Australia’s Water Allocation: Lessons for Ontario
Last week’s Commentary focused on the first of two presentations given at the Provincial Council of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario. The day’s second presentation was offered by Brent Taylor, a water policy analyst with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change.
Taylor, who also presented at the CFFO’s Water Stewardship Workshop in September, shared his research on collaborative water-allocation planning in South Australia. Taylor’s research took place during Australia’s Millenium Drought.
In Australia, states are responsible for developing water allocation plans where necessary. These plans must regulate certain issues, including (1) the amount of water reserved for the environment, (2) the amount of water allocated to water-takers like farmers, (3) the rules for local water trading, and (4) the rules for monitoring water use.
You might guess that these issues become contentious.
That’s why many jurisdictions in Australia turn to collaboration, sometimes called “joint fact-finding,” to design water allocation plans. In such cases, the government department responsible oversees technical, scientific investigation, but also establishes advisory committees of local water users and other interested parties.
Taylor shared a framework for marking successful collaboration. Firstly, a facilitator who can translate between scientists and local water-takers is needed. Next, it’s important for scientists to get out of the lab and consult with locals—even take field trips together—to get a clearer idea of what is actually happening on the ground. Taylor’s research found that it’s vital for scientists to put down their data sets, engage in authentic dialogue, and incorporate local knowledge into the water allocation plan. These were key indicators of trust and compliance in the communities that Taylor studied.
So, what is the lesson for Ontario?
Taylor reminded listeners at Provincial Council that drought is a relative concept: it’s any departure from the average conditions that a region is used to. And Ontario has had quite a few departures in recent years.
Given today’s variable weather patterns and population growth, it’s worth asking whether our existing water quantity management systems (in other words, our water-taking policies) are adequate to deal with future pressures.
Taylor offered several recommendations for the practice of collaborative processes in the future: Involve scientists who are able to communicate their technical knowledge clearly. Involve facilitators who are strong mediators. Create opportunities to collect local knowledge. Make sure there are opportunities to debate knowledge. And finally, allocate enough time and resources to do it all well.
Taylor commented that many Australians he spoke to—both in government and in farming—said they wished they had started water allocation sooner, instead of belatedly asking people to decrease the usage they were accustomed to. The CFFO is committed to long-term thinking on water quantity issues in Ontario agriculture, with the hopes that Ontario’s story will be different.