Much of this change in the relationship between water, irrigators, and state governments came under the watch of American Elwood Mead who stood as chairman of Victoria's Rivers and Water Supply Commission (1907-1915) and later would go on to head the U.S.'s Bureau of Reclamation (1924-1936, during which he oversaw the building of such massive dams as Hoover and Grand Coulee). Mead set up government supervision of the irrigation system and focused the irrigators on high-yield crops.

By the end of World War I, the process of damming the crucial River Murray was underway, spurred on by the memories of the Federation Drought. The planned dams and weirs took the next couple of decades to complete, but the resulting irrigation brought rapid agricultural development to the Murray-Darling Basin. Previously arid lands turned into highly productive fields—and diverse and remunerative produce was not only consumed at home but sent to the world market. Faith in irrigation to transform the future of Australia into a golden age only grew. The water problem, it seemed in the early twentieth century, had been solved.

In 1937, for instance, to mark the 50-year Jubilee of the Australian Dried Fruits Industry, Ernestine Hill produced the unambiguously titled book, Water into Gold. The damming of the Murray and the irrigation of its surrounding land was not without its obstacles, but Hill described the process in unabashedly religious terms as a "miracle" carried out by "apostles."

"The River Murray to-day is a pageant of God's handiwork and man's," she acclaimed. "From the serenity of the snow mountains all the way to the Southern Ocean, the magic of irrigation has changed the face of Nature. There is a kingdom, a power and a glory of the Australia yet to be."

Not everyone climbed on the irrigation band wagon, however. Thomas Griffith Taylor, a professor of Geography at Sydney University after 1920, believed that large chunks of the continent were simply too dry for settlement, whatever the water boosters said. For Taylor, the "vast potentialities," that so many Australians saw in the arid lands, "only existed in the mind of the ignorant booster" who was mistaking "patriotism and rainfall."

This perspective was unwelcome, even unpatriotic, in Australia in the 1920s and his textbook on Australian geography was banned in Western Australia because he refused to take out the words "arid" and "desert" in describing Australia. As with Goyder before him, the dream of water repeatedly trumped the more sober and restrictive realities of hydrology.

A Country Dammed

Australia built three quarters of its more than 500 dams after 1945, decisively realizing the 19th-century dreams of hydrologic regulation. From the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, Australia expanded by threefold the amount of its irrigated land. In the Murray and Murrumbidgee areas alone, the amount of land given over to irrigated rice cultivation increased from 15,000 to 110,000 hectares between 1950 and 1980.

The process of extensive water control and its development of agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin has been a huge boon to the Australian economy. At their peak, these extensive irrigation works transformed 2.5 million hectares into some of the most productive land anywhere. In good years, Australia's 22 or so million people could produce enough food for 70 million people—and food exports became a cornerstone of the economy.

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme—one of the most remarkable feats of hydro-engineering in the twentieth century—now produces a significant component of Australian energy needs and directs more water into the River Murray.

By the 1980s, when dam building came more or less to a halt, the country's rivers and water systems had become among the most regulated in the world. In the Murray-Darling Basin, only the Paroo River remains uncontrolled by human hand. The Murray became so regulated as to prompt some people to question whether it could still be considered a river at all.

Making the Drought Worse: The Balance Sheet of Water Control

The regulated hydrological structures created by Europeans since their arrival in Australia, along with their boundless faith in human engineering solutions, have made the effects of the current drought a great deal worse.

In the use of extensive irrigation Australians have focused their agricultural activities on highly lucrative, "thirsty" crops that require a great deal of water to grow. (In 2005-06, for instance, cotton alone used as much as 20% of all the water in the Murray-Darling Basin.) In exporting some of these profitable agricultural products, Australia ships off millions of tons of virtual water (the amount of water required to grow a certain food or manufacture a certain good). In recent years, Australia has exported as much as 430,000 tons of butter, cheese, and milk powder annually—the equivalent of shipping off 5.5 billion liters of valuable water.

As a result, Australia finds itself in the paradoxical position of having the lowest stream flow of any continent at the same time that, because of irrigation, it has by far the highest per capita level of daily water usage.

In addition, the schemes of water control that developed over the twentieth century have exacerbated the effects of the Big Dry by producing what many scientists call a "double drought."

Take the River Murray as an example.

Through damming and irrigation, the natural seasonal flow of the river has been turned upside down. Before regulation, the Murray "was really two rivers, a full surging river in the winter rising to a swollen flood in the spring, and a gentle docile summer-flow when the floods receded," in the words on one resident of Albury in 1981.

After regulation, the Murray has a more consistent flow, but the more plentiful winter rains are now released into the system in summer in order to irrigate crops. This 180-degree hydrological switch has created a human-made drought for the river and its flora and fauna.

According to renowned water scientist, the late Peter Cullen, "Australian aquatic ecosystems are adapted to drought, but between natural drought and man-made drought we've stressed systems beyond their normal capacity." They no longer receive the quantities of water, in the same quality, and at the same times of year as they did in the centuries before recent regulation.

Water from the dams evaporates more quickly than it would flowing down the river, so the amount of water available after regulation has declined. Moreover, water quality has deteriorated as the reduction in water during the swollen months means that various salts and other nutrients are not washed out.

And the impact of this human-made drought extends far beyond Australia, especially for birds whose migratory patterns tend not to respect national boundaries. Australia is the breeding ground for birds from as far away as Siberia. The drying of floodplains and the elimination of the annual flood has meant hard times for these birds, which affects distant ecosystems as much as local ones.

The problems of the current drought for the environment around the Murray have been made worse by problems of over-allocation of water. By the 1980s, as much as 90% of the river's average annual flow was legally committed to human use (especially agriculture but also industry and human water supply). The remaining ten percent was hardly enough for the flora and fauna to survive. Already in the 1990s, Australian state governments were making efforts to cap and control water usage from the Murray to a sustainable level.

To make matters worse, decisions about the allocation of water have been made since World War II, which historically has been a relatively wet period. As a result, not only have most of the waters in Australia's main rivers already been designated for some human use, but they have been designated based on assumptions about rainfall drawn from a wet period.

With the recent sharp drop in rainfall, the situation has arisen regularly where the legal rights of different humans to water are now greater than the volume of available water (and this is without taking environmental needs into account).

Climate Change

There is worrisome evidence that the Big Dry is also an harbinger of a more permanent shift in rainfall that results from global changes in climate—that it is something more than a hiccup in Australia's cycles of wet and dry and more than just a consequence of human water regulation.

In terms of temperature, the continent is clearly warming, with a 0.75 degree Celsius rise in the last 15 years, the result of which is more evaporation and less rainfall flowing through the rivers. The Great Barrier Reef—one of the most vibrant and productive ecosystems on the planet and the only non-human made structure of animal origin that is visible from space—is suffering and dying as a result of rising water temperatures and ocean acidification.

At the same time, a sudden and dramatic decline in rainfall in Perth since the 1970s also points to a more fundamental change in climate. From 1911-1974 the average inflow to the Perth dams was 338 gigaliters; from 1975 to 2001, the average plummeted to 167 gigaliters; and it has dropped sharply again over the last decade. Similar "step changes" in rainfall have been noted elsewhere in Australia too.

In February of this year, scientists at the Australian Antarctic Division offered new evidence of climate change at work in the Big Dry when they published ice-core findings that show a link between higher precipitation in Antarctica and the drought in Western Australia.

"This does not appear to be in the range of natural variability," notes glaciologist Dr Tas van Ommen. "We can see from the ice core that an event like the increased snowfall [in eastern Antarctica] would only come along once every 38,000 years without some change in climate patterns and, given the connection we see with Western Australia, it would suggest that the drought is also not a natural event."

Many in the Australian government are beginning to agree. The report, "Climate Change 2009: Faster Change and More Serious Risks" warned Australians to prepare for the possibility of "recurring severe droughts." Penny Wong, Australian Minister for Climate Change and Water, declares: "Climate change is with us now, and unless we act now, it will only get worse in the life of our children."

Australians Confront the Big Dry

The ongoing crisis in Australia of water supply, allocation, and degradation has no easy answers. 

When I asked Ben Gawne, Director of the Murray-Darling Freshwater Research Centre, what makes this drought different from others this century, he talked about how Australians historically have followed a "hydro-illogical cycle," where drought generates massive concern, search for solutions, and promises of change, all of which promptly disappear once the wet years return and water optimism again blossoms.

This time around, there are some indications that efforts at changing policy, economic structures, and ways of thinking may be more lasting. 

Perhaps most importantly, Australians are moving beyond their water dreaming days.  If, as historian Michael McKernan has written, "Indignant surprise was, until very recently indeed, the usual response to drought in Australia," there is now recognition that Australia is an arid and hydrologically variable continent; that there are climatic and environmental limits that must be respected if the country is to sustain itself in the long-term. 

The drought has required a substantial rethinking of how water policy is developed and implemented.  In particular, the central government and its agencies have taken on a larger role.  In 2004, the federal government unveiled the Australian Water Initiative; and in 2008 management of the Murray-Darling was handed over to a central agency, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which manages the Basin more holistically from a catchment viewpoint. The government has also legally redefined "drought" and now only offers aid under so-called "exceptional circumstances."  At the same time, there has been an extensive effort to expand environmental education among school children.

Cities have renewed their efforts to develop alternative water sources—such as groundwater and desalinization plants—to complement the dams they currently rely on. 

They have also endeavored to use the water that they already have more efficiently through ongoing conservation practices (such as dual flush toilets), Aquifer Storage and Retrieval (ASR) processes (to reduce evaporation), and extensive use of rainwater tanks.  They are also focusing particularly on water recycling (use of waste water for watering gardens, agricultural use ("wine from sewage"), and in some cases for drinking).  Many cities are now requiring a third pipe (marked purple) that brings non-potable water to houses for garden and toilet use (rightly noting the waste of flushing drinkable water).

These alternative water sources and efficiency measures are generally more expensive and more energy-needy than existing systems:  desalinization, to take one, is often called "bottled electricity" for all the power needed.  Prices for water will likely rise.

Australians are reformulating the way they approach the economics of water:  from counting the actual cost of water—and the cost to the environment—in economic decisions to developing a water market, where rights to water allocations are bought and sold.  Farmers too are being forced to change their agricultural practices to anticipate regular, prolonged dry spells.   

Australians are also working extensively to repair the environmental harm that damming, regulation, and irrigation have done to their rivers and wetlands.  Broadly speaking, the population accepts that only with a healthy environment can they expect a meaningful future.  Vast government expenditures on the environment herald this commitment to nature. 

In the case of the River Murray, efforts at river restoration and rehabilitation are combined in an ambitious recent program (2002) known as the "Living Murray," which "aims to achieve a healthy working River Murray system for the benefit of all Australians." 

In addition, the Albury City Water Recycling and Management Program and the Wonga Wetlands offer an internationally renowned example of urban Australians trying to be more efficient with their water (through reclamation and re-use) and seeking improved environmental wellbeing through healthy wetlands and a return to natural river flow patterns. 

In the case of Albury, the city now takes water from the Murray for the use of its citizens.  The sewage and waste water is then taken through an advanced purification treatment plant and to a storage site.  From there, the reclaimed water is released into the Wonga Wetlands and nearby areas during winter and spring when the surging river would naturally (before human regulation) have filled the wetland.  Come summer, when the water would naturally have dissipated, the Albury water is sent down to irrigators to water their crops. 

The project attempts to return a small corner of the river system to its natural flow regime, and to maximize water for multiple users.  There is something curious in this reverse engineering process, of course, as it was human belief in their infallible ability to improve on nature that brought Australians to this problem in the first place.  Yet, the results of Albury's current manipulations of water have been impressive.  The floodplain wetlands are again beginning to thrive.  Trees are returning to health, and fish and birds (many from far away) are returning to breed.

Perhaps more importantly than what is being done, however, is how hydro-social change is carried out.  Australians have attempted as much as possible to take an inclusive approach to resolving these questions.  On one level, many different types of knowledge are valued.  Extensive scientific knowledge is integrated with policy expertise and local experience (especially of farmers and Aboriginal peoples, whose detailed understanding and long memory of the intricacies of the local environment are deemed crucial to decision-making).

On another level, there is an acceptance that the rights and needs of all stakeholders be respected and taken into account: including farmers and irrigators, urban Australians, industrial enterprises, the environment (with scientists and government officials as nature's proxy), and Aboriginal communities, for whom water is more than an economic resource, but also a cultural and religious legacy.

This does not mean that everyone will agree, of course, or that the pain of water shortage will be equally shared.  But, there is a strong tendency to build "partnership."  "That is the way we do it in Australia," says Adrian Wells of the Murray Darling Association, "We are all in this together."

Return of the Wet

"A Sunburnt Country …. Of droughts and flooding rains"
—Dorothea Mackellar (19th century)

In the months since this article was written, Australia's extremely variable, wet-dry climate has once again swung to the wet side of the spectrum, and with a record-breaking intensity.

Heavy rainfall and floods have struck many areas across the country, much as they have done at multiple times over the continent's history. In the 20th century alone, major floods appeared in 1916, 1917, 1950, 1954-1956, and 1973-1975, with smaller or seasonal floods in other years.

This year, La Niña weather patterns have helped to bring these massive rains (in comparison to the dry years that tend to come with El Niño events).

For the past several weeks, massive and devastating flooding has hit the northeastern state of Queensland, made worse by the landfall of Cyclone Tasha in December. An area the size of France and Germany combined was turned into a vast inland lake, with muddy brown floodwaters and dozens of towns entirely under water. The floods have caused billions of dollars of damage and at least 25 deaths, in what some are calling the continent's worst natural disaster.

In Toowoomba, one of the hardest-hit areas, cars, trucks, livestock, and debris from homes and businesses were swept away in the ravaging floodwaters through the city center. In desperation, residents escaped to house and car roofs or clung to trees, hoping to be rescued.

More recently, the flood waters have surged through Brisbane, Australia's third largest city. They have reached their peak one meter shy of the vast 1974 floods (and about 4 meters lower than the largest flood peaks of 1893 and 1841). However, the damage is tremendous.

Entire neighborhoods are submerged and many in the city are without power. Many heartbroken residents will never be able to return to their homes, businesses have been washed away, and Queensland Premier Anna Bligh laments, "We now face a reconstruction task of postwar proportions."

"This is a truly dire set of circumstances," declared Australian Prime Ministers, Julia Gillard. It will be weeks and months before all the damage can be counted and all the missing people accounted for.

What a difference from little more than three years ago when the people of Brisbane were living under severe water use restrictions and being warned that the water for the city might soon run out.

Flooding has also struck the state of Victoria. A body of flood waters that stretch 90-kilometers in length (and over 3,000 square kilometers) is sweeping through the state, forcing thousands from their homes. Others are rushing to reinforce levees, protect houses and farms, and move livestock to safer areas from what one reporter called "a sea of putrid water." Most observers expect the flooding to continue for days more, with large pools of water surrounding communities for several weeks.

These floods are a much more intense variant of what hit Australia during the (southern) summer of 2010. Last year, parts of Queensland experienced record breaking floods, made all the worse by Cyclone Ului. The "best rain in years" fell through much of the southern and eastern states. The flood waters made their way down the Darling and other rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin in what was called an "inland tsunami." The high degree of river regulation in the Murray-Darling Basin, though, did its job to control, capture, and store the surging torrents. The water last year filled up reservoirs for the first time in many years.

While devastating and heart-wrenching to human communities, the flooding serves very important environmental purposes: flushing out the river systems, spreading nutrients across floodplains, and watering the parched flora and fauna.

Over the centuries, animals and plants in Australia have adapted to boom-bust wet-dry cycles. Most species only reproduce when there is sufficient rain. Some invertebrates lay eggs that hatch at intervals, some after two or three heavy rains, just in case the first rain wasn't enough. The Sand Grasshopper's eggs can lay dormant in the soil for years waiting for rain. Kangaroos can maintain an embryo in diapauses; that is, freeze development until a drought passes.

When the water comes, the animals in Australia take advantage of the opportunity and breed very quickly. In the dry years, large stores of nutrients build up in the flood plains from the buildup of dead plant matter and when the water arrives, the continent witnesses one of the most explosive bursts of life anywhere—"the heaving, breeding morass," as one journalist for Australian Broadcasting Corporation called it. The waters become dense with fish, many of which are eaten by birds that also reproduce and flourish at this time.

Unlike the disaster of 2011, the floods in 2010 brought some relief from the drought to Australians and a growing optimism that the worst of the decade-or-so long "Big Dry" was behind them. As water returned to Lake Boga two years after it dried up, the community was "on an absolute high" of excitement. One politician from New South Wales called the rains "a return to normal."

Yet, both drought and flood, however severe, are normal to Australia's hydrologic cycles. The recent rains and flooding reinforce the persistence of Australia's long-term weather patterns of wet and dry cycles. Dry days will come again, as will wet ones.

The question of how to plan for and respond to these ongoing cycles of wet and dry continues to confront Australians, just as it has challenged them throughout their history.

Will the changes—to policy, economy, agriculture, lifestyle, and ways of thinking about water in Australia—begun over the past twenty years or so continue on? Will the debate over Australian water policy and usage become more heated or will the dry days fade from memory?

Overshadowing these questions as Australians move forward is the pressing problem of climate change. While La Niña weather patterns are the immediate cause of this year's flooding, many scientists and policy-makers wonder whether the severity with which the floods have hit Australia (and elsewhere on the planet this year) are the result of changes in the climate.

As Britain's Royal Geographical Society's Geographical magazine recently reported, evidence is quickly mounting that we are living through a fundamental climate shift that is making the world's weather patterns more extreme.

Whatever the answers, how Australians approach their water will remain an unavoidable and essential question for the country as it moves into the future. And those around the world interested in humanity's use of water will continue to watch Australia closely.