STAKEHOLDERS within the Western Australian agricultural sector have the opportunity to provide comment on a planned new direction for salinity management in the State.
A consultative review titled 'A New Direction in Salinity Management', was made public last week and is in response to a 2018 audit carried out by the Office of the Auditor General into the management of salinity.
The Auditor General's audit found that the State did not have all of the information needed to manage dryland salinity, which affects more than one million hectares of land in the South West Land Division, and there was not enough co-ordination between government agencies, landholders and stakeholders.
The independent review found that the extent and impact of salinity needed to be updated as a priority and that efforts to reduce the impact of salinity needed to be refocused by the targeted investment of both public and private funds in four key areas: Information, Governance, Innovation and Investment.
On the back of the Auditor General's report, the State government said it was already taking steps to improve the current knowledge of the extent and impact of salinity in WA, allocating $400,000 through the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) towards the development of new salinity maps.
It says updated maps have not been produced since 2000.
It also says it has brought together the DPIRD, the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation, and the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions to tackle the issue as part of its response.
Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan said governments have dropped the ball on broadscale salinity management over the past 10 years.
"We are absolutely committed to reinvigorating the salinity fight to help protect agriculture, our natural resources and community assets," Ms MacTiernan said.
"We've brought stakeholders together across agriculture, natural resource management, community, aquaculture, carbon farming and science to address this challenge."
Ms MacTiernan said people in WA had not been talking about salinity for the past decade.
"That is probably due in part because we have had the decline in rainfall that has seen a slowing in the impact of salinity and because of the decrease in rainfall we haven't had as much salt-bearing moisture coming up and impacting the soil," she said.
"In part it is also because acidification has become a bigger issue in people's minds and there was a huge effort put into salinity in the eight years leading up to 2008 and a big investment and people moved on from that."
Ms MacTiernan said the loss of the Saltland Genie website in around 2012 also played a large role in the information gap.
"There was some very good work that was developed in that time from 2000 to 2008, which was lost and that is unbelievable," she said.
"The whole website that contained that material and that capacity for farmers to access the learnings was lost.
"So what we are trying to do now and by working with groups such as The Gillamii Centre is to try and claw back all of that material, so we have that very good resource that farmers can use."
Earlier this year, Ms MacTiernan announced a grant of $250,000 for The Gillamii Centre to establish a central database for research on farming in saline areas and provide training and workshops to develop plans for salt-affected regions.
"It is also important to update the salinity mapping," Ms MacTiernan said.
"In the last 10 years there has been no mapping of where the increase in salinity has been and once we know that we can develop a strategy to work out what is an appropriate response and what level of resource is required to do that.
"The research needs to be more widely available.
"We need to get a handle on the problem and then determine what is the best strategic intervention, not just going around responding in a haphazard way."
WA Landcare Network chairman Keith Bradby said he was impressed with the Auditor General's 2018 report into salinity because it "woke people up".
"But it is nearly 12 months later and government hasn't managed to outline what it has been doing and not doing in the last decade or two on what is arguably the biggest environmental and production issue for agricultural areas," Mr Bradby said.
"I would have thought they could have come up with some concrete actions that could be under way by now.
"The review is about what government is going to do, but all the action out there in the past decade has been by landholders and community groups and they don't get much mention or much recognition.
"The terrific growth in saltbush use on farming land has been extraordinary in recent times.
"Part of the assumption in this review is what does government need to do, it should actually be about what the landholders and community are doing that is working.
"There is a significant backlog for this government to make up and this is a start, but I guess we are all hungry for something tangible."
Public comment closes on May 27, 2019 and the report is available at agric.wa.gov.au/salinityreview
Cranbrook farmer Mike Walsh has welcomed a renewed focus on salinity management within Western Australia.
Mike, and his father Ian, have been reducing the impact of salinity on their property for close to 40 years.
They had areas of low-lying land that was susceptible to waterlogging and over the years had developed salinity issues.
Ian identified in the early 1980s that this would become an even larger problem, with significant financial impacts for their farming operation, if he didn't do something about it.
"We didn't have a salt problem, we have an excess water problem," Mike said.
"Salt was in the soil before we cleared it.
"The problem comes about when you have salt and waterlogging together.
"When they are separate it is not an issue, but when they come together that is when productivity goes.
"What we had to do was negate this problem and the way we did it is to put plants back down.
"We wanted to try and replicate what nature did before we cleared the land."
The search for something to regenerate this poorer country led the Walshes to saltbush in the early 1980s.
Of their 1600ha property, the Walshes have now regenerated about 400ha and 90ha has been turned around completely to the point it can now be cropped or carry a traditional annual grazing system.
Mike Walsh, who is also the vice chairman of the Cranbrook-based grower group The Gillamii Centre, said he was fully supportive of a renewed focus on salinity management from the State Government
"I think it is a good thing salinity is back on the radar again, it hasn't been on there for quite a few years now," Mr Walsh said.
"It is still an issue for farmers in this shire for sure and everywhere you go you seem to come across it."
Mr Walsh said the only thing that he would call for is that any funding that is put towards salinity management hits the ground.
"It is not a cheap exercise to reclaim salt land, but it can be profitable once done particularly from a livestock perspective," he said.
"There is certainly a gap in relevant information surrounding salinity."
Mr Walsh said through The Gillamii Centre there were a lot of proactive farmers in the Cranbrook region putting in measures to deal with salinity.
"It is good that it is back on the agenda, as long as the money hits the ground that is the big thing," he said.
"You can talk about it all you want and do all the research you want on it, but if there is no money for extension onto farms then you are wasting your time.
"For most farming businesses dealing with salinity there is a big up-front cost.
"Once you have done it the benefits last a long time but there is a big lump sum up front.
"Farmers who are actually doing things on the ground to mitigate salinity are the best examples to go by, they can tell you what works and what doesn't."