Still, civic virtue is no substitute for lasting reform. The nation's water crisis won't be solved by "drought-proofing" Adelaide, which, despite its dependence on the Murray, claims only 6 percent of the total drain on the river. "South Australia's very aware that they're living precariously," says Wilderness Society environmental activist Peter Owen. "We're not going to save our river system by standing in buckets."
Meanwhile, outside of the Murray-Darling Basin, the drought has exposed serious flaws in the water resources of Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, among other urban areas. The hard lesson of Australia's dry run is that the country's jaunty boosterism no longer suffices as the way forward. "I work on the assumption that we're going to see more episodes of this type of drought in the future because of climate change," says Malcolm Turnbull, whose Liberal Party leader John Howard, a longtime climate change skeptic, was turned out of office in November 2007. "A prudent minister assumes it's going to get hotter and drier, and plans accordingly."
But what does this mean, really? Will it mean the construction of expensive desalination plants in Adelaide, Sydney, and elsewhere, with escalating energy bills? Will it be possible to develop drought-resistant crop varieties to keep food production up? Or to drastically reduce the water needs of dairy farmers who use a thousand gallons of water for each gallon of milk they produce? Will the Murray River's hard labor continue, or will it see mercy? A robust new landscape is required, and it's up to Australia to show the rest of the industrialized world what that new landscape will be. For starters, it may be a landscape that's come to terms with limitations. Goyder's Line is even more relevant today, as drought and climate change give new urgency to the question of how intensively marginal agricultural land should be worked—or whether it should be left fallow.
After all, the final stage of coping with loss is acceptance. Back in 1962 Frank Whelan was the third farmer in his New South Wales district to receive a water allocation to grow rice, six years before the town of Coleambally was incorporated. Until this season he always had a crop. Although he's 74, his memory is as clear as his eyes. Droughts, market fluctuations, wrangles with the government, and, yes, incessant sniping by environmentalists that rice requires enormous quantities of water and therefore has no rightful place on this semiarid continent—Whelan remembers Coleambally prospering through all the adversity. He remembers town gatherings when the news was almost always good, because the irrigation water was always there.