SOUR TASTE FOR SALT
Wheatbelt farmers concerned about salinity creep are frustrated that an application for Royalties for Regions funds to help install a drainage system has been ruled out after the program was decimated in the State Budget.
The Wheatbelt Catchment Alliance of WA had presented a case to the State Government seeking $4 million in R4R funding towards the 2500km project to arrest salinity and reclaim land that has become unproductive.
But last week’s Budget practically gutted the R4R program, diverting $674 million from regional allocations towards paying for election promises.
The WCA represents six major drainage regions in the Wheatbelt and had prepared a detailed business case, which would involve a partnership of farmers and government.
WCA committee member and Beacon farmer John Dunne said salinity had resulted from the clearing of deep-rooted vegetation to use the land for agriculture, in turn causing groundwater to rise and salt previously stored deep in the soil to move upwards.
“About 9 per cent of the Wheatbelt’s nine million hectares is unproductive because of salt encroachment, yet three quarters of this could be recovered in the long term by introducing a controlled and regulated drainage network,” he said.
It would ultimately involve a Government contribution of $27.5 million over five years, though only $4 million would be required in the first year.
The group met Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan’s parliamentary secretary Darren West in May to present the business case.
Under the proposal, the Government would fund the equivalent of 1000km of arterial drains, while farmers would contribute the rest, including long-term maintenance.
For every kilometre of drains financed by the Government, farmers would construct a further 1.5km of interconnecting pipes at their own expense, to connect to the arterial drains and thereby ameliorate the salinity problem and return a high proportion of salt-affected land to productive agricultural land.
“I was told it was not funded because money was only available for new projects in this Budget,” Mr Dunne said.
“But the previous government has already started the project.
“The Department of Water and Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development contributed $120,000 to complete the first phase of a multi-stage project, which was a review of existing drains throughout the Wheatbelt.
“Salinity is creeping up to higher farmlands. Farms that have previously not been affected by salinity are now losing arable lands and have no way of conveying the excess water to a safe disposal point.”
Mr Dunne said the 22 local governments involved with the multi-stage project had signed on to the project, understanding it would be partly funded by R4R.
“The initiative will become self-funding after about six or seven years because as the farmers contribute, we will no longer require the seed funding,” he said. “We need the seed funding to establish the governance, such as a regional organisation of participating councils.”
Kalannie farmer Bob Nixon said he had pumped salty underground water from an aquifer on his farm for 21 years. He said over that time, it had saved about 1000ha of the farm’s most valuable cropping land from becoming saline.
“When I came back in the early 1990s, the water tables through the valley floor were 1.5m to 1.8m deep and twice as saline as seawater,” he said.
“So we put two submersible pumps running off mains electricity, pumping up to 480 tonnes of brackish water into the lake system we have been lucky to have on the property.
“The pumps delivering the water into the old paleo drainage channel have provided ample draw-down effects, fixing the land from the effects of salinity.
Mr Nixon said pumping the water had delivered up to a 40 per cent crop yield increase.
“The advantage of this country in drier years is the low-lying valley floor holds moisture, so it is our most valuable country,” he said.
“At the top of the hills this year, we’ve got a failed crop that we won’t even harvest, but the crops on the valley floor could yield 1.5t/ha.”
Kalannie farmer Bob Nixon and WCA committee member John Dunne at the main drainage channel on Mr Nixon's property. The pipe is disposing of salty wastewater from two groundwater pumps.
Wheatbelt Catchment Alliance committee member John Dunne says a new approach to managing salinity in the Wheatbelt is urgently required to reverse the degradation of prime farmland in the State, by reclaiming land that has already become unproductive. He is pictured near a drain flowing into the Yarra Yarra Lakes system.