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Scientist suggests that farmers should be accountable for practices which cause salinity downstream; farmers want community involvement to solve problem.

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PETER CAVE: A top CSIRO scientist says that farmers must be made accountable for farming practices which cause salinity downstream. John Williams is advocating a carrot and stick approach, demanding salinity targets be met, and if they aren’t then farmers would be penalised.


John Stewart reports that environmentalists and scientists are today gathering in the New South Wales town of Dubbo, seeking solutions to Australia’s salinity crisis.


JOHN STEWART: Last year an audit of the Murray Darling Basin Commission warned of a massive rise in salinity levels, with water flowing into South Australia predicted to become undrinkable within 20 years.


The Murray Darling Commission is under pressure to produce a salinity strategy by June. Today, farmers and green groups are trying to reach agreement on how to deal with the problem.


CSIRO scientist, John Williams, believes that communities in local catchments must now be audited for their contribution to salinity and made to work with limited amounts of water. He says farmers should be either penalised or rewarded, depending on their farming practices.


JOHN WILLIAMS: In some instances they have got land uses like, say, it could be annual pastures in high rainfall zones that are just generating enormous recharge to the landscape. Now, those people will have to be encouraged financially, or otherwise, to change the land use quite radically. Now, the resourcing for people to do that will either come from a mixture of government and local arrangements.


JOHN STEWART:   Do you think that farmers accept that they may have to radically change their farming practices or, in some cases, get off the land?


JOHN WILLIAMS:   I think there’s a growing awareness that there’s a need in the higher rainfall zones, where the salinity cause is occurring, that there will be need for a substantial land use change. Yes, I think people are starting to understand that. In fact you’re seeing examples where there are real economic drivers for it to happen.


JOHN STEWART:   But the New South Wales Farmers Association’s Mick Keogh says farmers cannot be left to face the crisis on their own and must be compensated by the whole community.


MICK KEOGH: If you start from the point of view of saying, well, it’s a community problem that the community is going to have to solve altogether, then that’s the only solution you’ve got to make sure that any individual, or any group of individuals that are adversely impacted for the good of the community, must be equitably treated.


JOHN STEWART:   Farmers groups want to avoid being regulated by tougher state environment laws. But scientists and green groups want communities in catchments that are contributing to salinity to be forced to meet local targets for water use and salt levels.


JOHN WILLIAMS:  People will trade the right to put that water into the landscape. And so in a sense, if they decide for example to continue to operate with that particular land use that’s putting a lot of water into the landscape, then they may have to pay more to in fact do that.


PETER CAVE: CSIRO scientist, John Williams.