December 03, 1999

Article at The Sydney Morning Herald

Bitter harvest

Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) - Friday December 3, 1999 - by Jenny Goldie, Kate MacDonald and Fran Molloy

The salt of the earth has become an insidious poison, menacing town and country alike. We know how to fight it - but are we prepared to meet the cost, ask Jenny Goldie, Kate MacDonald and Fran Molloy.

SCABBY white patches of bare earth contrast with blackened skeletal trees that offer no shade on hot summer days. Syd Clarke is one of many feeling the heat. He grew up on his father's dairy farm west of Wagga Wagga in NSW, where farming meant wholesale clearing. But Clarke has been forced to rethink all he learnt.

Largely because of over clearing, his land is affected by dryland salinity. Without thirsty trees, the water table rises, bringing ancient salt deposits to the surface.

The remedy, farmers are told, is replanting with native vegetation. But planting costs time, money and income-producing farmland. Still, Clarke and his wife Patricia have planted more than 8,500 trees in the past five years, on top of running a working dairy farm.

They are just two of the thousands of active members of Landcare which, with the support of the Federal Government's $1.25 billion Natural Heritage Trust (NHT), funds most of the projects tackling salinity. But the trust, funded by the 1997 part-sale of Telstra, has less than three years to run.

Clarke chaired the Kyeamba Landcare Group for four years, a period in which the group realised solutions to salinity had to involve the whole Kyeamba Creek catchment. Involving more than 90 of the area's 110 landholders, the group undertook revegetation, earthworks to prevent erosion, and changed farming methods.

But 11 years after the group began, members are disillusioned and fewer than half are still active. They believed it would cost $15 million to rehabilitate the area. The landholders were prepared to fund most of it but sought $3 million in government assistance. Time and again, submissions were rejected. "People run into all this bureaucracy; they keep changing the goalposts," says Clarke.

Dryland salinity costs Australia $130 million a year in agricultural production and will affect 30 per cent of the nation's farmland over the next 50 years, says the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council.

Other estimates are more startling. In June, the then Agriculture Minister, Mark Vaile, said salt was costing upwards of $270 million a year nationally in lost farm production, environmental degradation and, increasingly, damage to infrastructure like roads and buildings.

The former director of the National Farmers' Federation, Phillip Toyne, has estimated $37 billion is required to solve the salinity problem.

The main NHT-funded programs are the National Landcare Program, Bushcare and Murray Darling 2001. The National Dryland Salinity Program is topped up by the NHT, but most of the $15.8 million for its second five-year phase until 2004 comes from other sources.

The Murray-Darling Basin Commission's salinity audit has forecast that, even if Landcare and other programs are continued, they will not stem salinity's deadly spread.

The audit predicts that many rivers and creeks in the basin will be too salty to drink by 2020. The Macquarie River at Dubbo is already unfit for human consumption 10 per cent of the time. By 2100, that could be 83 per cent. If trends continue, the cost of urban and rural salinity in the Murray-Darling basin will be $1 billion a year by the end of next century.

The Prime Minister's council estimates about 10 per cent of NSW farmland 7.5 million hectares may be affected by salinity within 50 years. The more recent Murray-Darling basin audit suggests more than 12.3 million hectares of the basin are already affected by rising groundwater.

Although we know the main cause of salinity is land clearing, we still clear far more land than we revegetate. Despite the 1998 NSW Vegetation Conservation Act, we are clearing about 30,000 hectares of woody vegetation each year mainly in the north of the Darling Plains, for wheat and cotton, and in the Riverina for rice. The figure increases to 50,000 hectares if grasslands are included.

No up-to-date figures are available for the level of revegetation in NSW, but past estimates put it at just a fraction of the rate of destruction.

The CSIRO's John Williams says we lack sustainable and financially viable alternatives to current agricultural techniques. "There are few farming systems that are able to control the cause of land degradation and at the same time generate farm income," he says.

Andrew Wooldridge, from the Department of Land and Water Conservation office in Cowra, says the most profitable activities for farmers can be among the worst for salinity. "By that, I mean cereal cropping in high rainfall areas."

Peter Cullen, who chaired the working group on dryland salinity of the Prime Minister's council, cites the example of a financially stressed farmer near Canberra advised by the Department of Agriculture to plough up perennial pasture and plant with wheat. "Now that will get him the cash-flow ... but it's making salt worse because that perennial pasture used more water than the wheat will."

Cullen also says many farmers have poor cash flow "so they can't necessarily exploit things like the Natural Heritage Trust".

The State Government has spent $3 million during each of the past nine years on the Department of Land and Water Conservation's Salt Action program. But as the research continues to reveal the huge extent of the problem, competition for the funds to remedy it also increases. Yet the department has recently announced cuts to its contract staff throughout the State.

In Boorowa, David Marsh farms 800 hectares with a mix of sheep and crops. He recognised his salinity problem 20 years ago, and joined Landcare when it started in the late '80s.

Marsh commends the NHT's contribution but summarises the problem as growing awareness confronted by shrinking funds. "There are so many groups now, the dollars just aren't big enough. When we started putting in submissions we had no trouble accessing funding. But now it's much harder."

Marsh says farmers struggle to come up with the two-thirds of the cost required by Landcare and NHT programs.

"People are finding it very hard, though it's amazing how many people are still doing the projects," he says.

Despite the strong support for Landcare programs, the Murray-Darling commission's audit found farmers still underestimating their salinity problem. This creates problems between neighbours because each landholder's actions affect the properties around him. The pressure from their peers on farmers to change their methods places a strain on communities.

Marsh, for example, estimates that 30 per cent of the catchment area around his property needs revegetation, but most landholders find the scale of the task "too confronting".

Worse than those who don't support regeneration programs are those who continue to clear land. And the efforts of farmers like Clarke and Marsh to tackle dryland salinity can also be undermined by nearby towns.

The civic pride that finds expression in rose gardens, manicured lawns and emerald sports ovals can involve excessive watering that lifts the water table.

Salinity has gone urban and towns must be increasingly innovative to counter it. For example, it is easier to get satellites to control sprinklers than it is to get residents to change their watering rituals, as Wagga Wagga Council has found. The council is promoting a sprinkler system linked to satellite weather stations to ensure precise watering of individual gardens and lawns. No more sprinklers spraying away in the pouring rain.

Wagga Wagga today leads the way in dealing with salinity, although the Mayor, Kevin Wales, believes it ignored the problem until as recently as 1994.

The council's manager design services, Bryan Short, says: "People were reluctant to admit that salinity was a problem because they were fearful of the impact on property prices and worried that it would drive business away. We now realise that our problem is not unique, and we are now five years ahead of everyone else."

The showground in Wagga Wagga was the first area to show signs of salinity when large areas refused to grow turf. It cost $250,000 to fix, which made councillors sit up and take note.

Wagga Wagga estimates urban salinity would cost ratepayers $3.2 million a year over the next 30 years if not controlled. The city is proceeding with a strategic plan that includes educating residents about watering and what plants to grow, and using salt-resistant materials in pavements.

Alan Nicholson, the Department of Land and Water Conservation's salinity investigations officer in Wellington in the Central West, jokes, "The only towns in NSW that don't have urban salinity are the ones that I haven't been to yet." And the Mayor of Boorowa, Robert Gledhill, acknowledges the problem. "It is rising up the brickwork, we can see that. We're also aware of the damage it's doing to our roads. I think we're doing everything we possibly can," he says.

Schoolchildren are taken on annual tree-planting excursions, articles are published in the local newspaper and extensive works involving native flora have been carried out in the main street.

Nicholson says Forbes and Boorowa are the worst-affected towns in the Central West. He says he initially had trouble convincing Forbes Shire officers they had a problem, despite a purple tinge on buildings, indicating sodium.

"Water in one drain we tested was half as salty as seawater," he says. "Meters throughout the town show groundwater at 12 metres below the surface over winter. It comes to four metres after rain. And then, with irrigation of gardens in warmer weather, water comes to the surface within another two weeks.

"At the rate water is used, householders could actually grow rice if they wanted to. There is no charge for water, no meters."

Forbes also has to contend with salt pouring into the Lachlan River from higher in its catchment.

The Murray-Darling Basin Commission's audit predicts the 710,000 tonnes of salt already passing through the Lachlan each year will more than double within the next century. Sometime between 2020 and 2030, the salinity levels will exceed the benchmark for human consumption most of the time.

Alistair Lachlan, the Forbes Mayor and a local representative on the Lachlan River Advisory Committee, says as far back as 1994 he tried to persuade State representatives the river was in trouble. But he was told the State Government had no funds.

He says river problems were always put in the too-hard basket. "I took it to mean there was no will to do anything. I wondered whether it was because there were simply not enough votes in the area."

The council is planning to plant trees and to correct poor drainage, but will need outside funds.

Even in western Sydney, clearing is taking its toll. "Nobody has yet recognised that there is an urban salinity problem in Sydney," says Jerzey Jankowski from the University of NSW Groundwater Centre. "There is severe dryland salinity in Longneck Lagoon, close to Windsor."

He predicts serious salinity problems in western Sydney within 10 years. But he cannot be more specific because no research has been done, even though Sydney's problems are quite different to those of country centres and demand separate investigation.

Gerry MacDonald, chairman of the management committee of the South Creek catchment that includes Windsor, Camden, St Marys and Mount Druitt, says: "We just don't know enough about the problem in western Sydney. Salt Action [the government program] funded some exploratory holes, but then funds ran out. We had a salinity officer appointed, but funding was withdrawn at the end of June."

The Department of Land and Water Conservation believes the salinity in western Sydney will follow the geographical formation of the Wianamatta Shales, which are much more easily penetrated by groundwater than the sandstone on which much of Sydney sits. Local government areas above the shales include Campbelltown, Camden, Bankstown, Blacktown, Baulkham Hills, Penrith, Hawkesbury, Liverpool and Fairfield.

But as knowledge of salinity problems in rural and urban areas grows, so does competition for limited funds.

Creative cost-sharing solutions between farmers and government bodies are on the table, including salinity credits, an environmental levy, a fund drawing on a percentage of land tax, a millennium lottery and compensation schemes for buying from farmers their freehold rights to clear.

Announcing the Murray-Darling commission's salinity audit, the Federal Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill, called it "a wake-up call for Australia". Some of Australia has been awake for some time. What is not clear is whether we have the solutions to the problem and the political will to carry them out.

This article was researched with the support of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.