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Brisbane writes a case study on saving water

For the last few years, water officials in southeast Queensland watched as the worst drought on record dragged on. Even with conservation efforts well underway -- including an absolute ban on watering lawns -- there was simply not enough water to meet the needs of one of Australia’s fastest-growing regions.

“Being honest with you, we had done all the easy and straightforward restriction measures,” said John Bradley, chief executive officer for the Queensland Water Commission.

To combat what they saw as a burgeoning crisis, state officials in 2007 began investing $9 billion to improve Queensland’s water infrastructure, establishing a regional water grid, opening a desalination plant and building the largest water recycling project in the Southern Hemisphere.

Research pointed to where more water savings could be had: Although 80% of Queensland’s water was consumed by business and agriculture, officials found that in the Brisbane region, that calculation was turned on its head. In heavily suburban southeast Queensland, residential water soaked up 70% of available supplies.

The Water Commission launched an extensive advertising campaign called “Saving Water is Everyone’s Business” to establish a buy-in from Brisbane residents for a program that would call on them to adopt even stricter water-saving measures, depending on the water levels in the region’s reservoirs.

A companion radio campaign prompted local radio disc jockeys to play four-minute “shower songs” so residents could track the length of their showers, which were identified as major water-wasters.

Julie Johnson and her husband live south of Brisbane in a busy house with their three children, their daughter’s boyfriend and, as of a few months ago, a teenage girl from Brazil and a 23-year-old Japanese exchange student who had to be reminded to turn off the water in the bathroom sink while he shaved.

Showers are a huge issue in the house, and the initial water restrictions were definitely noticed. The boys have gone from the universal youthful stage of not taking showers, Johnson said, to a point where “they live in it.” As for the 16-year-old Brazilian, “She’s having trouble not taking a 30-minute shower,” Johnson said. An egg timer now resides in the shower stall

The aim of the initial water conservation campaign was to set clear daily water-use targets for residents, beginning with Target 140, allowing each resident to use 140 liters -- 37 gallons -- of water per day. The savings were gained in various ways -- installing dual flush toilets, low-flow shower heads, extensive gray water systems and government-subsidized barrels for rainwater collection.

The water savings were beyond what anyone had dared hope. Residential use plummeted, hovering at 34 gallons per person per day for nearly a year. In January of 2008, the height of the southern hemisphere’s summer, the average Brisbane householder used 30 gallons of water a day. All told, Target 140, introduced in May of 2007, saved 10.3 billion gallons of water from July 2007 to June 2008.

Ultimately, residential water use has dropped by 43% from pre-drought levels, according to officials say, and Brisbane’s daily residential water consumption is the lowest for any major city in the developed world.

“I don’t think anyone thinks about it anymore,” said Julie Johnson. “Our little bit of saving and the next people’s bit of saving can make a big difference. Power to the people.”

As the drought eased, the program gave way to Target 170, and now Target 200, with some easing of outdoor water use. The average daily use is currently 43 gallons per person.

“You used to see people still washing their cars in the driveway, and people would come by and throw things at them. There was a lot of upheaval,” said Donna Gunn, recalling the beginnings of the restrictions.

“There was a lot of carrying on, to be honest, when it all started. We thought the world would come to an end if you can’t take a 15-minute shower. But we all got used to it. We’re all so much better for it.”

Gunn said the conservation measures were reinforced at schools and children began to lecture parents about the concept of sustainability. The Gunn family began to sit down with the water bill and track usage. To prove their willingness to sacrifice, the two girls vowed to stop shaving their legs in the shower.

“We changed a lot of things,” Gunn said. “We knew we were in a crisis. Now it’s a habit, and I’m mindful of not changing the habits we’ve developed.”

In coastal areas where drought has struck, beach cities have ordered the public sand-washing shower stations turned off. Fountains are quiet.

Although Brisbane residents have historically been careful about water compared to most Americans, they have nonetheless been large consumers, their use driven by an outdoor lifestyle in which pools and spas are common and backyard gardens are lush.

Forced to make hard choices about how to mete out precious water, Johnson adopted a Darwinian approach to her family’s lawn and garden. “We’ve got 1 1/2 acres,” she said. “We turned off the irrigation. If it lives, it lives.”

Before the drought began to take hold in 2000, southeast Queensland’s per-person consumption reached a peak of 87 gallons per day.

The Water Commission’s restrictions single out high-end users for fines handed out by a small cadre of “water cops.”

Andree Look and her husband are just such profligate users. Their home in the northern suburbs sits on an acre that she has maintained with ample water throughout the drought. Look explained that she grew fed up with watching her gardenias and azaleas die and was willing to risk getting busted.

“I couldn’t stand it another minute,” she said, admitting to regularly using the hose on her lawns and plants. “I kept getting caught. My husband turned the hose on his car because it was just too dirty, and he got caught in five minutes.”

The couple continued to pay fines until they spent the equivalent of $20,000 U.S. to drill a water well in their frontyard. The well affords them copious amounts of water outside their home, but they are still bound by strict rationing in the house.

Even as a self-professed water hog, Andree Look’s consumption is still well below what Californians use every day. When told of the figures, and the paucity of California residents using gray water or storing rainwater, she was taken aback. “I find that quite extraordinary. Good God.”

julie.cart@latimes.com


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