Frustration in salinity wrangle

26 May, 2004 10:00 PM
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DESPITE his salinity problem becoming ten times worse and robbing him of $100,000 each year, Tambellup farmer Graeme Groves insists deep drainage will reverse the situation, and the Soil and Land Conservation Commission (SLCC) agrees.

The problem, according to Mr Groves, is SLCC-dictated conditions differ from those of successful drainage elsewhere and he may be forced to pay for a scheme in which he has little faith.

Over 200ha of Mr Groves's 1990ha is affected by salt, and its future path can be traced along the property's creek-line.

Mr Groves said North Stirling salt lakes were natural evaporation ponds but there was no money available to channel saline water to them.

He said the government must take responsibility for 1920's conditional purchase arrangements, where farmers were required to clear land completely, despite the threat of salinity known to the government at the time.

The culture of over-regulation in government agencies was hampering the fight, he said.

"Hypothetically, in nature, if 10 truckloads of silt go down a creek and the amount is increasing yearly, by law that's fine," he said. "But if I touch the creek in any way, even if I decrease the silting by nine truckloads, I'm liable for the one that goes down to the lake."

Mr Groves has been advised by Stuart Tohl, Kojonup, who built several drains in the mid-1990s that removed virtually any trace of salinity on his property.

Introduced trees and eight species of native regrowth surround one of these drains, now dry after the water table dropped.

Mr Tohl said his drainage system would not pass today's SLCC regulations, but it had proven effective and safe.

"It's frustrating because I can see Graeme's property like this," he said.

"The agencies are always saying plant more trees, but trees planted in land that's already saline are not going to survive. You get a few dry years, they'll put their roots down, hit salt and die, my trees are going down and not getting salt because the water table has dropped."

He said SLCC required that water could not flow faster than 1.2m3/s through a drain, and a drain could not be built in a valley floor where surface water could enter.

He said such drains, designed to prevent erosion, would have limited effect and two or three would be needed to do the work of one.

"When you leave the valley floor you lose depth and depth is of critical importance," he said.

He said a drain should be as much like a creek as possible.

"By keeping surface water out you actually get a build-up of an extremely fine silty solution, which after some years will stop the drain from running."

Erosion near his drains was virtually non-existent, even though they ran as fast as 6m3/s and his land was far more undulating than that of Mr Groves.

"That's just pure design," he said. "You've got to ensure there's not too much curvature when you come around corners and you've got to work on your batter angles."

Water ran fastest in the drain's centre and slowest at the edge.

He believed there was a large below-ground granite dyke just off Mr Groves's property, which caused water to back up to the surface, heightening the salinity that resulted from land-clearing.

He had drilled through granite on his property and believed it was necessary in Mr Groves's case also.

"I've never ever heard anybody within the Agriculture Department talk about busting up the granite, yet we've been doing it for years with great success," he said.

Mr Groves said despite his doubts, he was likely to adopt the SLCC-recommended drainage rather than push ahead with what he wanted.

"We'll do it the way they want it because $250,000 and a couple of months in jail is not something I can afford to do," he said.

"It's a terrible situation we're in, we have to do it their way, we have to pay for it and yet there's no guarantee it's going to work."

Pastoralists and Graziers' Association property rights chairman Craig Underwood said there was no reason for government agencies to obstruct effective drainage projects.

"I don't know why they do it, it's a proven method yet they bog them down in long application periods and other obstructions and the only thing I can think of is they want to delay and delay until people give up," he said.

"They have to realise that in a few years time the regulations will still be there, the salinity will still be there, but the landholders won't. That's the great shame of it and there needs to be a major cultural shift in the government agencies to allow these solutions to proceed."

SLCC does not comment on individual cases but deputy commissioner Andrew Watson said its drainage requirements were based on recognised engineering standards.

He said the permitted drainage velocity varied for different soil types but was typically between 1 and 1.3m3/s.

He said drainage should not be built on an appreciable slope so as to minimise water velocity and subsequent scouring of land.

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