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Living with Salinity - Committee report

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 28 Mar 2006

I would also like to comment on the report of the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts References Committee. I was a participating and active member of this committee, and I must say it was refreshing to work on a committee where there was a bipartisan commitment to solving this important issue. I also should note that there were three very active Western Australian senators on this committee, which I think indicates the depth of interest and concern about this issue in Western Australia. Of course, it is an important issue around Australia. It is a huge challenge, and the report outlines the extent of the problem. It is a problem where there are no easy answers and no quick fixes. It requires cooperation and coordination on a huge scale over a very long time to slowly turn this problem around. It impacts on many aspects of the daily lives of Australians: our water resources, the production of food and fibre, how long our water heaters and washing machines last, how often we have to fix our roads and rails, and the biodiversity of our rivers, wetlands and low-lying bushland.

In recent months we have heard stories about how the extent of areas at risk of salinity now seems smaller than we were once told, which implies that maybe there is less cause for concern. As more detailed mapping of areas potentially threatened by rising saline watertables is undertaken, our knowledge of which parts of the landscape are likely to be damaged by salinity has improved and the extent of land at risk has been revised down.

However, at the same time, a better understanding of the hydrological processes of these landscapes and better data on the impacts of different interventions on ground water recharge have led us to revise up the amount of intervention required and the time it will take to have a measurable effect.

So, while the area has been revised down somewhat, we have come to appreciate that the level of intervention required to address salinity is much higher in many places. We now have a much better understanding of where in the landscape we need to target our efforts, and we can work out how long it takes the water to move through the landscape in local, intermediate and regional ground water systems. In some cases we are talking about 20, 50 or 100 years between the rain falling on the slopes and the salty water discharging into the streams at the bottom of a catchment. What we can do now is prioritise the investment of our limited resources in those areas that will make the biggest difference. This targeted investment is now one of our biggest challenges through the national salinity action plan, NHT2, and hopefully NHT3 in the future. It is important that we do not do what in WA we call the 'vegemite approach', which is to just spread our limited resources very thinly over the landscape without targeting them properly.

We heard in the hearings of the Salinity Investment Framework, and it is listed in the report. We are now up to the third version of that. I am very proud to say that the Salinity Investment Framework came out of Western Australia. It talks about identifying priority assets, whether they are biodiversity, our towns, our infrastructure, our water resources or, of course, our agricultural land. What are the community values and what intervention tools do we have? What solutions do we have, and what is the likelihood of their success? In other words, how can we get the most bang for our buck?

So the targeting and prioritisation of limited resources is one of our biggest challenges.

However, we have an even greater challenge, and that is that in many parts of these landscapes we do not have the answers yet. This is a critical point. For many of our problem areas we do not yet have the kind of large-scale economically viable solutions that we need to make a difference. This has been one of the major concerns we have heard about through the national action plan, which we call the NAP. For all the good work that has been done in developing a regional approach and identifying priority catchments, there has been an underlying assumption that all we needed to do was get the money out there effectively on the ground and that would do the job. Unfortunately, it does not. We need national coordination of research and ways of getting the research into national decision making. Most importantly, we need research into developing new industries.

There is very good ongoing work to make existing industries more sustainable. The Sustainable Grazing on Saline Lands project is an excellent example, and there are many more. All existing work on existing systems is very important, but this is only part of the solution. There is only so far we can go in making existing industries be sustainable and use water efficiently. We need new industries. We need to develop new systems for large areas of Australia where we have a pressing problem with unused rainfall contributing to rising watertables with no real solution at hand. This is why it is absolutely critical that we put effort into developing new landscape scale sustainable industries. Unfortunately, this is a very big ask and it is not something that is fitted easily into the current framework of NAP or NHT2. What is required to develop new industries from the ground up are big, clearly focused research and development programs to develop new technologies and land use systems, support and incentives for land managers to try out and adopt new production techniques, and then serious partnerships with venture capital to develop these industries.

I would like to draw your attention to the best example of this we have to date, which is the integrated mallee processing plant in Narrogin in Western Australia. Based on oil mallees planted for salinity control, it produces such things as eucalyptus oil and chips for wood products. It puts trees in the ground and then the biomass of plant residue produces energy.

Many groups in Western Australia have put a lot of effort into developing this plant. They have supported it and lobbied for it over a long period of time. This is particularly timely for at this stage, as I understand it, if no urgent action is taken on this issue this week it is likely that 15 years of research and development and over $20 million of public money will be wasted when Western Power pulls the plug-sorry to use a pun-on this project a few months short of the finalisation of the economic feasibility study currently being completed.

As I understand it, it was always known that this was only a trial plant, but, because of delays in starting and getting the equipment working properly, the feasibility study has not been adequately completed to provide the results to assess this proposal. I am extremely worried that conclusions will be reached about the success of this project without putting in the additional funding that is required to do this properly.

I believe that, if we are truly to develop new industries in this country for sustainable agriculture and to deal with sustainable natural resource management problems, we need to commit to long-term funding and see through the things that we start. This is particularly important for this plant, given that so many of our hopes and dreams for a sustainable landscape ride on this plant.

I am also deeply concerned that people try to pick winners in the salinity issue. As I said before, there are no easy answers to this. I am deeply concerned that the Minister for the Environment and Heritage was recently quoted in the paper as heavily supporting drainage as a solution to salinity. I have absolutely no doubt that engineering solutions, as they are more commonly referred to now, play a part in dealing with salinity. I was not on that particular tour in WA but many times in WA I have seen effective drainage programs. I have also seen those that contribute negatively to the environment and the landscape. I believe that engineering solutions have an important part to play but they are not the be-all and end-all. I would hate to see millions of dollars wasted on unsustainable solutions.

I commend this report to the parliament. As I said, it was a pleasure to work on a committee where so many people were committed to a bipartisan outcome to an issue that we know affects millions of Australians and, if unchecked, will destroy biodiversity across this country.

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