National Geographic‘s April 2009 issue, which I inherited recently from my father-in-law, has an article so sad it makes me want to cry.

The article describes the plight of farmers in the Murray-Darling River basin in South Australia. It begins with Malcolm Adlington, who has a license to draw 273 million gallons of water per year from the river system but can’t take any now because of a 7-year drought. He still has to pay for the water, but he can’t use it. Nice, huh?

I feel so sorry for that man and people like him. Their lives are slowly being ruined. The article’s first line is, “The climate betrayed him.” I think the real truth is that settlers in Australia (and the United States) never really considered the climate if they could help it. I feel like saying, not to him but to the various levels of government in Australia, and to all of us who thought this would never happen, what did you expect?

Like the Australians, Americans expect never to reach their day of reckoning. They expect there will always be enough water for bluegrass lawns and Las Vegas fountains and Lake Powell boating and so on.

There is no good short-term solution to Australia’s drought problems, or to the kind of drought we’ve been seeing on and off in Colorado for a decade and in Atlanta and other places.

The only real solution is long-term structural change, by which I mean designing our lives to use less water:

1. Agriculture uses the most water. The government should pay farmers to become more efficient in their use of water.

2. Lawns use a lot of water and are not very species-rich. Let’s have a nationwide movement to replace as many of our lawns as possible with vegetable gardens (even in the front yard) and native plantings. The National Wildlife Federation can help you “garden for wildlife.” And let’s get rid of front yards; we’ll have just a small area in front for landscaping, and a porch. Or let’s design a subdivision around an open common area where children can play and be watched by their parents, thus getting rid of most of the backyard.

3. Many of our urban water systems are a century old or more. Updating those pipes would close a lot of leaks and save water.

4. Individual choices: Low-flow toilets and showerheads. Devices that tell you when your lawn needs water. Xeriscape. Water-capture systems such as rainwater barrels. Gray-water systems. A diet lower in meat—meat requires more water to produce than other sources of protein, such as milk, eggs, and legumes.

5. Industry consumes a lot of water. Can it be recaptured and reused within the plant? Can more be done with less?

6. Get rid of invasives like Russian olive and tamarisk and eucalyptus, which are water-hungry trees. (Obviously, this advice doesn’t apply where the plants are native.)

In Australia, the drought may have been exacerbated by the lack of native vegetation: 15 billion trees were cut down in the Murray-Darling River basin to clear the land for agriculture (according to the article, which also calls the area a “desert ecosystem”). It may be that a massive tree-planting campaign would make that area more resilient in the future. But whether the area’s current ranching and farming could work in a more forested area, and how long it would take for the forest to actually affect the local environment, are anybody’s guesses.

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