DRYLAND salinity poses a major and probably growing threat to WA’s agriculture land and productivity but State government agencies do not know its impact or extent, a damning report has claimed.
An audit found agencies charged with protecting the environment and water resources – Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD), Depart- ment of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) and Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) – do not have the information they need to effectively manage salinity.
Salinity monitoring has declined with reductions in funding since 2008 to the extent agencies did not know how effective a $560 million investment of State and Federal funds to combat salinity between 2003 and 2008 had been, the audit found.
While acknowledging managing dryland salinity is a shared responsibility requiring co-ordinated local efforts by agencies, landholders and stakeholders, the audit report said neither the State Salinity Action Plan nor the State Salinity Strategy were completed and, since 2008, both have been dormant and are outdated.
The report was prepared by the Office of the Auditor General as one of two final critical reports – the other was on management of the State art collection – released this month under outgoing Auditor General Colin Murphy, who handed over to Caroline Spencer on Monday.
Salinity was estimated to affect between one and two million hectares – up to 10 per cent – of land in the agricultural regions to the west of a line between Kalbarri and Esperance, it said.
The audit report said DPIRD calculated the “opportunity cost of lost agricultural production” due to dryland salinity since 2009-10 at $519 million a year.
“Without some level of intervention, dryland salinity will continue to be a significant cost and major risk to the State,” it stated.
The extent of salt-affected land in the audit area is expected to more than double over the next 50 to 100 years to about 5.4mha, of which 4.5mh will be agricultural land, it said.
As well, salinity also damaged infrastructure such as roads, railways and buildings – adding further costs, impacted on water resources and reduced biodiversity, the report pointed out.
“Government has to decide how much intervention is both feasible and economically sound, but is currently in no position to make an informed decision,” the audit found.
“Since 2008, there has been a lack of strategic direction and agencies have reduced monitoring of the extent and impact of salinity.
“In the absence of strategic direction, agencies have focused on protecting individual assets and there has been little co-ordination of efforts between agencies, landholders and stakeholders.”
The report highlighted a lack of current information about the extent of salinity affecting agriculture land, although it was recognised by agencies most rivers in the State’s south west were affected to some degree by rising salinity.
“Agencies do not have good information about the current extent, impact and cost of dryland salinity and are therefore not well positioned to manage the risks and provide direction and advice,” the report stated.
“The Soil and Land Conservation Council, the key independent advisor to government, has not met since 2003.
“This impacts on the State’s ability to manage salinity effectively and efficiently and increases the risk that poor decisions will be made.
“There are no goals and targets for reducing water tables or planting deep-rooted species and decisions to protect land are left to individual landholders.
“Relying purely on private benefit can result in landholders either acting alone, or not at all,” it stated.
It said the last satellite imagery analysis mapping salinity was in 2000 and at that time, DPIRD calculated that severely salt affected land was increasing by 14,000ha per year.
“The department does not know if this rate of increase has continued, decreased or accelerated,” it said.
But river monitoring and the link between a rising water table and salinity indicated the problem was growing, the report said.
Mr Murphy made six recommendations to government to improve effectiveness and efficiency of dryland salinity management, including giving DPIRD, in consultation with DBCA and DWER, six months to set a strategic direction for salinity management and re-establishing regular monitoring and reporting of the spread, impact and cost of salinity.
The recommendations also included making better use of existing mechanisms to ensure more co-operation and co-ordination at all levels and of compliance and enforcement mechanisms to ensure landholders prevent or mitigate land degradation.
The government should continue to promote soil conservation and educate landholders and the public and consider whether there should be targets to reduce water tables and re-plant deep rooted trees on a catchment-wide or localised level, the Auditor General said.
Responding to the report, the State government pointed out in December it had moved to re-establish the Soil and Land Conservation Council.
Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan, Water Minister Dave Kelly and Environment Minister Stephen Dawson blamed the previous government for neglecting salinity management.
“Salinity is a critical issue for our agricultural lands, affecting not just farming businesses, but water quality in rivers, wetlands, public drinking and irrigation water supply dams,” Ms MacTiernan said.
“The last government dropped the ball on salinity and failed to meet their responsibility to prevent and mitigate land degradation across the State.
“We have already taken concrete steps to fix this issue with our move to re-establish the Soil and Land Conservation Council and welcome the Auditor General’s recommendations,” she said.