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Salinity Action Plan nor the State Salinity Strategy were completed and, since 2008, both have been dormant and are outdated.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.
A PLAN to control and mitigate, possibly even reverse, the impact of high water tables and salinity across much of the central Wheatbelt already exists and is well known to government agencies, it has been claimed.
“It just needs somebody to throw some money at it,” said Max Hudson, a Goodlands farmer for 50 years and chairman of the Wheatbelt Catchment Alliance (WCA) and a salinity warrior for almost 30 years.
“We’ve (WCA) been thwarted at every move by government departments which toss up red herrings and ignore our results because they weren’t peer reviewed and because, in their opinion, we’re just a bunch of farmers,” Mr Hudson said on Friday.
The plan is based on the results of a pilot scheme initiated by the Yarra Yarra Catchment Management Group (YYCMG) between 2006 and 2010 and partly monitored until 2015, in the shires of Carnamah, Three Springs, Perenjori, Morawa, Dalwallinu, Koorda and Wongan Hills-Ballidu.
It involving arterial drains up to three-metres deep.
About 100 kilometres of drains were constructed with $3 million contributed by State and Federal governments and with about one-and-a-half times that length in connecting spur drains constructed subsequently by local landholders at their own expense.
The arterial drains carried excess water to playa lake systems where the additional salt had been shown to make little difference to existing salinity levels.
A network of 600 bores monitored the water table, with reductions of half a metre recorded in three drains and indications drains were pulling underground water from more than 400 metres away.
The pilot project results have been reviewed by consultants for the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation.
The WCA business plan was prepared in 2011, also by consultants and having been discussed with members of the previous State government, was given to Darren West MLC last August.
A Jennacubbine farmer, Mr West is parliamentary secretary to Regional Development, Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan.
The WCA plan proposes expanding lessons learned from the Yarra Yarra pilot scheme and trialling them across the Mortlock, Yilgarn, Salt River, Lockhart and Dumbleyung catchment regions – an area of nine million hectares and roughly half the agricultural land in the south west of the State.
Mr Hudson, 82, who became involved with the Goodlands Landcare Group in the early 1990s and progressed through the YYCMG and Northern Agriculture Catchment Council to head the WCA, said the aim was to obtain funding for five to six years’ research.
It was proposed strategic salt lakes would be chosen for up to 1000km of deep arterial drains to be constructed along valley floors to empty into, he said.
Drainage easements up to 100m wide through salt affected land would be fenced off and revegetated with broombush and other salt tolerant native species.
Landowners could then construct their own drainage systems which, for an annual fee, they could connect to the arterial drains.
Based on the Yarra Yarra experience, this would lead to a further 1500km of groundwater drainage being constructed at no public cost, Mr Hudson said.
About 780,000ha would be targeted by the plan, of which roughly 25 per cent is at risk from salinity and 10pc already affected by salinity but, according to the plan, with a possibility three quarters of that affected land could be recovered within five years.
The WCA business case seeks $4-5 million funding for the first year and funding in subsequent years to total $27.5m.
“WCA has done considerable background work paving the way for future investigations,” Mr Hudson said.
“I would suggest that three trials be established at well-dispersed sites, say Yarra Yarra, south east Hyden and Dumbleyung.
“Quairading would be another good site if we could stretch that far.
“If we don’t go down this path it seems to me we will have lost the opportunity to rehabilitate the degradation in the Wheatbelt, especially losing the opportunity to revegetate some of the valley floors creating an environmentally sound outlook,“ he said.