Water catchments may never recover from drought

One-third of the water catchments included in a Victorian study had not recovered from a severe drought nearly eight years later, Australian-first research from Monash University shows.

Globally, science holds the common view that rivers and underground water supplies eventually replenish following periods of severe drought or flood. This study, led by Dr Tim Peterson from Monash University’s Department of Civil Engineering is the first in the world to challenge this widely held view. 

Researchers used statistical models of rainfall and streamflow at 161 water catchments across Victoria, each with over 30 years of data and no upstream dams or water extractions.

The area surveyed is about the size of the United Kingdom or half that of the US state of California. 

Dr Peterson and research colleagues from The University of Melbourne discovered that when the drought ends, some rivers continue to behave like they’re still in a drought for years afterwards and many have not yet recovered. 

Specifically, the runoff, as a fraction of precipitation, had not recovered in 37 per cent of water catchments in Victoria after Australia’s Millennium Drought, and the number of recovering water catchments remained stagnant. 

This means that 100mm of precipitation before the drought in 1990 created more river flow than the same 100mm in 2017, therefore delivering a 30 per cent reduced streamflow after the drought.

The number of water catchments with a low or very low runoff state increased rapidly from 1996 to the end of the meteorological drought in summer 2010. By 2011, only 15 per cent of water catchments had recovered.

The Millennium Drought, regarded as one of the worst droughts to hit Australia in its modern history, crippled the Murray-Darling Basin and placed extreme pressure on ecosystems, agricultural production and urban water supply in the south-eastern part of the country. It ended with a La Nina weather event in 2010. 

A water catchment, or watershed, is any area of land that captures precipitation, which then flows into common outlets, such as a river, stream, bay or lake. Almost all of Victoria’s water supply comes from streamflow.   

Dr Peterson said the regeneration of water catchments after severe drought had major implications for global long-term water resource planning and aquatic environments, especially when climate change is added on top of their findings. 

“Our findings suggest hydrological droughts can persist indefinitely after meteorological droughts and that the mechanism for recovery remains an open question,” Dr Peterson said. 

“This new discovery just appears to be the way catchments naturally behave. It’s not explained by factors like land use. They are just more complex than we thought.”

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Taking a snapshot of one drought without reference to others will always give a very biased view. Australia has had more severe droughts in the past and my memory goes back to the 1958-68 drought which caused major problems. Unlike the period covered by this study the effect of river recovery after the 1958-68 drought was either not undertaken or if it was, the results have not been released. I was in the audience when a professor of meteorology gave a talk on Australian climate and it was his claim that as Australian records only go back to 1788 that not enough information to formulate a long term workable plan was possible. He did point out that the two major problems of droughts and flooding appeared to be on a roughly 50 year cycle.

If we had competent people running Australia we would have more catchment areas in places where rain falls regularly, plus we have rivers pouring trillions of fresh water into the sea, a large portion of that should be in pipelines running into drier areas and if it was oil it's collection would be a top priority.

Alexander The Great, 336 - 323 BC and the Romans in Britain, AD 43 - AD 410 built all the constructions to catch water for the citizens, but in 2010  the mindless politicians running Australia can not organise anything to catch all the water needed to benefit every Australian,

Unfortunately because of our system of a Federation of independent States, most water storages are controlled by the individual States, except for a few controlled by joint authorities such as the Murray Darling Basin Authority that works in conjunction with the applicable State (in theory that is), and the Snowy Water Authority. The Federal Government as part of the Federal - States grant system, where the Federal Government collect taxes and returns them to the States as per the relevant disbursement agreements. Apart from the Snowy 2 project any spending is controlled by the state Governments. Unfortunately rather than looking at the fact that Australia is the driest continent on the planet, State Governments are prone to bend to the demands of those who usually make the loudest noise, and minority groups that they support of to govern. They should not be looking only at their own State, but working together to obtain the best outcomes for all Australian, not just loud fringe groups exerting themselves.


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