Chapter 2 - The framework to address salinity
What is salinity?
Salinity is a critical problem threatening the
Australian natural environment and the sustainability of productive agriculture
areas. One of Australia’s
most complex and costly environmental issues, it causes damage to roads,
buildings, agricultural production, biodiversity, rivers and water supplies. It
is hard to quantify the cost of this damage, but one widely used estimate puts
the cost of land and water degradation alone at $3.5 billion per annum in
Salts are naturally present in much of the Australian
landscape. Salt stores have accumulated over geological time from cyclic rain,
whereby salt has been carried inland from the oceans by wind and deposited by
rainfall. Examples of this primary or naturally occurring salinity are the
marine plains around the Australian coastline and the salt lakes in central and
western Australia. Salts are also
released from rocks as a result of weathering.
Secondary salinity is the salinisation of land and
water resources due to land use impact by people.
Salinity is categorised in a number of different ways,
depending on how and where salt is mobilised and what the impacts are:
Dryland salinity is salinity that occurs
in non-irrigated areas. It usually occurs where deep-rooted perennial
vegetation is replaced by crops and pastures that use less water because they
have shallow root systems and shorter growth cycles. This increases leakage to
the groundwater system (recharge) which, in some areas, may lead to the
mobilisation of salts stored deep in the soil. Saline groundwater may rise to
the surface (discharge) in low-lying areas or at the break of slope.
Groundwater may also flow underground directly into streams and rivers.
may also be caused by the exposure of naturally saline soils such as
hypersaline clays. Sodic soils (soils that have a high concentration of sodium
ions in comparison to other ions like calcium and magnesium) can also cause
salinity. When wet, sodic soils disperse causing the soil aggregates to
separate and block the soil pores. On drying, sodic soils are often hard and
dense, and form a crust on the soil surface. The poor soil structure reduces
water infiltration and there is little or no leaching of salts below the root
zone. Sodic subsoils can create a perched watertable causing waterlogging of
the root zone.
Irrigation salinity occurs when there is
a localised rise in the level of groundwater caused by the application of large
volumes of irrigation water. This problem is compounded by the replacement of
native vegetation with crops and pastures that use less water. Irrigation
salinity is made worse when water used to irrigate is derived from salty rivers
Urban salinity is the result of a
combination of dryland and irrigation salinity processes. Clearing of
vegetation for urban development and problems like over-watering parks and
gardens, leaking pipes, drains and tanks, and blocking or changing natural
drainage paths can cause the groundwater to rise. Besides naturally occurring
salt, in the urban environment there are many other sources of salt that can
contribute to urban salinity including salt contained in effluent, building
materials, industrial waste water, fertilisers and chemicals.
Industrial salinity results from
industrial processes that concentrate salt in industrial waste water. Effluent
from towns, intensive agriculture and industry can contain high levels of salt.
Coal-fired power stations use water for cooling, a process in which water is
evaporated and salt concentrated. Mining activities undertaken before the
development of strict rehabilitation requirements have led to abandoned mines
being a source of salt in some sub-catchments.
River salinity is caused by saline discharges
from areas affected by dryland, irrigation and urban salinity flowing into
creeks and rivers. Over time, as salinity within catchments worsens, the
quality of river water declines.
The NSW Department of Natural Resource Management
points out that salinity is invariably linked with (or contributes to) other
natural resource problems. In turn, these problems have a range of
environmental, social and economic impacts:
Salinity rarely occurs in
isolation from other natural resource problems such as decreasing soil and
water quality, erosion and loss of native vegetation. For example, water coming
from areas affected by dryland, irrigation or urban salinity flows into creeks
and rivers causing salinity levels to rise. This affects the water quality, which
in turn affects the health of plants and animals. Low water quality affects
farm income but may also impact on town water supply, which can have social and
economic impacts for both rural and urban dwellers caused by rising council
rates and taxes to cover the costs of desalinating the water supply.
As noted earlier, salts are naturally present in the
Australian landscape. Prior to European settlement, native vegetation adapted
natural conditions. With a high prevalence of perennial vegetation with
relatively deep roots, most of the water entering the soil was soaked up. As a
result, the leakage of water past the root zone into the deeper soil and
groundwater was generally minimised.
Salinity-affected land in the Great Southern Region, WA
However, changes in land use since European settlement
significantly changed the hydrology of the Australian landscape. Most notably,
large scale clearing of native vegetation was undertaken, which was then replaced
with shallow-rooted annual crops and pastures. This activity considerably increased
the amount of water entering groundwater systems. In turn, the equilibrium or
balance was disturbed. As the input to the groundwater exceeded the output, the
water table rose discharging more water to the land surface: 'Whenever this
groundwater contains salt or intercepts salt stored in the landscape, salt is
mobilised to these seepage faces, and hence to the land's surface, rivers and
Geographical and temporal separation
The causes of salinisation and the manifestation of its
effects in the landscape may be both spatially and temporally distant from each
Land salinisation occurs when the saline groundwater
evaporates, leaving salt deposits. The salt may then be moved by rain into
waterways and river systems. Water leaking beyond the root zone can also move
laterally through soils and flow directly into rivers and streams. In this way,
the original cause of the water entering the watertable may be distant from where
the effects of salinity manifests. As explained in the House of Representatives
Report, Science Overcoming Salinity, 'salinity
can occur on-site (farm scale), elsewhere in the catchment or outside the
Further there may be a considerable time delay between
the cause of salinity and its effects. Response times in groundwater levels and
time lags between the original cause of salinity and its expression in the
landscape may be up to 100 years or more.
The extent and impact of salinity
There are varying statistics and views on the extent
and impact of salinity in Australia.
In this section, the major surveys of the salinity threat are discussed.
and Water Resources Audit 2000
The most comprehensive attempt to provide an overview
of the (dryland) salinity threat across Australia
was undertaken as part of the National
Land and Water Resources Audit (the
Audit) in 2000. Individual salinity assessments were conducted by six states
(New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and
Tasmania), which were then collated into one report, the Australian Dryland Salinity Assessment 2000.
In this report, the National
Land and Water Resources Audit
Advisory Council reported that approximately 5.7 million hectares of Australia's
agricultural and pastoral zone are in regions at risk of developing dryland
salinity through shallow watertables. Predictions based on groundwater trends,
field surveys and landscape characteristics indicated that unless effective
solutions are implemented, the area could increase to 17 million hectares by
2050. Most is agricultural land (more than 11 million hectares):
Table 1. Areas (ha) with a high potential to develop
dryland salinity in Australia
5 658 000
17 000 000
* The Northern
were not included as the dryland salinity problem was considered to be very
The Audit revealed that the largest areas of dryland
salinity are in the agricultural zone of south-west Western
Australia, where groundwater levels are still rising.
Over four million hectares have areas at risk, which could double the existing
area affected by salinity by 2050. It was also found that large areas are at
risk of dryland salinity in South Australia,
Victoria and New South Wales.
The non-agricultural area of Western
Australia and far western New
South Wales was considered to have a very low
salinity risk and were not included in the assessment. Further, the report
noted the finding of an existing salinity hazard assessment for the Northern
Territory (Tickell 1994b) that the overall hazard for
the Territory was relatively low. As a result, the Audit did not conduct
further assessment of the NT.
It was noted that northern Australia
has far less dryland salinity than temperate Australia.
However, it was acknowledged that dryland salinity could become a problem for
many catchments with high salt stores if water balance changes led to
groundwater rises. The Audit concluded that the extent of salinity in northern Australia
could be minimised by preventive management.
The report highlighted three factors that increase the
impacts of dryland salinity:
its off-site effects
its social and economic consequences
the high level of inputs required to manage
salinity and the long timeframes to achieve this
lakes in the Great Southern Region, WA
Assets at risk of salinity
Salinity can impact on a broad range of assets including
biodiversity, water quality, crops and infrastructure. The Audit report
outlined on-farm and broader impacts:
The main impact of increasing salinity at the farm level is loss
of production and income. Other on-farm effects include the decline in capital
value of land, damage to infrastructure, salinisation of water storage, loss of
farm flora and fauna, and loss of shelter and shade. These effects are
magnified at the regional level, where they have a substantial impact on public
resources such as biodiversity, water supplies and infrastructure.
Table 2. Summary of
assets in areas at high risk from shallow watertables or with a
high salinity hazard
Agricultural land (ha) 1
4 650 000
6 371 000
13 660 000
Remnant and planted perennial vegetation
(ha) 2, 5
2 020 000
Length of streams and lake perimeter (km) 2
Important wetlands (number)1, 4
from all States, Qld only for 2050.
from WA, SA, Vic and NSW, Qld only for 2050.
from WA, SA, Vic and NSW.
Including Ramsar wetlands.
5 Much of
the remnant and perennial vegetation reported for each State occurs on
Other major assessments
In 2002, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS)
conducted a Land Management and Salinity Survey collecting information from farmers on
the extent of land showing signs of salinity as well as the strategies used by
farmers to manage and prevent salinity.
The results showed a lower level of saline land than
other sources. The report suggested that these different results are most
likely the consequence of different concepts, assessment methods and coverage
used in each study. The ABS survey covered agricultural land as it is defined
for ABS agricultural collections. This includes about 60% of Australian land. Information
on all salinity, not just dryland salinity as in the other studies, was
The survey confirmed that Western
Australia is the state most affected by salinity and
that the Northern Territory, Australian
Capital Territory and Tasmania
are the least affected.
A comparison of the ABS figures with the figures from
two previous studies, the 1999 report of the Prime Minister's Science
Engineering and Innovation Council and the National
Land and Water Resources Audit, is
shown in the table below:
Table 3. Area
affected by salinity, comparison of survey results with other estimates
of salinity affected land (a)
at risk of salinity (b)
showing signs of salinity (c)
(a) As determined by experts.
(b) As estimated from water
(c) As reported by farmers.
variations in estimates of areas considered to be at risk as a result of the
use of different testing methods were noted by Professor Copeland, Director of the Centre for Salinity Assessment and Management, University
of Sydney. In response to Committee questioning on the current extent of salinity,
I think there are
different ways of measuring salinity and salinity threat. Each has its
strengths and limitations, and calibration between the different methods is
also not the easiest thing to do, so to base a conclusion on one type of
measurement is perhaps a little bit open to question. I think the temporal
aspect is also really critical. Taking a snapshot of a particular time does not
really give you much information. You need to measure it over a period to see
what the trend is, to establish if it is increasing or decreasing. I think that
will tell you what is really happening. But I repeat that each of the
techniques that is used to measure has its strengths and weaknesses, and we
have got to recognise that.
recent paper by the Australian Farm Institute examined the methodologies
underpinning the figures in the 2000 Audit report. It notes that the risk
assessments conducted across the states were based on a range of factors and
that the data available on each of these factors was highly variable. The paper
concludes that the 2000 Audit figures were considerably overestimated.
as Mr Aldred from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry explained,
the Audit assessment was 'based on the best available science and information
at the time'. He went on to say that 'the science that underpins those sorts of
assessments has continued to be worked on' and, in light of this, information
and figures are in the process of being updated.
Mr Peter Baker, Bureau of Rural Sciences, told the Committee that recent work
indicates the salinity risk in eastern Australia is more localised than earlier predicted:
it has become quite
clear from work done over the last five years, largely financed through the
National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, that the concept of salt
being everywhere and prevalent is not accurate. It is actually confined to some
specific parts of the landscape.
on to clarify that even if the salt is there, the risk of it actually being
mobilised has been shown to be less through more detailed mapping of the
In response to questions concerning the current and
likely future environmental and economic impacts of salinity, Mr
Lee, Natural Resource Management Team,
Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF), said:
...I think it is fair to say that, with increasing knowledge, it
seems the picture may be a little more optimistic than we thought from the
first review of salinity risk provided by the National
Land and Water Resources Audit. For
instance, I believe that, while the aggregate figures in the projections for
salinisation in the wheat belt of Western Australia
are still remarkably high, they have come down somewhat from the projections
that were published in 1999 or 2000 from that work. With better understanding,
we are also seeing the mechanisms of salinity and understanding them better. ...
we are seeing that the hazard in eastern Australia
is more specific and perhaps more manageable, so the picture is more optimistic
than we thought.
Mr Lee went on to explain that advances in knowledge
and emerging tools enable more precise mapping and, in turn, the opportunity
for more targeted interventions.
suggested that in the light of this emerging information, revision of the
previous hazard maps is required. However,
he did caution that while the salinity picture looks more optimistic, several
years of drought has provided temporary respite. He also noted that salinity
still presents a major environmental and economic challenge:
...there is a counter-risk that the drought has essentially masked
the appearance of the salinity problem over the last several years. Ground
water levels have been depleted by drought, and you can see that there is a
large seasonal and interseasonal component, no doubt, in ground water levels
and the salinity that has been expressed. The impacts of salinity have been
disguised somewhat by drought over the period. ... So what is actually happening
in an underlying way is probably more severe than what we are observing. But I
think by any calculation we are still faced with a major threat to our
biodiversity, our agriculture and our civic infrastructure across the country.
This view was reiterated by Dr
who told the Committee that:
I do believe there is a grave risk that we are thinking that
salinity is all over because we have had a series of dry years, particularly on
the east, but not only there. One of the things that we know from the National
Dryland Salinity Program is that some of these ground water systems are very
sluggish. They respond very slowly. Some of them, the local ones, respond quite
quickly but the regional intermediate ones take a long time to respond. So if
we go into a wet period, and none of us can predict whether we will or not,
particularly if it is dominated by episodic events—floods—we may well find that
it all comes back to bite us again. We will just repeat it all and people will trawl
out statements that people made 10 years ago and say, ‘Why didn’t we listen?’
We are having a bit of a honeymoon or spell from dryland salinity at the
moment. I would have to be honest and say that is a gut feeling, but one based
on having read a lot of stuff.
The National Land
and Water Resources Audit 2000 salinity assessment provided a broad brush
picture of the salinity threat in Australia.
Evidence suggests this has been instrumental in focusing greater attention on
the salinity problem. The Committee was encouraged to hear that recent
knowledge and more sophisticated mapping offer an outlook that is not quite as
bleak as previously thought. However, the Committee appreciates that salinity
still presents a significant environmental and economic challenge.
Salinity management in Australia
The range of measures the Australian Government is applying
to the salinity problem includes research and development, making direct on-ground
interventions, and developing timely information on salinity and building
capacity. In collaboration with the
states and territories, the Australian Government is dealing with salinity
through a wide range of initiatives and research and development bodies. The
major programs and initiatives are discussed below.
The three main programs administered at the
Commonwealth level to tackle salinity and other national resource management
issues are the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (NAP), the
Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) and the National Landcare Program (NLP). The NAP
is directed at improving salinity and water quality conditions in the
Australian environment whilst the NHT is focused on the protection and
sustainable use of Australia’s
land, water and marine resources. The NLP focus is on ensuring sustainable agriculture
practices and providing support to landholders at the local level. The Natural Resource Management Ministerial
Council (NRMMC) oversees the development and implementation of these national
natural resource management programs.
The Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council
The Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council
(NRMMC) consists of the Australian, state/territory and New
Zealand government ministers responsible for
primary industries, natural resources, environment and water policy. The
Council is the peak government forum for consultation, coordination and, where
appropriate, integration of action by governments on natural resource
management issues. Its objective is: 'to promote the conservation and
sustainable use of Australia's
The NRMMC seeks to:
develop policies and strategies for national
approaches to the conservation, sustainable use and management of Australia's
land, water, vegetation and biological resources;
oversee the development and implementation of
national natural resource management programs including the National Action
Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (NAP), the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) and
other agreed programs;
monitor and evaluate outcomes of these policies,
strategies and programs and the health of the nation's natural resources;
promote community understanding of and
engagement with the key challenges associated with the sustainable use and
management of Australia's land and water, vegetation and biological resources;
liaise with other Ministerial Councils and other
bodies on matters relevant to the activities of the Council.
Natural Resource Management Standing Committee
The Standing Committee supports the Council in meeting
its objectives. Membership is comprised of all departmental heads/CEOs of the
Australian, state/territory and New Zealand
government agencies responsible for natural resource policy.
Expert advisory committees have been established to
provide advice to the Standing Committee and the Council. In turn, a range of
working groups and ad hoc task forces support the work of the advisory
The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality
In November 2000, at the Council of Australian
Governments' meeting, Premiers and Chief Ministers supported the Prime
Minister’s proposal for the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality
(NAP). The goal of the NAP is to motivate and enable regional communities to:
prevent, stabilise and reverse trends in
salinity, particularly dryland salinity affecting the sustainability of
production, the conservation of biological diversity and the viability of our
improve water quality and secure reliable
allocations for human uses, industry and the environment.
Through the NAP the Australian and state/territory governments
are investing a total of $1.4 billion over the period to 2007-08. These funds support
the actions of communities and land managers in selected priority regions
to manage salinity and improve water quality in their region.
The NAP operates in 21 priority regions across Australia
and is complemented by region-based planning and action through the extension
of the NHT.
Support is provided in three main ways:
Foundation funding is provided by the National
Action Plan to help make sure all priority regions have accredited regional
catchment strategies to support future investment. Foundation funding allows
the development of targets to measure landscape changes, and enables community
participation and support plan development. Activities in a foundation program
can include: development of an investment plan and a communication plan,
facilitated risk and R&D needs analysis, and preparing a strategy for
monitoring and evaluation. The foundation program can be used to fill
information gaps and to provide natural resource data and information required
for ongoing salinity planning and monitoring.
Priority actions are proposals agreed between the
Australian Government, state/territory governments and regional bodies prior to
accreditation of the regional catchment strategy. The proposals recognise that,
in some areas, significant planning efforts have already been made in
consultation with the community. The actions proposed are expected to be
consistent with priorities identified under existing plans and activities.
Capacity building is a high priority and all
investments are directed to providing information, tools or skills to support
the outcomes of the National Action Plan. There is an emphasis on building the capacity
of communities and landholders to assist them to develop and implement an
accredited regional catchment strategy.
The NAP incorporates six key elements:
setting of targets and standards for natural
investment based on integrated regional natural
resource management plans;
capacity building for communities;
improved governance frameworks;
clear roles for all levels of government and
public communication programs.
In December 2004 the Australian National Audit Office
(ANAO) tabled its audit report on the administration of the National Action
Plan for Salinity and Water Quality.
The objective of the audit was to examine and report on the planning and
corporate governance for the new regional delivery model of the NAP program.
A more detailed discussion of this report is dealt with
in Chapter 3.
The National Heritage Trust
The NHT was set up in 1997 to assist in the restoration
and conservation of Australia's
environment and natural resources. The NHT provides funding for environmental
activities at a national, state, regional and community level. Its goal is to
stimulate activities in the national interest to achieve the conservation,
sustainable use and repair of Australia’s
The Natural Heritage Ministerial
The Natural Heritage Minsiterial Board was
established under the Natural Heritage
Trust of Australia Act 1997. It is comprised of the Minister for the
Environment and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.
The Board is a formal mechanism through which the
two portfolios liaise and collaborate on matters relating to the Trust package.
The two Ministers are requried to consult with each other on all decisions
relating to the expenditure of Trust funds. All decisions must accord with the
principles of ecologically sustainable development.
Natural Heritage Trust extension
In the 2001 Federal Budget, an additional
$1 billion was allocated to the NHT, extending the funding for a further five
years. It was specified that at least $350 million of this additional funding was
to be spent on measures to improve Australia's
water quality. A further $300 million was announced in the 2004 Federal Budget,
extending the funding to 2007-2008. This made the total investment in the NHT
Under the NHT extension (NHT2) there was a fundamental
shift towards a more targeted approach to environmental and natural resource
management in Australia.
These included improved water quality, less erosion, improved estuarine health,
improved vegetation management and improved soil condition. State and territory
governments match the Australian Government’s investment in delivering the NHT
at a regional level, with funding going to activities based on regional plans.
National Landcare Program
The National Landcare Program (NLP) supports the
landcare movement and the sustainable use and management of natural resources. The
NLP consists of two sub-programs - Community Support and the National
NLP Community Support provides support for community
landcare groups and resource-based industries with the purpose of ensuring
effective links with regional NRM plans and investment strategies of NAP and
NHT. The role of landcare is to facilitate links between regional plans and
farmers through their common need for information about effective natural
resource management practices, including those to manage salinity.
The NLP National Component supports activities of a
national or overarching nature. This has included grants for groups or
individuals to test innovations that contribute to improved natural resource
management. The National Component also supports partnership projects with
industry groups and includes development and implementation of industry
strategies to manage the causes and effects of salinity.
Since the 1993-94 financial year, the Australian
Government has allocated $830 million to the NLP. In the 2004-05 budget the
Australian Government appropriated a further $110 million to this program over
the three financial years 2005-06 to 2007-08.
The Regional Model
A regional model underpins the delivery of the NAP and
the NHT. A total of 56 NRM regions have been established across Australia
with a corresponding regional body. Each region develops a regional plan, which
is accredited in accordance with agreed national standards. These plans form
the basis for investment of NAP and NHT funds.
The regional bodies are responsible for: regional
planning and investment; engaging community involvement in the planning
process; and reporting against targets at the regional scale.
Environments differ across Australia
shaped by specific local conditions. The capacity to understand and respond to
these varying conditions is viewed as a critical component of the regional
from the CSIRO told the Committee that:
the management of salinity depends on the precise local
conditions and the trade-off decisions with other regional goals that have to
be made within each region on its own. So this requires that the general
principles are interpreted through a deep knowledge of the local conditions in
each region. This is the real crux of the challenge of salinity management.
The regional delivery model is discussed in greater
detail in Chapter 4.
Other major program and initiatives
Along with the three major programs discussed above,
the Australian Government invests in a range of research and development
initiatives that address salinity management. This includes projects undertaken
by: rural industry research and development corporations (RDCs); Cooperative
Research Centres (CRCs); science
organisations such as the CSIRO; and the joint state initiative, the
Murray-Darling Basin Initiative. A brief summary of some of these initiatives
is provided below.
The Murray-Darling Basin
Initiative – Basin Salinity Management Strategy
The Basin Salinity Management Strategy (BSMS) sits
under the Murray-Darling Basin Initiative, which gives effect to the 1992
Murray-Darling Basin Agreement. The Agreement is 'to promote and coordinate
effective planning and management for the equitable, efficient and sustainable
use of the water, land and other environmental resources of the Murray-Darling
Basin'. The Agreement was signed by
the Australian, NSW, Victoria, South Australian,
Queensland and ACT governments.
The BSMS is a 15-year strategy, which guides
communities and governments in managing salinity in the Murray-Darling
Basin. The strategy sets targets
for the river salinity of the Murray-Darling system and each major tributary
The objectives of the strategy are:
- maintaining the water quality of the shared
water resources of the Murray and Darling Rivers;
- controlling the rise in salt loads in all
tributary rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin;
- controlling land degradation and protecting
important terrestrial ecosystems, productive farm land, cultural heritage and
built infrastructure; and
- maximising net benefits from salinity control
across the Basin.
Land & Water
is a statutory research and development corporation in the Australian
Government Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry portfolio. It is
responsible for 'research and development (R&D) aimed at the productive and
sustainable management of the land, water and vegetation resources underpinning
industries and regional communities'.
principal contribution to salinity management was its involvement in the
National Dryland Salinity Program (discussed below). However, it continues to
contribute to salinity management through:
hosting the National Land and Water Resources
Audit, which invests in data collection of salinity and other NRM trends
Managing the National Knowledge Brokering for
Regional NRM Project (discussed in Chapter 5)
National Dryland Salinity Program
The National Dryland Salinity Program (NDSP) ran
between 1993 and 2004. The program was managed by Land
& Water Australia
in partnership with Australian and state government agencies, CSIRO, the
Murray-Darling Basin Commission and industry research and development
The NDSP provided a national forum for awareness
raising, and knowledge generation and exchange, bringing together many of
Australia's leading hydrogeologists, soil scientists, agronomists, economists,
social scientists and policy advisers.
The NDSP ran over two five-year phases. During this
time approximately 50 research projects were commissioned, coordinated and
managed, with an investment value of almost $25 million. In the final year of
the NDSP (2003-04) the findings of these projects were pulled together to
create the Managing Dryland Salinity in
Australia Resource Kit. 
The NDSP and the NDSP products are considered in more
detail in Chapter 5.
Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Plant-based Management of Dryland
The CRC for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity is
a national organisation linking over 300 researchers and 11 industry partners
across four states (WA, SA, Victoria and NSW). The CRC works with the CRC for
Australian Weed Management, CRC for Landscape Environments and Mineral
Exploration, Land & Water Australia, CRC for Catchment Hydrology, Meat and
Livestock Australia, Australian Wool Innovation, the Grains Research and
Development Corporation and federal, state and territory agencies.
The CRC focuses on the interaction between the natural
and agricultural ecosystems with the aim of providing new plant-based land use
systems that reduce the economic, environmental and social impacts of dryland
Some examples of research programs underway include:
Sustainable Grazing from Saline Lands –
researching, refining and demonstrating the scope for profitable livestock
enterprises on salt affected land;
Perennial Pasture for High Rainfall Zones –
developing, testing and demonstrating new plant-based systems that are
profitable and reduce off-site impacts, especially recharge to groundwater;
Ecosystems Function in Recharge Zones –
increasing understanding of water management in natural ecosystems to create
the scientific fundamentals for developing plant-based solutions to dryland
FloraSearch – builds on the WA Search project
investigating new products and industries from Australian native woody
perennial plants to improve sustainability of farming practices in the more
challenging low rainfall zones where salinity is a more intractable problem.
'Science Overcoming Salinity': House of Representatives Report
On 18 August
2003, the Minister for Science, the Hon. Peter
McGauran MP, referred to the House of
Representatives Standing Committee on Science and Innovation an inquiry into
the 'Commonwealth’s role in managing and coordinating the application of the best
science in relation to Australia’s
salinity programs'. The Committee
was asked to give particular consideration to the:
- use of the salinity science base and research data
(including the development of new scientific, technical and engineering
knowledge) in the management, coordination and implementation of salinity
between those conducting research and those implementing salinity solutions,
including the coordination and dissemination of research and data across
jurisdictions and agencies, and to all relevant decision makers (including
catchment management bodies and land holders); and
- adequacy of technical and scientific support in
applying salinity management options.
The inquiry did not focus on the causes of salinity,
but rather sought to determine whether the best and most up-to-date science was
being applied to individual problems, and whether effective coordination was in
place so that the science made it ‘down to the ground’. The Committee reported
its findings in May 2004 and made twenty-four recommendations.
This section provides a summary of the House of
Representatives' Science Overcoming
Salinity Report. The recommendations from the House of Representatives
Report are contained in Appendix 4 of this report.
In Chapter 2, the report examined the major national
programs aimed at addressing salinity: the National Action Plan for Salinity
and Water Quality (NAP); the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT); and the National Landcare
Program (NLP). Also examined were strategies to address salinity in the Murray-Darling
Basin and a number of state and
local government initiatives. In examining these programs four key issues of
concern were identified.
First, it was found that the architecture of the NAP:
Inhibited national research coordination;
did not have a charter to fund salinity
had geographic gaps by focussing on only 21
excluded industry participation and marginalised
state agency involvement;
rendered achievement of targets under the
Murray-Darling Basin Salinity Management Strategy vulnerable; and
lacked a rigorous scientific basis for the
allocation of funds to regions.
Second, the report highlighted a failure to incorporate
key research findings into salinity programs and the mistaken presumption that
economically viable solutions were available for widespread adoption.
Third, it was found that the Australian Government’s
science investments neglected research into new salinity management methods and
technologies. This was evident in both inadequate support for R&D into new
salinity management methods and technologies and poor coordination between
NAP-related research agencies and state and regional activities.
Fourth, there was concern that region-based planning
and delivery of NRM programs would introduce additional complexity and
fragmentation into the salinity research effort and that this may be
exacerbated by limitations in the capacity of some regional bodies.
The report noted considerable variation across regional
bodies in the uptake of science. The Committee recommended that regional
planning, investment strategies and on-ground works be informed by the best
available science and that regional bodies and land managers be adequately
supported to use and incorporate science into their planning and investment
activities (See Appendix 4, recommendation 1).
Chapter 3 of the report provides an overview of the
nature of the salinity problem and examines alternative scientific perspectives
on the sources of salt, salinity processes, the extent of the salinity problem
and the veracity of some public sector research and audits.
The report noted that while the precise extent of salinisation
is unclear, 5.7 million hectares of agricultural and pastoral land were estimated
to have a high potential for developing salinity and that two million hectares
of agricultural land were currently showing signs of salinity. The effect of salinity
in urban areas was also canvassed.
The costs imposed on landholders, governments and
residents of rural towns as a result of salinity on infrastructure, water
quality, productive land, bio-diversity, remnant vegetation and conservation
reserves was identified as significant. The following estimated figures were
the loss in profits for the agricultural sector
in Western Australia - estimated at between $80 and $260 million per year
the cost of dryland salinity in eight tributary
valleys of the Murray-Darling Basin - approximately $247 million per year
the cost of salinity to consumptive users of
River Murray water - totals $47 million per year
in Wagga Wagga, the damage to infrastructure in
the town would amount to $180 million over 30 years, with some residents
already spending up to $20 000 to repair their homes.
Chapter 4 reviews the agencies and programs whose
research efforts constitute the ‘science base and research data’ to address salinity
at the national level. The chapter identifies that a wealth of salinity
research has been undertaken by a range of Australian Government funded
agencies and programs, including: national science agencies, Cooperative
Research Centres, Research and Development Corporations (RDCs), the National
Dryland Salinity Program (NDSP), the National Land and Water Resources Audit,
and universities. Further, it identifies an array of research products and
management tools that have been developed.
However, the Committee found a lack of coordination and
consolidation of these research products and management tools. It identified
the need for a comprehensive audit of the Australian Government investment in
salinity research to: map the salinity science base and management tools
currently available; identify critical research gaps; and assist in bringing
greater coherence to the range of science investments for salinity and,
potentially, improve their effectiveness (see Appendix 4, recommendation 2).
Chapter 5 describes the coordination of salinity
research at national and state levels, the challenges for research coordination
in the new NRM environment and institutional proposals for improved
coordination. Evidence reviewed in this chapter suggests that there are
benefits for salinity R&D to be nationally coordinated. The reasons for this
were outlined as follows:
the structural changes ushered in with the NAP,
notably the devolution of NRM responsibilities to regions and the fragmentation
of efforts at the national level;
the perhaps unavoidable complexity of salinity
research efforts across a large number of agencies and programs, which need to
be effectively coordinated—now more than ever;
to link research providers and their products
with CMOs, land managers and others undertaking on-ground works;
to identify the R&D issues of national
significance, ensure they are adequately addressed and avoid duplication;
to maintain the momentum developed through the
NDSP in R&D and extension; and
to better coordinate research programs with
state and territory salinity strategies, so as to avoid overlap between
governments at different levels.
The report highlighted the then imminent closure of the
National Dryland Salinity Program (NDSP) and noted that the NDSP served a
unique function, which would be missed if discontinued. Consequently, the Committee
argued that the role of the NDSP be continued and its functions expanded to address
other relevant matters, including irrigation and urban salinity (see Appendix
4, recommendation 3).
Chapter 6 canvasses the adequacy of the science base, research
needs and funding. The chapter reinforces findings in earlier chapters that, given
the volume of salinity research that has been undertaken to date, the necessity
for significant additional research was not an issue. However, the need to fund
on-ground works and address barriers to the adoption of existing research was
identified as an immediate priority.
The report outlined several salinity research needs as
additional basic research, including into the
sources of salt and salinisation processes;
improvements in groundwater mapping and
monitoring methods that can be used and responded to by land managers and CMOs;
improvements in modelling techniques to provide
more useful guidance on targeted responses, rather than widespread landscape
better understanding of the effectiveness of
different engineering solutions for treating rising groundwater levels, and
improving design of future engineering options (for example, to deal with
saline effluent from groundwater pumping);
better understanding of the impact of salinity
on freshwater environments, biodiversity and the relationship between landscape
and waterscape processes;
intensification of urban salinity research,
particularly pertaining to assessment and risk evaluation, options for treatment
and management and development of appropriate building codes;
intensification of research into vegetative
solutions, including perennial plant-based systems for recharge and discharge
development of technologies for making
productive use of salinised land and water resources, with specific emphasis on
generating marketable products and industries;
combined systems research into multiple benefits
from perennial vegetation, in particular biodiversity, carbon sequestration and
socio-economic analysis to improve resource
allocation and better understand constraints to the widespread adoption of
developing innovative policy instruments to deal
with the diversity of management regimes required to address salinity; and
encouraging the emergence of new industries and
environmental management system frameworks for existing industries that will increase
the adoption of salinity management technologies as they develop.
From this analysis several recommendations were made.
The Committee noted that the arrest of salinity
requires substantial land use change, which will only be achieved through the
development of commercial crops and new industries. The Australian Government's
calls to encourage commercially-driven tree production systems, including the development
of environmental markets, and to ensure that regional bodies introduce industry
development planning into their NRM planning and R&D funding prioritisation
processes was reiterated and a recommendation made to this effect (see Appendix
4, recommendation 5).
Chapter 6 also discussed the effects of urban salinity
and recommended the need for the development of technologies to address urban
salinity, including salinity assessment and risk evolution methods and options for
treatment and management (see Appendix 4, recommendation 6).
The need for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary
research in order to address the silo and specialisation approaches to both
research and resource management was recommended (see Appendix 4,
recommendation 7). The report noted that this specialisation clashes with the
needs of landholders, who must manage a multitude of themes simultaneously and integrate
knowledge across a range of disciplines. It was acknowledged that landholders
require knowledge and tools that enable them to address the interplay between resource
Funding for nationally coordinated salinity research
was highlighted. The Committee recommended that the Australian and state governments
make provision within the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality
for the establishment of a salinity research and development fund, to finance
research that is of national or state-wide significance, beyond the scope of individual
regional bodies. Further, it was advised that the allocation of the pooled research
funds have regard for the research needs of regional bodies and the research
priorities identified in the report (see Appendix 4, recommendation 8).
The Committee recommended that the Australian Government
encourage Research and Development Corporations to invest more substantially in
research for sustainable land use systems and in the development of new
salinity technologies (see Appendix 4, recommendation 9).
In order to facilitate greater regional body
involvement in research at the regional level, the Committee recommended that, in
cooperation with the states, the Australian Government: identify and remove
impediments for regional bodies to undertake or commission research, and encourage
regional bodies to support research activity as part of their investment
strategies; provide incentives for greater collaboration between regional
bodies to support research of cross-catchment benefit; and provide an
appropriate degree of support to evaluate tenders and contracts let at the
regional level (see Appendix 4, recommendation 10).
Chapter 6 also outlines the need for private sector
investment in salinity research (see Appendix 4, recommendation 11) and the
need for governments to encourage the development of industry capacity in
salinity research and development through the open tendering of public research
funds (see Appendix 4, recommendation 12).
Chapter 7 reviews the Australian Government’s data collection,
management and retrieval arrangements and outlines a number of concerns with
regard to the collection and management of salinity data. Several issues were
the difficulties associated with accessing data
held by individual researchers, research organisations and government agencies;
the need for nationally consistent data
measurement and collection standards across regions, states and other
the need to ensure data is maintained
the lack of data upon which to make informed
the lack of certainty over the long-term funding
for the collection of salinity data.
The chapter canvasses options for improving
coordination and retrieval of data and describes the Australian Government’s
initiatives aimed at reducing the problems associated with data management. In
particular the National Land
and Water Resource Audit is reviewed, as is a range of initiatives at the state
and territory level. While the Committee found that the Australian Government played
a vital role in the management of NRM data, problems persist. As a result, it
was recommended that governments expedite the development of data management
systems that are standardised, integrated and accessible (see Appendix 4,
Further, the Committee recommended that with the increased
involvement of regional bodies in data collection, the Australian Government
increase efforts to equip managers of regional projects with the requisite
skills for data management (see Appendix 4, recommendation 14).
Chapter 7 also discussed mapping technologies, with the
Committee noting that mapping technologies may perform an important role in
The final chapter of the report – Chapter 8 - reviews
the adequacy of the technical and scientific support for land managers who implement
salinity management options. In particular the chapter is concerned with
extension services and the effectiveness of current arrangements for the
transfer of information.
As in previous chapters, the Committee found that there
was a need to consolidate information to build a national database of
interpretative material, scientific research and data relating to salinity and
its management (see Appendix 4, recommendation 15).
The Committee found that the success of salinity
management depends on the commitment and actions of individuals and community groups,
in particular regional bodies. Good face-to-face extension with experienced and
trusted extension staff was found to lead to a more rapid and widespread adoption
of new technologies and management options. Therefore, the Committee
recommended that government agencies and industry groups enhance their support
for face-to-face extension services (see Appendix 4, recommendation 16).
Further, it was recommended that relevant state government agencies compile and
publish a state-by-state manual of viable salinity management options, to
assist extension staff and land managers (see Appendix 4, recommendation 17).
The Committee noted that state and territory
governments were withdrawing from the provision of extension services in their
traditional form and urged a review of this issue, with particular regard to:
the employment conditions of extension officers; their potential career pathways;
and the adequacy of the training provided for officers to ensure their
knowledge of technical, scientific and policy issues, relating to NRM and in
particular salinity, is current and comprehensive (see Appendix 4,
The lack of comprehensive data on the Australian
Government's role in the provision of salinity extension programs was raised as
an issue. Consequently, the Committee recommended that governments undertake an
audit of the national, state and regional extension services available for
salinity management, and natural resource management more generally (see
Appendix 4, recommendation 19).
Chapter 8 also examined the National Landcare Program
and found that Landcare activities are vital to the transfer of information on
salinity and its management. While acknowledging reservations about Landcare’s
ability to facilitate sufficient land use change in its current form, the
Committee suggested that this does not detract from Landcare’s role in the
communication and dissemination of information about salinity. Further, it
simply highlights the need for better management options to be developed by
researchers, and the strengthening of the mechanism by which information is
transferred from researchers to extension providers.
The Committee recommended that the effectiveness of NLP
facilitators in the design and implementation of regional plans be assessed in
order to clearly delineate their role and avoid duplication with other
extension services (see Appendix 4, recommendation 20).
In examining investments under the National Action Plan
and the Natural Heritage Trust, the Committee reported that a number of
facilitators had been employed at national/state and regional/local levels.
However, the Committee recommended a need to enhance the capacity of extension
staff through suitable employment conditions, career pathways and adequate
training (see Appendix 4, recommendation 21).
At a regional level, the Committee reviewed the role
and ability of regional bodies to provide extension services. While many
regional bodies were well positioned to provide these services, the Committee found
serious concerns about the capacity of many others to adequately extend
salinity research and other relevant NRM information. The Committee therefore
recommended that additional support be provided to regional bodies (see
Appendix 4, recommendation 22).
The Committee proposed involving scientists in the
direct extension of their research findings as this has the dual function of
ensuring (a) findings are correctly interpreted; and (b) the priorities of land
managers are relayed back to researchers. The Committee recommended that the
Australian Government support the establishment of a national annual forum on
salinity policy, research and management under the umbrella of the NAP for a
wider range of interested participants (see Appendix 4, recommendation 23).
Finally the Committee also saw a role for the private
sector in the provision of extension services and recommended that impediments
be removed to facilitate this (see Appendix 4, recommendation 24).
Action taken against report recommendations
The Government response to the House of Representatives
Report was published in December 2005.
The response and evidence received on action taken against the recommendations
of the House of Representatives Report are discussed within the context of each
of the following chapters. A brief summary is then outlined in the concluding
chapter of this report.
Throughout the remainder of this report, the House of
Representatives Standing Committee on Science and Innovation's report, Science Overcoming Salinity, will be
referred to as the House of Representatives Report.
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