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Salt Wars -

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Salt Wars

Reporter: Sean Murphy

First Published: 28/10/2007

PIP COURTNEY, PRESENTER: In this time of drought, you'd think the last thing farmers would have to
worry about is a flood.

In Western Australia, however, wheat farmers face the so-called silent flood: rising salt waters
that affect about 20,000 hectares a year in the country's most lucrative grain-growing region.

There's now a new push to expand a possible solution to salinity, known as deep drainage.

But not all farmers are happy with the results.

SEAN MURPHY, REPORTER: At Morowa in the northern wheat belt of Western Australia, Rod Madden is
steeling himself for another tough year.

ROD MADDEN, MOROWA FARMER: It's about as bad as you can get it. I think since the 1st of June we've
had maybe 3 inches of rain. That's pretty tough. In fact, the last... five of the last seven years
have been pretty lean, but, yeah, let's hope that the seasons turn around and in the future we'll
have some good ones.

SEAN MURPHY: Rod Madden can't do anything to make it rain, but he reckons he has found the answer
to turning back the tide of salinity on his 5,500-hectare farm. Since the 1960s, rising salt has
been like a cancer taking out what was once his most productive cropping land on the valley floors.
And, until recently, it had consumed almost 20 per cent of the land originally cleared in 1922.

Two years ago, Rod Madden dug an 8km-long deep drainage channel through his farm as part of a West
Australian Government study into engineering solutions. The results, he says, have been stunning.

Lowering a water table almost at surface level to 2m below ground, and turning salt scolds into
productive country for the first time in decades.

ROD MADDEN: This was sown in early July. And since July, we've probably had about 2.5 inches of
rain. There was a wee bit of soil moisture when we seeded it, but to have this result on a couple
of inches is spectacular. Bearing in mind that this hasn't grown a crop since 1969. It was too
salt. There's absolutely no sign of salt here now at all.

SEAN MURPHY: At nearby Wubin, the impact of deep drainage has been more than monetary. Janette
Macpherson is finally able to grow a modest garden after drainage lowered the water table, which
was undermining the foundations of her home and her emotional well-being.

JANETTE MACPHERSON, WUBIN FARMER: We've started to get some trees and a little bit of garden going.
I think that the house is saved, that's a definite. But it is still fretting. I mean, we do not
have a front verandah, all the cement and everything's all gone. It's taken a long time but it's
taken a pretty big toll.

SEAN MURPHY: Salinity has consumed more than a million hectares of country in the nation's most
productive grain-growing region, with another one million hectares water-logged or salt-affected.
WA now has 70 per cent of the nation's dry-land salinity and its effect goes well beyond lost

Half of the west's divertable water is already saline, brakish or of marginal quality, and hundreds
of rare plant and animal species have been lost forever. The forecasts for the growth of
salt-affected country are depressingly bleak.

On current estimates, about 4.5 million hectares of the wheat belt will be affected by salinity by
the year 2050. That's a growth rate of about 20,000 hectares a year. To put that into perspective,
it's about 50 hectares or 50 football fields every day.

With rainfall patterns changing radically since the 1970s, hydro-geologist Richard George and his
team are drilling sites across the wheat belt to try to come up with a more accurate way of mapping
the growth of salinity.

RICHARD GEORGE, WA DEPT. AGRICULTURE AND FOOD: Because climate variability has introduced itself,
because the country's so variable across the wheat belt, we need enough monitoring networks in
place to be able to track salinity's growth and to give farmers the ability to see it coming 10, 20
years in front.

SEAN MURPHY: But critics argue the State's Department of Agriculture and Food has wasted tens of
millions of dollars over decades fighting a losing battle against salinity.

WILSON TUCKEY, FEDERAL MP: We've had a State bureaucracy over here that has gone in my life, as a
member of Parliament, from getting $10 million a year from the State budget to $40 million a year
to fix the problem and it's doubled.

I now declare it officially open and Chris and I will unveil the plaque. (APPLAUSE)

SEAN MURPHY: Not quite vintage, but for 27 years, Wilson Tuckey has loomed large over Australia's
biggest grain-growing electorate. The member for O'Connor says WA produces half to two-thirds of
the nation's $3 billion grain return. But it's potential to be part of a fast-changing world grain
trade is threatened by a slow-moving bureaucracy.

WILSON TUCKEY: From an export perspective, if Western Australia doesn't have a crop, Australia
doesn't export wheat. And in this new market environment where so much grain is going to biofuels
and things of that nature, it's going to become more and more significant.

SEAN MURPHY: Wilson Tuckey says deep drainage is the solution for most of WA's salinity problem.

WILSON TUCKEY: Well, I've been in Parliament 27 years, and the problem was very significant before
I arrived. The proof that drainage works... and, I mean, the Agriculture Department over here
fought bitterly against its effectiveness until they could do so no more.

KIM CHANCE, WA MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE AND FOOD: Are we losing? Possibly. Is our rate of loss
being contained? Almost certainly.

SEAN MURPHY: WA's Minister for Agriculture and Food is Kim Chance, a former wheat-belt farmer who
has a keen interest in deep drainage. But he says it's just one tool in a fight to contain salinity
along with other engineering solutions such as surface-water management, groundwater pumping, and
planting deep-rooted vegetation.

KIM CHANCE: One of the difficulties in demonstrating that what we're doing is working is that this
has been a problem which has taken 100 years to develop and manifest itself and it's gonna take
quite a while to halt and reverse that process.

SEAN MURPHY: Farmers across the wheat belt are now investing millions of dollars in the
deep-drainage option. There are now 11,500km of channels draining thousands of tonnes of water from
the landscape.

But, as first reported on Landline five years ago, sometimes where the effluent goes causes more
problems than it solves. At Narrambeen in the eastern wheat belt, 130km of drains were dug through
20 farms, but their toxic effluent full of acid, salt and dissolved metals ended up on Allen
Yandle's farm.

ALAN YANDLE, NARRAMBEEN FARMER: If you look out here behind us, this stuff is relatively young
regrowth that since the drainage water started to come through basically has just killed the lot.

SEAN MURPHY: A neighbouring conservation reserve was also badly damaged by a scheme which failed to
plan for safe and effective disposal. Since then, the State Government has pledged more than $4
million for an engineering evaluation initiative to examine how best to use deep-drainage and other

JOHN RUPRECHT, WA DEPT OF WATER: What we think is there potentially will be a lot more drainage,
and the risks will become more when there's cumulative drainage - when there's lots of drains that
are combined together, and perhaps the impact can be a lot larger. So what we are looking at is
helping farmers have better ideas and better ways to tackle drainage. We're also looking at the
cumulative impact at a catchment and a river basin level, and what the change will be. If we do
nothing, there will be an impact of potentially increased flooding and increased salinity. Drainage
is one of those management options which might improve the situation in some areas and make it
worse in others, and what we've got to look at is how we manage that overall catchment response.

SEAN MURPHY: University of Western Australia biodiversity scientist Barbara Cook heads the
downstream impact study, which is looking at the effects of drainage on salt and freshwater

BARBARA COOK, UNIVERSITY OF WA: We find there is a drop in species richness, which is to be
expected, and we also find a change in composition. So in other words, certain animals like little
microcrustaceans, for example, these are these little water flees and little ostracods, clam
shrimps, and so on, they don't like the acidic water that you get out of the drain, so we find that
they might be plentiful at sites upstream of where the drain water comes in, but when you look at
sites downstream of where the drainwater comes in they disappear.

SEAN MURPHY: In your opinion, can those downstream impacts be managed?

BARBARA COOK: Yes, I think they could. I think there are a couple of things we could look at. One
of them would be treatment and in this case the treatment would be looking at the treatment of the
acidity probably more than the salinity. The reason being that some of the water from the drains
can be incredibly acid, pretty similar to the acidity that we find in, say, vinegar. So, we could
probably look at treating that. The other thing would be to plan very carefully where we actually
put that effluent from the drains. So, which water ways and which wetlands, possibly looking at
wetlands that are internally draining, so we know they won't eventually drain into major river
systems that go through some of our bigger metropolitan areas. So, yes, I think we could manage it
with careful planning. *

SEAN MURPHY: At Beacon, in the northern wheat belt, Harold 'Flash' Beagley is at the end of a
22km-long drainage system through six farms. It drains into 17.5 hectares of evaporation ponds,
built as part of the evaluation initiative. In just two years they've drained A billion litres of

How concerned were you when the scheme was first put together about the acidic nature of the water
and it ending up on your farm?

HAROLD "FLASH" BEAGLEY, BEACON FARMER: Oh, it's always a problem but what are you gonna do? Watch
your farm fall to bits virtually. 'Cause that's what was gonna happen. It was slowly getting worse
and worse. This 17 hectares here, that was nearly all uncropable by the time we decided to do this.

WILSON TUCKEY: SEAN MURPHY: With marginal average rainfall, Mr Beagley would like to build a small
desalination plant to use the drainage discharge to water his 1,300 hectares of cropping and
grazing land. But the acid and heavy metals in the water make this impossible.

BRAD DEGENS, WA DEPT OF WATER: About as acid as vinegar is. Has around a pH of 3.2, and it's got
some things, like a few other sort of things like lead and copper and zinc, a bit of uranium, and
aluminium and iron are some of the major sort of things that come through it. These are mostly been
leached out of these soils as the water's moved out of the drain and pumped into this basin.

SEAN MURPHY: A solution may lie in this ingenious low-tech, low-cost trial developed by Department
of Water chemist Brad Degens. He is using straw and sheep manure in a gravity-filled moat below the
evaporation ponds to neutralise the acid and heavy metals.

BRAD DEGENS: Basically, it's a set-up-and-leave sort of system, a passive treatment type thing,
where it doesn't need pumps and uses gravity to feed in water through it.

SEAN MURPHY: How effective is it, then?

BRAD DEGENS: Very effective. We have water that's going into one end of this that's about pH of
3.2, at the other end it comes out at about six, which is near enough to drinking water sort of
type pH. Still salty, but it's dealing with the acid and it strips out all those metals on the way.

SEAN MURPHY: How important is it that you come up with low-tech solutions that involve cheap
materials that are easy for farmers to get their hands on?

BRAD DEGENS: It's very important. Some of the... we're always up against that cost margin about how
expensive it is to treat the water. At the moment we're still dealing with disposable costs for
water, so the cheapest possible way in treating these waters is what we're aiming for. Also looking
at the simplest and easiest way of doing it, things that will work beyond just a few years and work
out for four to five, maybe even 10 years type of thing.

SEAN MURPHY: The Beacon scheme is also providing answers on how to successfully manage drainage
through a catchment system. Farmers such as Ty Kirby shared some of the cost of the scheme, as well
as a common vision of restoring their salt-affected land.

TY KIRBY, BEACON FARMER: Without the drain going in we sort of might have stood to lose sort of up
to 30, 35 per cent of the farm and that's, you know, reasonable hectares. We're talking probably
1,000 hectares plus, in that sort of number.

SEAN MURPHY: And what about with the ongoing maintenance issues, cost, and who will pay, do you
think that consensus will continue?

TY KIRBY: I certainly hope so. Yeah, I think it will. The guys who are involved now are starting to
see some small effects, or some small results. I think we're in it for the long run. The evaluation
initiative is also examining options to speed up the recovery of soils after drains are put in with
inputs such as gypsums or deep-ripping.


DAVID WILLIAMS, DUMBLEYOUNG FARMER: Even though it's clay-based.

RICHARD BELL: You happy with that, or...?

SEAN MURPHY: Murdoch University's Professor Richard Bell is looking at this farm owned by David
Williams at Dumbleyoung, as well as others across the wheat belt, where soil sodicity, texture and
acid content are all varied.

RICHARD BELL: This soil here is a grey clay and it's the one that we thought was probably most
difficult to leach salts out of. Other sites are more loamy and if you're on a sandy site I think
it will be faster to remove salt from those. As far as the other soil treatment such as gypsum or
ripping, actually, in the trials we've done so far we're not seeing any evidence that that's
speeding up the process of recovery over a period of two, three, four years, so that's still an
open question.

SEAN MURPHY: What is known is that deep drainage can be even more effective in an integrated system
using trees and other deep-rooted vegetation to slow the flow of groundwater from high country. At
Kalannie in the central wheat belt, Ian Stanley has planted a million oil mallees on his farm, as
well as digging 15km of drains.

IAN STANLEY, KALANNIE FARMER: There's a lot of hydrology studies which have been done to determine
the number of trees you'd have to have in your landscape to completely solve the problem. if you
put that many trees into the landscape I think you wouldn't have a farming industry anymore, at
least not a viable one, so we have to integrate trees into our farming practices in a way which
maintains our viability as agricultural producers, and in that regard, we are still going to have
water further down the landscape which will require drains to take it away.

SEAN MURPHY: Ian Stanley was named the 2006 Landcare farmer of the year for his efforts in
restoring his farm and developing the fledgling oil mallee industry. The industry now has been
harvesting its oil-rich renewable bio-mass for three years, but its true potential may be in carbon

IAN STANLEY: I think with the advent of carbon trading and the potential for the tree to sequest
carbon... it's been said so me that the oil mallee is God's sequester. It's a very, very efficient
sequester of carbon, so, I think those two things combined could make it quite profitable.

SEAN MURPHY: Why is it such a good carbon sequester?

IAN STANLEY: Well, it grows vigorously on low rainfall, low rainfall areas where you'd be able to
afford to plant these trees, and it also has the ability to store a lot of carbon below the ground
in what everyone refers to as the mallee root. That's pretty much all carbon, and the tree
continues to sequest that under pretty much all climates.

SEAN MURPHY: At the moment, drainage like this at a depth of 2.5m with surface water control on
both sides costs about $12,000 a kilometre. It's a substantial investment and one that still
carries risks.

Under the current system, farmers who want to install drains have to apply to the State
Commissioner for Land and Soil Conservation. But even if their so-called notice of intent gets the
go ahead, it's no guarantee that their investment is secure.

At Kulin in the eastern wheat belt, these three farmers and another neighbour have been ordered to
block their drains.

PETER LUCCHESI, KULIN FARMER: We're not allowed to drain 'em, well, the only other option we've got
is probably fill them in. There's nothing much more we can do about it, otherwise there'll be a
great loss of sheep in there, unfortunately.

LES TYSON, KULIN FARMER: It's not much use having drains if you can't bloody use 'em.


LES TYSON: It just don't work.

SEAN MURPHY: The men spent $150,000 constructing their drains three years ago after their
application was processed, but they were ordered to block them a year later, when their downstream
neighbours complained.

PETER LUCCHESI: Everybody knew we were putting drains in. You know, it wasn't the thing that was
kept secret. We had... we were told that we had to get permission from two neighbours downstream.
We went down the right channels. We did exactly what we were told to do.

LES TYSON: Probably worse still I feel as though the salinity issue is still gonna keep marching on
the way it has been.

SEAN MURPHY: So who do you blame?

JOHN RYAN, KULIN FARMER: I blame the Department, very much so, because they have... have not put
any protocols in place to protect us. We've done the right thing, gone through and got the
approvals, and then been slapped with a notice and said, "Right, now you've got to hold the baby,
"you gotta hold the water."

SEAN MURPHY: Downstream, Shane Tyson used to rely on fresh water from the Dudinin Creek to fill an
8,000 cubic-litre dam to water his livestock. But since the drains went in the creek has become too
salty to harvest after heavy flushing rains.

SHANE TYSON, KULIN FARMER: We'll have to set up a new infrastructure of how to water the sheep as
in troughs or a new scheme.

SEAN MURPHY: Blood may be thicker than water, but at Kulin the salt water is causing bad blood
between families.

SHANE TYSON, KULIN FARMER: Being such a tight-knit community, which Kulin is, it's caused quite a
bit of friction between a lot of families that have been lifelong friends, so, um... Yeah, I think
it's done a lot of damage.

SEAN MURPHY: Shane Tyson's neighbour, Michael Wilson has also lost any chance to use the creek for
watering his sheep.

SEAN MURPHY: Can you put in dollar terms, what you think this might have cost you?

MICHAEL WILSON, KULIN FARMER: That's very hard to pin down. We are in a region that was affected by
salt, so in terms of how much the drains have contributed to that salt, that would just be a very
difficult thing to pin down.

There's the more direct costs of not being able to graze sheep on paddocks when you would like to
be grazing sheep on paddocks.

SEAN MURPHY: According to Adrian and Trish Tyson, whose property is in the middle of the drains,
they've almost certainly caused long-term damage to their farm, because it's permanently altered
the area's natural hydrology.

ADRIAN TYSON, KULIN FARMER: I believe it's filling up the water table so, you know, if eventually
we're going to get salt here, it's just pushed everything forward by 15 or 20 years.

TRISH TYSON, KULIN FARMER: And up the hill, 200m, we've probably got, oh, 10 acres of bush that's
died and we're probably going to lose a dam unless they block it off so we can sort out the problem
as a whole of catchment.

SEAN MURPHY: Faced with a failed investment and a growing hazard to stock and their land, the
drainage farmers spent $60,000 in legal fees trying unsuccessfully to overturn the order to block
their drains.

While the State's administrative appeals tribunal found that the system had failed to protect
downstream neighbours it also said it hoped there would be a review as it had caused angst to many
good and decent people at both ends of the catchment.

WILSON TUCKEY: The irony is, up and down my electorate they're saying "We learnt one lesson from
Kulin, don't ask, don't ask don't do the right thing." But the reality is there that these people
got approvals, they didn't think they did the right thing, they got approvals.

SEAN MURPHY: Well, the Government would say it's actually not an approval system. It's a green
light but it's not an approval.

WILSON TUCKEY: Well, as I say, fancy politicians passing laws like that. I mean, if you were a
terrorist you'd get a better deal.

SEAN MURPHY: Can farmers across the wheat belt have any faith in the notice of intent process?

KIM CHANCE: Yeah, of course they can. The notice of intent process has now been in place around a
decade. We've dealt with probably 1,000 or more notices of intent to drain. Now, certainly there
are problems at Kulin, and I feel desperately sorry for the Kulin community and the individuals who
are caught up by what's happened there, but the Kulin example is one of only two such incidents out
of around 1,000 notices of intent to drain. It's a process which, if you were to seek to change the
process, you would need to go to a full environmental impact report process, which would tie
everything up in red tape for years. There would be no drainage happening.

SEAN MURPHY: The Agriculture and Food Department is now assessing the Kulin drains and is hoping to
design an all-of-catchment solution.

RICHARD GEORGE: What we're trying to do out there at the moment is retrospectively put a catchment
water plan together with those farmers, both upstream and downstream, so that we can put drainage,
surface-water management, and all the other ambitions that they might have to manage salinity in a
package, and then plan for where that water and where that salt should end up.

SEAN MURPHY: Despite being blocked, one of the drains continues to leak. It's effluent is claimed
to be twice the salt of sea water.

PETER LUCCHESI: We did try and block 'em off, we have blocked most of 'em off, it's just that there
is one that is leaking and the only way you can solve that problem is to pull the plug, let it all
go and get in there and try it again.

SEAN MURPHY: So, do you regret the sort of personal tensions and animosity that this whole issue
has cause in town?

PETER LUCCHESI: Yes, I am quite concerned about it. There is a lot of animosity. A lot of it's
families and that's probably half the reason why all this has happened.

SEAN MURPHY: Do you have any sympathy for them at all, that they could do their $150,000

SHANE TYSON: No, none whatsoever. Because if... If they got us into the catchment group to start
off with and it was a whole line worked out, you know, it's quite possible they wouldn't have lost
their $150,000. I got no sympathy for 'em at all. They didn't obviously have sympathy for us, so
I've got no sympathy at all.

SEAN MURPHY: So, you say you did talk to the downstream neighbours, but was it a mistake to put the
drains in without having them on board, without having their permission in the first place?

LES TYSON: Um, morally it probably is. Morally we probably should've pushed it a lot harder than
what we did, but, ah, we went through the right and correct channels of the process that we
should've done that was required by the Ag Department and the Water Department. We felt that they
were independent body, independent to us and the people downstream that would come up with a more
balanced argument for the good of the community, if you like, good of the community of the
catchment. We felt as though that we were probably, ah, starting off something that probably would
be taken on board and continued on. Um, you know, over time people would see the results. But
looking back now, yes, we probably should have tried a lot harder to get people on board.

SEAN MURPHY: One of the things the engineering evaluation initiative is looking at is a possible
trunk drainage system that can be applied twig and branch to whole catchment areas, where effluent
is emptied into natural internal draining water ways, such as salt lakes.

JOHN RUPRECHT: OK, that's a pH of 3.1. And a salinity of 35,000.

SCIENTIST 1; Pretty close to sea water, eh?


What we're really looking at is how you can manage it at the larger catchment scale and really
setting criteria for how farmers or catchment groups can discharge their water, so setting limits
like a salinity limit or a pH limit, and saying, "As long as you meet these water quality criteria
"you can discharge your water into that water way or wetland." So we are working on that at a
catchment scale and looking at what are the best ways to manage drainage at a larger scale as well.

SEAN MURPHY: In the northern wheat belt, more than 80 farmers have created their own legal
framework for drainage in a catchment covering six shires, over five million hectares and using a
300km chain of lakes for drainage disposal.

The Yarra Yarra Catchment Management group employs its own staff and collects rates from
participating farmers. It generates income through subcontracting, and has recently begun a
forestry program on drainage easements.

KATE HASLEBY, YARRA YARRA CATCHMENT MANAGEMENT GROUP: Basically we wanted something next to the
drains, because obviously the farmers can't use that land for anything because we need that bit of
easement to be able to get in and do some maintenance on the drains. So, basically we wanted to
have something there that's gonna look good and give us a bit of economic return.

We've planted 100,000 broom bush seedlings, or Melaleuca seedlings, and hopefully they'll be ready
to harvest in about five years, five to seven years, and then once they're harvested they get
bundled up and used for brushwood fencing.

SEAN MURPHY: The Yarra Yarra group has received $2 million under the national action plan for
salinity and water quality for its research effort. It wants another $6 million to finish a 350km
network of drains. But its goal is to become self-funding.

MAX HUDON, YARRA YARRA CATCHMENT MANAGEMENT GROUP: It's gonna settle on about 36 there, so that's

I believe there will always be some Government funding available, but we don't want to be in a
position where we have to go cap in hand to get it or the whole thing falls in a heap because we
don't have any reserves.

SEAN MURPHY: Back at Morowa, Rod Madden now has plenty of water, just no finishing rains. But even
without them, his deep drainage has brought a renewed sense of optimism for farming on the fringes.

ROD MADDEN: I'm probably gonna gain 2,500 acres, it's pretty chief acres. I love this country, and
eventually the seasons will turn around. I think agriculture is just on the cusp of a boom. They're
not making any more land and they're making a lot more people and they're eating more and more and
I think agriculture's got a good future into the next decade or two.