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.

Posted by Marie Versteeg on November 17, 2017

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  • Beth Wilson says:

    I feel it is important to give weight to the fact that Australia and Ontario comparisons are too extreme to determine a valid point on this issue. Drought being a relative concept is not an adequate response. There needs to be more value and investigation put into factors such as water demands for municipal and urban planning as opposed to focus on farming and agricultural practices that have been aware of water conservation -in our farming history- for the past 150 years. This article is another example of professionals not providing enough respect to those who deserve a place in these topics of discussion. I would hope that CFFO would represent their members interests instead of simply presenting to us the way things are.

  • Gloria Woodruff says:

    I bet Australia doesn’t sell their water to other countries and we shouldn’t either.
    we should also be careful about our selling water for bottling by our own companies and foreign ones.

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