Inquiry into Salinity reports

In amongst all the legislation being pushed through this week, I also got to table the report of the inquiry into salinity which the Senate Environment Committee had been conducting for the last year.

I was very pleased that we managed to get a unanimous report across all party lines, with Liberal, Labor and Green Senators all signing on (along with me) to 23 practical but strong recommendations aimed at improving the ways we deal with salinity.

The report was titled “Living With Salinity” as a way of emphasising that salinity is not like a virus which we are trying to exterminate, but rather a feature of our environment which we have to understand and manage. Whilst we recommended that the government commit to extending existing funding programs, we managed not to just suggest that everything would be solved by pouring lots of extra money into it.

There definitely needs to be more awareness about the impacts and risks of urban salinity. Most people think of salinity as mainly affecting agriculture, but it can and does cause enormous damage to urban infrastructure such as roads, pipes and housing, which can be just as expensive and destructive.

We also need to do better at controlling the behaviours that continue to exacerbate the problem. There is no point spending money trying to fix up damage caused by salinity if people are simultaneously doing things, like landclearing or urban developments, which add to the problem.

In contrast, we are falling short in getting private money into the mix. More private sector involvement in sustainable industries in areas at risk of salinity would assist in keeping these risks under control.

There has been some very impressive scientific research done into many aspects of salinity, which has helped us getter a better grip on the size and nature of the problems which salinity presents. However, we can do a lot better at coordinating and disseminating knowledge, and at focusing it on the significant variations which occur from one region to another.

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  1. Just having a browse through submissions, ch 7 of the report (“the Triple Bottom Line”). Noted all states have serious problems concerning the issue. And problems turn up regularly.
    This week in SA for example, it was reported that a scientist had discovered drastic alterations to salinity levels in the marvellous Barossa Valley soils, due to intensifying irrigation of the region with water piped in from the Murray during the last decade. The developers got their way back then, and quality vines long insync with the capacity of the valley to maintain them were uprooted and replaced by vast acreages producing cheap plonk for domestic and overseas consumption.
    I wade in here where angels fear to tread in observing the submissions regarding user pays v community good. The appropriation of monies for the cleaning up of messes often knowingly created by so-called “developers”, in for a quick buck and then the obligatory tax-write off, at the cost of so many things the community is rightfully entitled to, grated!

    The messes are knowingly left for others to pay for and clean up (the most notorious example in recent times; Cubbie Creek, didn’t get a mention in ch 7, but only because, one suspects, so many other problems also were reported). Time has come for developers to have justify projects BEFOREHAND as to both profiability and ecology on SOUND science, rather than just on neo-lib legal narrowist property rights mumbo- jumbo; BEFORE they are allowed to much in and ruin an area.
    The “Free Market” approach has been tried here, as with public transport and a legion of other issues, and proven to be a chimera. The neo-lib concept that the individual property holder’s capricious selfish gain must precede the interest of the majority, regardless of ANY wider consequences must soon be overthrown, before “tilting point” is passed.
    Lest anyone try the Red Smear as a result of this post: : GENUINE Economics, YES- Shysterism, ignorance(arrogance, meanness, greed and mass pollution, NO !!

  2. Hi Andrew,
    Thanks for letting us know the senate salt report is out.
    While salt causes problems – in my opinion the problem has been grossly exaggerated and continues to be grossly exaggerated particularly for the Murray Darling Basin.
    I’ve just read chapter 2 of your report – and I am amazed the NLWRA 2000 is still being quoted as a reliable source of information.
    I explain some of my issues with this document at the following link and there is also a link to an insightful paper by John Passioura of CSIRO: .
    It is my assessment that the original $1.4 billion for the National Action Plan was secured on the basis of gross exaggeration and distortion of the facts – it was suggested that there was an imminent crisis when the extent of the dryland and irrigation salinity problem was already contracting.
    And I am fascinated that there appears to have been no auditing of how this $1.4 billion has been spent – just more promised?

  3. Ahhh…
    The poor man’s Albrechtsen parachutes in to extinguish any sparks that might have flown as per the committee. One supposes the same sort of response to global warming, soil degadation , deforestation or any serious issue, if one had been made the subject instead.
    Well, Lets hope there aren’t TOO many fools perambulating about the place with their heads shoved up their olfactory, even if there IS a quid to be made representing vested interests. Selfish fools are so blind to the needs of others and of future generations

  4. Paul,
    Do you think you progress understanding of the issue by personally attacking me? Perhaps you don’t really care about the issue? Perhaps you just don’t like the idea that there could be a good news story out there about salinity? I’m betting you hate good news stories when it comes to the environment?
    Back on salt – do you think the $1.4billion has been well spent? Do you think there really is a chance that 17 million hectares could be lost to salt?

  5. I find it very interesting with environmental issues that we often get to a point in the discussions where ‘experts’ firmly disagree upon the ‘facts’. Salinity is a problem. If it is being exagerated as a problem – I ask why? Who gains by exaggerating salinity as a problem? There is danger in these argumetns that we (the non scientist members of the general public) end up not knowing who to believe or, what to do.
    Andrew you stated that the report emphasises that salinity is a ‘feature of our environment that we have to understand and manage’. This is the key I believe. The impact of all elements upon one another in the environment make it a highly complex system and we must make every effort to understand what happens. It is important to become informed and to take responsibility for our own impact. I agree we should demand that businesses whose profits come from endeavours that impact upon salinity, should take direct financial responsibility for its impact – perhaps by investing in research and information dissemination. Legislation ought to force businesses to research new practices that can reduce their impact. This also goes for Greenhouse Gas emissions, etc etc
    PS Heartfelt thanks AB for making an effort towards keeping Ms Average informed.

  6. Jennifer Marohasy’s link take us to what is apparantly a literature review/opinion piece that costs $20 to access. It doesn’t even provide an abstract. Hardly a contribution to public debate! Jennifer, since you have repeatedly cited this paper to support your arguments, let’s see it in the public domain.

    Given his age, (67 this year) I’m not sure that Passioura would still be on CSIRO staff. And the CSIRO issue is interesting: Marohasy has persistently vilified CSIRO science when their results run counter to the interests of her client group, yet here she is using Passioura’s association with CSIRO as a means of validating his opinions.

  7. It is interesting that CSIRO has come around 180 degrees from where they were on this issue. They have changed their position – acknowledge they might have got it wrong and grossly exaggerated the situation.
    But, hey, I have never been much interested in who says what – I just ask you to consider the evidence.

  8. I don’t think its quite right to say that “the NLWRA 2000 is still being quoted as a reliable source of information” as though these figures are what the Committee based its findings on.

    Given how influential this audit was, and the fact the report was an overview of what has happened to date, it would have been strange to omit reference to it.

    However, as the Chapter makes clear, subsequent studies have produced a different set of statistics.

    Paragraphs 2.10 onwards detail some of the alternative findings and includes quotes from Dept officials such as “..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.”

    In para 2.32 the Committee concluded that “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.”

    I think that is a fair overview. Different techniques, evolving scientific understanding and different terminology produce different figures of the overall problem, but I am not aware of anyone disputing that there is a serious problem which is causing significnat economic and environmental loss.

    The most important figures and studies are those that assess areas where salinity is a risk and the extent and type of risk in each region. We still have the chance to avoid this risk in many areas, if we modify our behaviours. Repairing or adapting to environmental or infrastructure damage that has already occurred is one thing, but in my view preventing future damage is most important. Money spent here – and behaviour that is modified – to prevent damage will save a lot down the track.

    Whilst it is reasonable to query the accuracy of earlier studies (or any study), I think it would be dangerous to create an impression from that this then means salinity is not still a major problem – or most importantly a future threat.

  9. thoughts, thoughts, words words. Can I have malcolm turnbull on me doorstep so that i can tie his legs, grab him by the scruff of the neck, and drag him nose first through the salt pans of South Australia?

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