Countryman - - FRONT PAGE - Rueben Hale and Jenne Bram­mer

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.”

Pic­ture: Rueben Hale Photo avail­able at west­

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.

Pic­ture: Rueben Hale Photo avail­able at west­

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.

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