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MAV Opinion Editorial - Partnerships can better manage the impacts of changing weather patterns

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Having travelled across rural Victoria in recent months, it’s impossible not to draw breath at the starkness of the dry landscape, dusty soil and lack of green foliage in many areas.

It’s a timely reminder that we are facing changing weather patterns that require us all to think differently about how we collectively manage water – a resource integral to our social, economic and environmental health, and sustainability of our land.

While the skies have opened up this week, Victoria has experienced one of the driest starts to the year on record. Water storages are significantly lower than last year – currently sitting at 42.3 per cent. Weather data confirms we are becoming hotter and drier, with proportionally less rainfall occurring in our cooler months.

An increase in warmer weather rainfall – which also increases the risks of flood-producing rain – is not compensating for the overall reduction in rainfall. This is concerning on many fronts, but particularly for our farming communities that rely on water for their livelihood.

Combined with record high temperatures, less rain poses huge challenges for our natural resource management, agricultural productivity, biodiversity, liveability and emergency services.

While water buybacks are a high profile federal election issue, many other water challenges also warrant public discussion.

Countless communities in Victoria’s north, north-west and central regions, and parts of Gippsland have been facing tough dry conditions. Councils in drought-affected areas require greater flexibility in state and federal government grant funding so it can be targeted where it’s needed locally.

So how can we prepare for the impacts of changing weather patterns and better manage our water to meet the future needs of our growing population?

It is a shared responsibility. As individuals we can adopt more restrained water usage habits, while governments and industry could action reforms that support communities to ensure sustainable use of our precious water resources.

Better sharing of government data and expertise is vital. More advanced rainfall projections developed in recent years could greatly assist with better design and planning for building and land uses.

While we can’t avoid more intense storm or flood events from occurring, their impacts can be reduced through improved understanding of the risks, better design of essential infrastructure, and more informed policies and regulations.

Further upfront state and federal government investment is also vital for mitigation measures to minimise recovery and reconstruction costs after natural disasters.

In the face of extreme weather events, it is insufficient to rebuild infrastructure to its original standard and condition. A small additional investment, known as betterment funding, would allow local infrastructure to be rebuilt to withstand new climate-change realities.

This is why we support calls by the national peak body for local government for a $200 million p.a. targeted Commonwealth disaster mitigation program, to ease the annual economic costs to communities in excess of $6 billion.

There is also a growing need to better protect waterways from pollution. In cities and towns this means thinking differently about stormwater, and considering how rainfall runoff could be better used to create more green urban spaces for communities and boost Victoria’s water supplies.

However, as governments seek to build up community resilience, new or additional service responsibilities cannot reasonably be shifted onto councils and their ratepayers. While creating wetlands and lakes can provide beneficial public spaces, they bring with them high ongoing costs for councils, who must regularly de-silt and clean them to prevent the accumulation of pollutants.

It’s a similar issue facing councils for ongoing maintenance of levees and other critical flood mitigation infrastructure. While capital funding from other tiers of government is welcome, the maintenance costs are significant and beyond the means of many rural shires.  New funding solutions need to be found to enable rural communities to play their part.

Finally, State water agencies currently rely on councils to fund the costly maintenance of fire plugs installed by water corporations. The Water Act should be amended to clarify that responsibility for fire plugs sits with water authorities. After all, their primary role is supplying water to communities and landowners.

Our weather data is compelling. The drivers to adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change are now stronger than ever. Partnerships between all levels of government, industry and the community are critical to achieve sustained behavioural change and innovative solutions that secure our water resources for the future.

Cr Coral Ross
MAV President

This Opinion Editorial was published on 4 May 2019 in Fairfax regional papers, the Bendigo Advertiser and Warrnambool Standard.