Rubbing Salt into Farm Wounds

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It's been described by everyone from the Prime Minister down as Australia's most pressing environmental problem. Salinity is slowly but steadily creeping across the continent, poisoning habitats and arable land as it goes. Once a preoccupation only of scientists, salinity took center stage in October 2000, when the federal government announced the biggest and boldest national effort yet to tackle it. At the time, Prime Minister John Howard said the seven-year, $A1.4 billion National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality (napswq) would "do something at long last about remedying the deterioration in the quality of both our water and the deteriorating effects of salinity."

But three years on, the outlook is worrying. Last month's federal Budget cut spending for next year and extended the plan for another year. And so far, only three of 21 regional plans - which are prerequisites for any investment in anti-salinity projects - have been approved. Frustration is taking hold, says Larry Acton, the National Farmers' Federation environment spokesman: "We're appalled that this far down the track there still isn't a situation where money is being spent on the ground."

In the meantime, the nation's landscape keeps getting sicker. One in three rivers is in a poor state, while 2.5 million hectares - 5% of all cultivated land - are affected by salinity; it's predicted that another 17 million hectares will be added by 2050. The crisis has been 200 years in the making, caused by the clearing of deep-rooted native vegetation, which was highly efficient at soaking up water, in favor of pasture and crops. Typically shallow-rooted, these let more water enter the underground water tables that feed rivers and streams. But like bathtubs, water tables do not necessarily empty as fast as they are filled - and once they get too full, the water in them rises, bringing with it salt absorbed from the soil. When that salt hits the surface, it kills trees and plants, contaminates land and waterways, and eats at buildings, roads and railways, costing around $A300 million a year in damage and lost production.

The napswq, which seeks to shift funding from state bureaucracies directly to regional communities, was applauded by farmers, conservationists and scientists as a chance to tackle salinity and water-quality issues head-on. But the request that state governments - all of them Labor-run - match the Liberal-National federal government's $A700 million contribution has been contentious. Tussles between the states and the Commonwealth have delayed signing of the bilateral agreements needed to kick-start the plan: Tasmania, Queensland and New South Wales signed up only last year, and in Western Australia, where salinity is so severe that some farmers have paddocks encrusted with salt, an agreement has yet to be reached. W.A. Environment Minister Judy Edwards says an agreement the state signed last November has been rejected by the Commonwealth, though "it's hard to know what the hold-up is." Federal Agriculture Minister Warren Truss says W.A. is trying to disguise old funding as new spending. Talks will continue, Edwards says, but the state may opt out: "There are limits to how many times you can fly batches of public servants around the country if there's no outcome."

The federal government, meanwhile, blames the states for the sluggish progress. That's how Environment Minister David Kemp explained the recent Budget revelation that instead of the $A100.7 million promised for 2002-03, the government has spent only $A62.1 million, while for 2003-04, napswq spending has been cut by almost one-fifth, to $A114 million. The full $A700 million will now be spent, Kemp said, over eight rather than seven years. But extending the plan sends the wrong message, says the National Farmers' Federation's Acton: "It says that there isn't a priority with getting this thing underway." The nff is also concerned that funds are being "siphoned off" by state government departments. With landholders seeing little sign of funds for individual projects, the effect is "a healthy degree of skepticism in the landholding community," says Acton, "and skepticism leads to a lack of support and involvement." Agriculture Minister Truss says that with most agreements now signed, the plan is "starting to work. And we're determined to ensure that funds go to the regions as quickly as possible."

Funds for priority projects are flowing, Truss says, as is money to establish the new regional bodies that will administer projects through accredited plans. The lack of such bodies in some states has been a hurdle. "The big issue has been working out an institutional way of doing business - the question of who is going to do what," says csiro Land & Water chief John Williams. And for bodies that are already up and running, it's a hard slog. In Queensland, the Fitzroy Basin Association has staff working weekends and 12-hour days to have a plan ready for accreditation by October. "The napswq could achieve a great deal," says Claire Rodgers, one of the plan's co-authors. "We'll have to wait and see how well it does." The region's first task will be to map areas at risk - a basic assessment that has never been done.

The delays are "very depressing," says Peter Cosier, a member of the Wentworth Group of scientists, but it's pointless handing out funds until regional bodies are ready to use them. He also ascribes the delay largely to the "philosophical debate" between the states and the Commonwealth about how to implement the plan: "There were a lot of games, not just at the political level but at the bureaucratic level too." In N.S.W., Cosier says, a radical new model of natural resource management, tipped to be in place this year, will speed things up. Devised by the Wentworth Group, it will see new regional catchment authorities overseeing management plans designed by farmers for their own areas: "For the first time we'll have high-quality science driving the process and being implemented by local people."

No one thinks the napswq is being held up for lack of good ideas - or good science. But John Williams, another Wentworth Group member, warns that the plan is just the first stage in a long battle. In many cases, he says, not even the best farming practices will stop salinity. That will mean making tough decisions about land use - decisions that won't please everybody: "We will need much larger areas of native vegetation than we are currently prepared to contemplate. And we have very few land uses that can do that and still give you the same income." But if Australia is to avoid irreparable damage to vast areas, Williams says, it has just 20 years in which to take radical action. Given the scale of the problem, there's little time to waste.