My virtual rain dance: water for urban gardens

Ratepayers are an easier target for councils than the enterprises making money out of water, and using most of it. It’s ineffectual and unfair, especially for those growing food

Environment Minister Nick Smith did a good thing last week. I would like to encourage him to do another one.

Last week the government approved new water management regulations. The Resource Management Act (Water Metering) regulations will require high volume water takes of more than 20 litres a second to be metered by 2012, water takes of more than 10 litres a second to be metered by 2014, and water takes of more than 5 litres a second to be metered by 2016. By 2016, 98% of water taken nationally will be metered; only 31% is metered now.

As Smith says, all this is a step along the road to better, proper water management. If we can measure water take, we can monitor compliance with any restrictions, and maybe implement user pays, as some local authorities have already done — the biggest incentive of all to counter water waste. But please, let’s do it fairly.

To date, there seems to have been more focus on debating and implementing domestic water management, although the proportion of water used by households is quite small. The bulk users are agricultural and industrial. For example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that commercial food production accounted for 48% of total water use nationally, and domestic water consumption only 11%.

And implementation has been piecemeal: the Funding Local Government report (Shand et al, 2007) found that only 27% of local authorities use meters for at least some of their customers. It encouraged water metering by all of them, central government funded if necessary, and recommended greater use of volumetric user charges. As pressure on water take rises, we can expect this to be more common, because it’s not just a revenue-gathering exercise: according to the Shand report, water consumption (ie, presumably wastage) falls by around 15–20 % after the introduction of user pays.

But what does happen now, because it’s easy and free, is that in dry places and dry periods, councils come down hard with urban water restrictions. It’s unfair, and ineffectual, given the water use stats above. Whereas, on the irrigated farms down the road from my house, they fire up the big sprinklers at the worst possible time of day (midday), whatever the weather (gale wind), to water grass for cows. They flaunt this luxury in drought years, in front of us embattled water-restricted townies.

Water should be a cost of business, like any other input, for the enterprises making money out of it. The “we all already own it” line isn’t working for those of us other ‘owners’ getting muscled out by big brash interests; and I’m not sure the ‘ownership’ language and concept really works anyway, for what is a finite global common. Maybe basic personal use is a human right (a necessity, like oxygen … and food, and shelter). But ‘luxury’ and commercial use are privileges that should surely be paid for.

But the rural outcry would eclipse the ‘fart tax’ and the ETS. Maybe there’s a politically friendly route to more fairness: recognition by local authorities that people growing their own food are supporting the national interest too, in their small way, and deserve no less help than the dairy farmer.

A food garden needs a lot of water, and my garden is a sponge. In summer, the sponge dries out. I worry about water, and think about The Wasteland: fear in a handful of dust.

It’s a debatable point, because we should be progressing to universal water management incentives, not plucking more holes in the threadbare blanket. There’s no denying the heft of user pays to encourage thrifty house and garden behaviour, and economic investment in other options — and there are good options, even if you want to garden, other than draining all one’s water out of the tap (dense planting, mulching, grey water re-use, rain water harvesting …). But it’s the inequity that gets me on this issue, and if we can’t fix it one way, we need to at least iron out the unfairness in another.

In 2007 and 2008, David Holmgren and others facing savage water restrictions campaigned for a similar scheme in Victoria. They said home food gardening would result in a net water saving, as well as other environmental gains, because industrial food and mass agricultural production are so water and resource-intensive. Their efforts failed; and what they aspired to is, in fact, the current policy where I live (volumetric charging above a pretty generous level, deemed sufficient for basic use). So I may be clutching at straws here ... but in the US state of Georgia, home food gardens are exempt from water restrictions.

Holmgren used figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, that estimated the amount of water needed to supply consumers with $1 of specified goods. Commercially raised fruit and vegetables required 5 times more water than Holmgren in his one-hectare permaculture smallholding: 103 litres to produce $1 of produce, compared to 20 litres. (Dairy products required 680 litres.)

So how much water might we save, if we really started thinking out of the box, instead of eating out of it, down at the supermarket?