- aquifer!|s a porous rock isn!|t it?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
That!|s right, or sand or gravel, yes.

JACKY ANGUS
And we have plenty of that in Australia?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
We certainly do, we have the great artesian basin that would cover at least a third of the coutry.

JACKY ANGUS
And surface water is a question of filling dams and piping it to the city. Is that a practical alternative?

PROFESSOR MILLIS
Well that is totally dependent on rainfall, that which falls down can be caught, but that which doesn!|t rain, doesn!|t get caught. And that!|s our problem at the moment.

JACKY ANGUS
Because at the moment we don!|t just have a drought, we have a climate change, is that right, that !V

PROFESSOR MILLIS
Yes that!|s exacerbated the problem. And it doesn!|t look to be likely to change in the near future. So I think we have to face the fact that our water supply from the surface is going to be a very stringent problem.

JACKY ANGUS
So if this is a permanent situation or a semi-permanent one, what!|s to be said for the idea of actually a more radical alternative, getting people off the land to do !V to do other things. Is this !V is this realistic. I realise this is rather a political question to you scientists, but what!|s your response to that? Is that feasible?

PROFESSOR MILLIS
It depends on where the people are relative to the water. If the water we!|re talking about is many hundreds of kilometres away from where the people are, then the cost, as John has pointed out, of removing water by pumping is a very expensive one. So we have to be prepared to look to those sorts of problems, but certainly we!|ve got a difficulty in the distribution of water and the allocation. And remember that the irrigators are producing the food that these people in the cities really must have. In other words all the vegetables and all the fruit we eat is totally dependent on irrigation water being available to these farming groups that use these commodities.

JACKY ANGUS
But if most of the water!|s going to agriculture and we!|ve got a problem in cities, we!|ve really go to address that in terms perhaps not just of cities, but looking to land reallocation as well as water reallocation haven!|t we?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
Well it!|s really about water reallocation because if we end up with half the water as occurred in Western Australia, it!|s pretty obvious that something has to change. Now a water market will allow the reallocation of water, progressively to those industries and enterprises that generate more profit per megalitre, more economic output per megalitre, and generate more regional employment per megalitre of water. So, the changes that are going to occur, some enterprises, such as irrigating pasture for growing beef or wool or fat lambs is unlikely to survive.

JACKY ANGUS
What about the city Professor Millis? Do you have anything to add there?

PROFESSOR MILLIS
Well I do believe there are a number of things we can do. Sensitive water urban design is one of them, that is to say when you have a large piece of land which is to be developed for say for three or four hundred, up to a thousand houses, then the water which these people have used for showering and washing, they !V this can be sent to a central point, close to the hundred or so houses and then treated and returned back to those houses for outside use and for flushing of toilets. That sort of sensitive urban design I think is a very important one. The other thing that I!|d like to see is all those towers we see building up around cities with 30, 40 stories. Again the water, the grey water, that is to say the washing machines and !V and showers should be treated at the bottom and used for toilets. Now not one of the ones that I!|ve seen around Melbourne has that facility and I think that!|s a crying shame.

JACKY ANGUS
Well, I!|d like to turn to research now. And, Professor Langford, perhaps, I could ask you to describe what you!|re doing because you!|re obviously at the cutting edge of research at the University of Melbourne.

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
Part of my research is involved in improving the economic output of irrigation with a lot less water, in other words, preparing ourselves,!¢FDcause it!|s one thing to talk about climate change and things being difficult. At the same time you!|ve got to provide people some hope and !V and work on the way forward. So we!|re looking at employing wireless sensor technology, that is devices that measure soil moisture, climatic parameters, like temperature and evaporation or plant parameters, like water plant !V water potential, leaf temperature, sap flow, or the expansion and contraction of a !V a piece of fruit like a peach or !V or the trunk of grapevine. So we understand plant water status. Feeding that back into a !V some very sophisticated control engineering software and feeding back the needs of the plant to the system that supplies water to it. So we deliver to the plant precisely the amount of water it needs, when it needs it, for optimum production.

JACKY ANGUS
And no more, obviously?

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
And no more, you!|re right.

JACKY ANGUS
Now are there any other interesting things that have been happening in the area of research and actually projects on the ground, Professor Millis?

PROFESSOR MILLIS
Well certainly I think we!|re also looking from an agricultural point of view on the breeding of plants which have capacity to use water more efficiently than their original parents, they!|re tolerant both of salt and of short growing season. Because you can change the time at which plants flower genetically, which enables them to get through their growing season and produce the seed in a shorter time. So, the plants are being bred for that purpose, cereals and others.

JACKY ANGUS
So that!|s based on genetic engineering isn!|t it?

PROFESSOR MILLIS
Yes, that!|s correct.

JACKY ANGUS
That!|s not going to do any damage to us long term is it, in terms of environmental degradation if we start changing the structure and function of plants?

PROFESSOR MILLIS
There!|s always risk in doing anything. I cross the road frequently. And so, the matter of producing a plant which will grow in an area where it!|s !V would not formally do so, we have to be careful that we don!|t overstep the mark as we have done in other ways. But if due care is given I see that this is a process of plus rather than minus.

JACKY ANGUS
Well thank you both very much, Professor Langford and Professor Millis.

PROFESSOR MILLIS
It!|s a great pleasure, thank you.

PROFESSOR LANGFORD
It!|s been a pleasure Jacky and Nancy.

JACKY ANGUS
Melbourne University Up Close is brought to you by the Marketing and Communications Division in association with Asia Institute in the Melbourne Research office of the University of Melbourne, Australia.
Our producers for this episode were Kelvin Param and Eric Van Bemmel, audio engineering by Miles Brown, theme music performed by Sergio Ercole.

Melbourne University Upclose is created by Eric Van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. I!|m Jacky Angus, till next time, thank you for joining us. Goodbye.

VOICEOVER

You!|ve been listening to Melbourne University Up Close, a fortnightly podcast of research, personalities and cultural offerings of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Up Close is available on the web at upclose.unimelb.edu.au, that!|s upclose.u-n-i-m-e-l-b.edu.au. Copyright 2006 University of Melbourne.


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