The Goyder Institute for Water Research’s innovative research into the impact of climate change in South Australia will be boosted by a new project led by experienced researcher, Associate Professor Seth Westra.
With a background in Environmental Engineering, his passion for sustainability and enabling infrastructure came during his teenage years when he travelled to Zimbabwe with aid agency Plan International and worked alongside engineers building wells and supplying water for rural towns.
Following his PhD research that looked into Australia’s water scarcity, drought, flood risk and vulnerability to extreme natural hazards—and a stint at the renowned Earth Institute at New York’s Columbia University—Seth was lured to South Australia by the University of Adelaide to work on the Goyder Institute’s climate change project that commenced in 2010. The collaborative model and potential to work with other leading researchers was seen by Seth as a standout opportunity.
“The Goyder Institute project represented real collaborative work between some of the leading climate scientists in Australia from CSIRO and some very well-known researchers at the University of Adelaide that I had known about but hadn’t had a chance to work with at that point,” he said.
“It was an exciting team and a very targeted project around South Australian water security that provided a great opportunity to think about how we tackle this problem and solve it.”
What’s more, 98% of the model simulations suggested a decrease in runoff by the end of the century, highlighting the crucial need for South Australia to start planning climate change adaptation strategies for its water supply.
“The research reinforced our understanding that natural catchments in South Australia are not very secure—they fluctuate a lot from year to year—and that’s why you see investment in infrastructure for transferring water from the River Murray,” he said. “The Adelaide desalination plant provides another source of water that doesn’t get affected by the vagaries of weather and climate.
“Our project was one of the few studies in Australia, and probably the world, that’s shown such high confidence in projections about the direction of change,” he said.
“We don’t necessarily know how much the reduction is going to be, but with 98% of projections suggesting a decrease in water availability, it is certainly a warning that we need to pay close attention to.
“That doesn’t just apply to our municipal water security but it applies to when we think about agriculture as well—we need to be conscious about the infrastructure what we invest in as a state, as we can’t really rely on climate sensitive investments the way we might have in the past.”
The Goyder Institute’s new project Climate Resilience Analysis Framework and Tools will develop a methodology to analyse a system—such as a water storage and supply system or natural resource management system—and identify the climate variables that most affect the performance of the system.
The framework will provide information on ways in which the design or operation of systems can be altered to improve their resilience to climate variability. Importantly, this will also enable identification of vulnerabilities in the systems, such as threshold values of climate variables at which the operation of a system requires alteration to function effectively. This information will also assist climate change adaptation planners to determine the most appropriate timing for adopting alternative adaptation pathways.
For example, the new project will incorporate a case study of a stormwater capture and managed aquifer recharge (MAR) scheme, which will be examined to identify the scheme’s vulnerability to rainfall events of different types, such as more intense rainfall or long gaps between rainfall events. With this knowledge, planners, operators and designers can better target ways to alter the design or operation of the scheme to improve its reliability under future climates.
“In SA Climate Ready we didn’t look at that next level of question which would have been, ‘how secure is Adelaide’s water supply if the amount of water flowing into the reservoir decreases by a given amount?’. What is that going to mean for how reliable our systems are, the capacity of dealing with those changes by using our desalination plant or supplementing water from the River Murray?” Westra said.
“That’s another layer of information which is what we’re calling ‘climate stress testing’ – seeing the extent to which a given system will withstand changes in climate. That notion of stress testing can be applied to just about any engineered system that is affected by climate.
“It could include our water supply systems like Adelaide’s reservoir, it could include risk of natural hazards and how our emergency response would perform under different scenarios, or it could relate to much smaller systems like a redevelopment and how that might be exposed to future flood risk."
“We will aim to make the information more relevant for decision makers,” he said. “If you say, for example in Adelaide, inflows to our reservoirs will decrease by 30 per cent – is that a problem or not? Is that something that is going to cause failure of our water supply systems? If so, how often?
“That’s the sort of information that a decision maker needs in order to plan what they do about it. We’re trying to use the climate change information and present it in a way that’s directly relevant to the way a decision maker might think about the problem.
“We’ve developed a lot of the fundamental theory and the techniques already, it’s about bringing that to the table as part of the Goyder Institute project and taking it from that fundamental-level of research to practical industry application that consultants and other non-specialist individuals will be able to apply readily in the future, making the research accessible for a broader range of individuals and organisations.”