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Dispatch: Climate Adaptation in Southern California...oops...I mean Perth, Western Australia

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 24 February 2011

I'm currently staying in Fremantle (Freo), which is a little suburb of Perth in Western Australia. I'm here to work on designing a study of regional climate adaptation in the Swan-Canning watershed (here is a nice link to the Water Corporation's "Water Forever" program focused on the Perth region: http://www.thinking50.com.au/go/water-forever-home). I'm partnering with the CSIRO climate adaptation flagship (http://www.csiro.au/org/ClimateAdaptationFlagship.html), and Garry Robbins from University of Melbourne.

I knew there would be many similarities to SoCal when the trip from the airport included strip developments and McDonalds. But this region is a "Mediterranean" ecosystem and I would say there is more in common with climate change in SoCal than different. There seems to be a great amount of agreement among the climate models predicting increased temperature (like CA), and decreased winter rainfall (unlike CA, where there is still not a consensus on how precip will change except for decrease in winter snowback) and associated decrease in runoff (like CA, where snowmelt runoff will decrease). Among the major issues they are facing (I'm still learning, so some of this might not be 100% right yet...):

Water scarcity. There are around 10 reservoirs on the Swan-Canning system and they are 27% full. We visited one reservoir that had the typical bathtub rings that come with low water levels, and a completely dry river bed underneath the spillway. Given expectations of water scarcity, they are pursuing a whole range of water development schemes but NOT extra surface water storage in the basins. They already have a desal plant here and plan to build more, and the rate of groundwater pumping is increasing (like CA, at least residential groundwater pumping is unregulated). They have a variety of recycled water programs planned, and they are experimenting with groundwater recharge using recycled water. Various schemes have been floated to import water from other regions but these seem to fall victim to politics--even though one cab driver (yes...cab drivers apparently know about water management) told me it was really stupid not to import water because that was the cheap option. There is also a variety of residential water restrictions and incentive programs. It is fair to say that water is probably highest on the agenda in terms of climate change.

Increased bush fires. WA is dry and borders on really dry, desert bushland in the eastern and inland outskirts. And just like in California, they are building in the wildland-urban interface(apparently a term that is not used in Aus) and homeowners like building on ridges and having their houses surrounded by trees. And blaming the government when their place burns down. The ecosystems here are heavily fire dependent and they are going to have to figure out a way to manage urban development in ways that don't put people in the path of fire.

Biodiversity. Climate shifts are affecting biodiversity, with species that like cooler and wetter climate moving South (towards the pole) and (west) towards the coast. This is like the mirror image of species migration in California. Some of the big forests that are still sources of timber are a concern in this respect. Also Australia's wild and fantastic (at least to me!) diversity of species is likely to change. Interestingly I didn't hear a huge amount of discussion of endangered or threatened species.

Urban Sprawl and Energy Use. This project is mostly focused on adaptation but energy use has more of a mitigation angle because of emissions consequences. Put simply, Perth sprawls, and as suburban development continues, energy use and travel miles are going up. People like the "Australian" dream of bigger houses on a nice lot too. So all of the issues that come with urban sprawl are happening here, including the aforementioned incursion into wildlands.

Agricultural demands. There is a lot of dryland agriculture here, including wheat and vineyards especially a fairly famous winemaking region in the Margaret valley. Without winter rains, they are going to need more irrigation and this will lead to increased competition for already scarce water. For vineyards there is the issue of climate change leading to shifting microclimates and the need for planting of new varietals.

Carbon markets. The forestry researcher at CSIRO talked with me a lot about the emerging carbon markets and how tree plantations, native forests, and agricultural landscapes will be managed. One of the big worries is that agricultural landowners will shift into "carbon farmers" and start growing carbon-loving trees instead of production agriculture, which will disrupt rural ag. communities. CSIRO is looking into the "working landscapes" idea to see if it is possible to plant trees within the ag. matrix but not turning the ag. land into a tree plantation. Also there are debates about existing tree plantations being turned into standing non-native forests instead of producing timber, and whether or not native forests are better than tree plantations for storing carbon. All interesting stuff from an ecological standpoint when you have to worry about how different species fix carbon, soil transport, and release of carbon from fire and decay of dead trees.

These are certaintly not all of the issues but some of the main ones and anybody who studies climate change in california will recognize them. But there are some interesting differences as well. From an ecological standpoint one of the main differences is that this is a winter rain ecosystem instead of a snow-fed ecosystem. They depend heavily storm systems during the winter that might start bypassing the region as ocean currents change. From an economic standpoint, this is currently a boom region in terms of mineral production (there was a conference at my hotel, and the subtitle on the sign said--"Making mines, making money". At least they didn't try to greenwash it with something like "Sustainable Resource Development for Working Communities".)

But really the most interesting difference is goverance--yay for political economics! Australia appears to have a far more centralized set of environmental management institutions than California, with centralization at the level of state agencies. This is a nuanced statement because in another way natural resource management is decentralized like in California--the national government gives all the responsibility to the states (for example, the states manage the national parks). But in terms of regional adaptation, the state agencies have a lot of centralized control. The chief example is the Water Corporation, which manages all of the water infrastructure and delivers water to households. The local governments don't provide the water themselves, and in fact the local governments have far less control over their resources than cities and counties in the US. So the number of actors and policy games involved with climate adaptation is smaller and more centralized in WA, which makes for an interesting comparison and possibly a better ability to actually get things done. But I can't swear that is true at the moment.

That is all for now. Next stop, Melbourne.