Tue, Jun 28, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Australia's worsening drought demands complete lifestyle change

With the most serious drought in a generation threatening Australia, it has become imperative that its citizens get used to conserving water wherever they can

DPA , Sydney

Goulburn, just 200km south of Sydney, is a town with water on its mind.

The worst drought in a generation is lapping at the very existence of a settlement of 22,000 people that used to be a byword for pastoral plenty.

Pejar Dam is below 10 percent of its capacity and Goulburn will run out of water early next year unless the drought breaks and there is significant rain.

Water restrictions that aim residents at a target of 150 liters each a day mean school playing fields are too hard to play on and the swimming pool is closed. Lawns are dead and gardens withered away.

Last month 7mm fell compared with the long-term average of 50mm. In April there was just 6mm of rain when by rights there should have been 48mm.

The 2000 Olympics were on in Sydney when Pejar was last brim full. Since then the inflow to the town's reservoir hasn't matched the outflow. It's the same story in Australia's biggest city -- but its dam is much bigger.

Sydney's Warragamba Dam, one of the largest domestic reserves of water in the world, is now at one-third capacity. For the past five years, Sydney's 4 million residents have also been using more water than has fallen in the catchment.

Goulburn mayor Paul Stephenson wants government money to put in an emergency 8km pipe that would divert water from the Sydney catchment into Pejar. He admits that would be a big ask seeing that Sydney itself is short of water.

In Goulburn boreholes have been sunk. There has even been a proposal to have water tankers service the town. The townsfolk have been model citizens, cutting total average daily water used from 9.9 million liters a year ago to 5.9 million liters now.

Their target is 5 million liters a day -- something that will only be reached if everyone hits that 150-liter-a-day target and big commercial users like the local abattoir, the prison and the police college cut current usage by at least a third.

Civic-minded citizens are using buckets and bathwater to flush toilets. But they grumble that restrictions have become an imposition and altered their laid-back lifestyle.

Goulburn's swimming team now trains in Canberra, a 90-minute drive away. Members make sure they shower and drink lots before the long trek home. The town's rugby teams are disbanding. Rock-hard pitches mean body-contact games are too bloody to contemplate.

Phillip Broadhead, a farmer who has lived near Goulburn all his life, remembers the rolling hills as being the best grazing land in Australia's south-east corner. But four years of drought means ponds are dry and half his stock is gone.

"This year is the fourth of four bad years," Broadhead told the Sydney Morning Herald. "I'm beginning to believe the scientists about the greenhouse effect. I used to sit on the fence, but I'm beginning to lean their way."

Meanwhile, the people in town look to the skies and hope.

In neighboring Sydney, where some Goulburn abattoir workers will be looking for work if water restrictions are tightened, the plan is to build a desalination plant near the harbor to provide a fill-up for the water system.

In Goulburn, one of Australia's oldest inland settlements, the only real hope is in the clouds. Building a bigger dam doesn't make sense. On the average, rainfall equates to water usage.

Melbourne University hydrologist Francis Chiew sees water conservation as a better bet for Australians than building new dams.

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