Australia is better able to anticipate the impacts of a strengthening El Niño event on water resources as a result of the government’s Improving Water Information Programme, the Bureau of Meteorology claims.

Dr Rob Vertessy, the bureau’s director and chief executive officer, explained during the National Water Week that the programme was initiated at the peak of the devastating Millennium Drought, which occurred from 1997 to 2009. Billed as the country’s worst drought in history, the event frustrated water policymakers because there was inadequate information on the state of Australia’s water resources.

“The Millennium Drought made us acutely aware of how tenuous our water security was. Well into that drought we had a very piecemeal view of how much water was held in storage, present in aquifers, running in rivers and being used in rural areas,” Vertessy said.

He added that they had difficulty managing the severely diminished water supplies at the time, since they did not have the ability to forecast the volume of water flowing into the reservoirs in the weeks and months ahead.

The situation triggered the establishment of the Improving Water Information Programme eight years ago. Led by the Bureau of Meteorology, which is the national organisation tasked to collect and disseminate water information under the Federal Water Act 2007, the programme released an extensive portfolio of new water information products and services.

The bureau has been working closely with state water agencies, urban and rural water utilities and research organisations to enhance the availability and value of water information and to provide a nationally consistent view with weather and climate data.

Among the key services from this collaboration is the National Water Account, which documents annual changes in water stores and flows and water rights and use in Australia’s most significant supply systems. The recent inclusion of Queensland’s Burdekin region means the account now captures up to 85 percent of Australia’s water use.

Through the programme, a range of information is also now available on the bureau’s website, such as continuous updates on the amount of water held in water storages, volume of river flows, groundwater levels, water restrictions and water market activity. In addition, the bureau now provides valuable insight into what lies ahead, forecasting river flows for the next seven days at over 100 sites and seasonal streamflow outlooks for over 140 sites across the nation.

“We've come a long way since the Millennium Drought, with much improved situational awareness and foresight regarding our nation’s most valuable natural resource – water. The next time Australia approaches a serious water security crisis we won't be flying blind,” Vertessy said.

The country’s vastly improved water information will mean that governments, businesses and communities are far better prepared and able to act on mitigation strategies much sooner and at a lower cost, Vertessy added.

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