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One Way to Deal with Uncertainty: Brute Force Engineering

January 4, 2010

One way to deal with uncertainty is brute force engineering. See, for example, the canal that brings 1.5 million acre feet (1850 gigalitres according to Google) of Colorado River water into Arizona each year (the Central Arizona Project or CAP).

Or, here in Victoria, there’s the massive desalination plant under construction on the Bass Coast, which will deliver annually 200 gigalitres of water purified from the ocean.

This is apparently one third of Melbourne’s annual consumption. The fancy-pants animation provided on the project website ends with the dramatic and reassuring words:

“Water now
and for the future.
For sure.”

And this is precisely the point. The impact of climate change on annual rainfall is potentially quite bad, and at best, highly uncertain. The response? Find a source independent of rainfall. While fears of climate change no doubt played a significant role in bringing about this desalination project, this is one form of adaptation that doesn’t rely on detailed climate predictions in order to be effective.

Chalk this up as one of the many examples that contradicts the conceptual model proposed by the Climate Science Framework:

climate science –>; adaptation research –>; adaptation

On another note…
someone who knows more about it (and you know who you are!) really should do a comparative study focused on the politics of desalination in Australia and large water projects in the US (such as CAP). Or at least, they should chime in here with some more authoritative knowledge!

I had an interesting conversation last night with someone who works in the water engineering business here Melbourne. From her brief description, their seem to be quite a few similarities between the canal in Arizona (built in the 70s) and desalination here.

The $3.5 billion price tag of the desalination facility is to be repaid through water sales. It is expected that water prices will double over the next five years partly because desalination is so energy intensive, and thus expensive. But then again, if there is suddenly a huge increase in the supply of water to the state (especially if this drought ends), can we really expect prices to go up?

And another question: how should we expect this new-found water security to effect the public’s attitude toward water conservation?

In Arizona, the main effect of the CAP was to keep water prices low and encourage people to use more water. This helps to explain why the extremely dry state has an above average per capita water use, and below average prices. In addition to facilitating vast suburban sprawl, this has also made it pretty difficult to pay off the bill for constructing the canal in the first place. (Most of the canal water gets “recharged” into the ground, rather than pumped into lawn sprinklers and bathtubs).

These musings come from a position of relative ignorance, especially with respect to water politics in Australia, but the parallels drawn here at least provide a starting point for some interesting discussion.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter permalink
    January 4, 2010 10:46 am

    "Victoria’s State Government has chosen the Use-Less Option: making us close our sports ovals, let die our lawns, turn off our fountains and water our gardens with buckets. However, the Australian Productivity Commission calculated this year: "The annual cost of the water restrictions to Australian households is probably a multi-billion-dollar figure." In the two decades since Victoria built its last dam, we have added a million more people to Melbourne without providing any more water storage infrastructure for the city. Our dams are at their lowest levels in decades – around 35 per cent, and yet the State Government has decided to build an extremely expensive desalination plant and a pipeline to take water from Goulburn Valley farmers who have close to none. The head of Yarra Valley Water, Alan Cornell, who finished an 11-year stint at the top of Yarra Valley Water (the State’s biggest water retailer) has stated that the State Government's ban on a new dam is ridiculous and should be "revisited". "If a precious resource is going straight into the seas, pure water out of the sky, why wouldn't you attempt to capture it?" he stated on June 30 2008.The State Government has for years maintained that a new dam would be a crime against Nature and should not, therefore, even be discussed. Former Deputy Premier and Minister for Water, John Thwaites, declared that all the State’s remaining "water (was) currently used by the rivers". However, in 2007 and 2009, the Mitchell River had two more of its periodic floods, including a bank-burster in June 2007 that sent more water to waste in the sea than Melbourne drinks in a year. A dam on the Mitchell River would have saved that water – and also spared Gippsland residents a flood that caused tens of millions of dollars. It was set aside as a dam reservation for decades until the Victorian Government turned it into a National Park, precisely to stop it from being used for the purpose for which it was so perfectly suited. The Mitchell River has a huge catchment area – it would normally fill a dam the size of Melbourne’s biggest – the Thomson, three times faster than the Thomson dam fills now. It floods heavily around every decade, and is near a part of Gippsland that the CSIRO stated in 2006 was unlikely to suffer from the climate change. The rains fall with enough certainty along the Mitchell River that the Federal Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts calculated (for the Australian Natural Resources Atlas) that the Mitchell would produce on average more than 416 gigalitres a year of water for a dam. That is more than twice the 150 gigalitres that the $3.1 billion desalination plant will produce. The State Government’s own report estimated that a dam on the Mitchell would cost just $1.35 billion. And that is without the millions of dollars in power bills and millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide the desalination plant will produce each year. A dam on the Mitchell would produce almost three times the water of the proposed desalination plant at less than half the price and save Gippsland from floods as well. Other possibilities for increasing Victoria’s water storage are a diversion on the Aberfeldy River to the Thomson Dam through a pipe only 2km long – as proposed by Melbourne Water 30 years ago. Moreover, the Macalister River is highly suitable for a dam." (see A. Bolt Herald Sun Nov 08).


  1. Having your cake… « Adapt Already

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