Calming the Western Australian salt monster
This article was written by Jim Heath, who is a non-fiction writer living in Perth.
He writes mostly on technical subjects - from little books about bush flies to long articles about electronic encryption.
His background is mathematics and physics, but his writing work has led him to peer into all kinds of curious corners - even the inside story of debt collection. Jim gave us kindly permission to mirror the article on our Web Site. The original version of the article can be found here. Previously he also wrote All about the water supply in Perth, Australia.
Salt can sleep comfortably in the land for thousands of years. But when something disturbs the monster, we hear stories like:
"Very early in life, I came in contact with soil and water, saw the wonders, beauty and power of nature, watched the crystal-clear creek, which flowed gently throughout the year, change to a muddy, raging torrent in the winter and a dry sand bed in the summer. Saw a flourishing orchard transformed to dry tree stumps, the evergreen verges of native lucerne on the flats change to a waterlogged, bare, barren soil which in time was covered with small white crystals shining in the sun. This white substance was called Sodium Chloride - just common salt to me." (H. W. Whittington, A Battle for Survival Against Salt Encroachment at "Spring Hill", Brookton, Western Australia.)
Jenny Crisp, Landcare Officer at the Department of Agriculture, remarked: "Salinity is a heart-wrenching thing to see. You know, farmers have a lot of feeling for the land and particularly their own land. And often the earliest settled places were on the rivers, and on those low-lying areas. It's heartbreaking for them to see all the dead trees and reflective salt coming off it. They've had to move from the old homestead, because it's now in the middle of a big salt pan."
When the salt starts to move, it has enough power to destroy a civilisation. That probably happened in ancient Sumer (now a sandy expanse in Iraq). In 3500 BC, Sumer was lush with wheat and barley. By 2370 BC, historical records begin to indicate salt in the land, and declining crops. The salt balance most likely shifted because of the irrigation system - canals everywhere. Five hundred years later, the crops had dropped to a third of what they once were. Sumer had all but collapsed. What was left was poor and underpopulated.
In WA, salt has now damaged about two million hectares of farm land. Production on those hectares has fallen, or stopped. If nothing is done, the salt will keep spreading for another 200 years. It will finally stop moving after about 30 per cent of the land has been degraded. (The photo shows some WA land that's been destroyed.)
What disturbed the monster
There is a great mass of underground salt in WA. In the south-west, as much as 10,000 tonnes per hectare. For millennia, most of it stayed there. Some new salt always blew in on the wind from the oceans - carried long distances inland. And rain regularly washed some of the existing salt away. But the land, vegetation and salt kept in balance. A few salt pans glittered. And in the north-west, Lake McLeod's briny waters covered three billion tonnes of rock salt. But most places in WA had trees, grass, shrubs. Streams and rivers ran with drinkable water. The monster slept.
There's no disagreement about what got the salt moving: farmers who followed old European methods. They dug out the native deep-rooted perennial vegetation and used the land for annual crops and pastures. The new shallow-rooted vegetation didn't use as much rainfall, so extra rainwater soaked into the ground. The watertable rose. As it did, it started dissolving the ancient salt in the ground.
Where the watertable rose far enough, the land looked like it had a disease: bare areas grew every year; patches of land stayed boggy all the time; white crystals formed on the soil; the soil surface turned fluffy, particularly in the summer; plants germinated slowly or not at all; leaf tips 'burned' and there was leaf die-back; pastures would only grow sea-barley grass, and a few other salt-tolerant plants; trees and shrubs died by the hectare.
When things get that bad, it usually seems hopeless to fight it (though H. H. Whittington describes in his book how he made good progress, after years of struggle).
City people are now tempted to blame the farmers (or their ancestors) for bringing this down on themselves. For a couple of reasons, that isn't fair. The main one: for a long time most farmers didn't realise what was happening or see the connection between rising salt and land-clearing.
Anyway, the main part of the solution is now plain: plant enough native vegetation to suck up groundwater and lower the watertable. Simple enough to say.
What the farmers face
To declare that the main solution to salination is "more trees" is a bit like saying that the main solution to air pollution is "cleaner-running cars". The scope is huge and the cost is colossal.
It is expensive to plant trees. The seedlings cost a bit, and there's the labour. But the fencing is the big cost: $1000 per kilometre, sometimes as much as $1400. If a farmer fences a creek, it's double that -- a fence along each side. And the fencing must be there. Otherwise the stock would make a meal of the seedlings.
"It can get depressing for us," said Landcare Officer Eliza Dowling. "You know, you get a really good group of farmers. They've got an excellent project. They know exactly what they want to do, and you know it's going to work. And we put it all together and send in an application for funding. We apply through the National Landcare program, the State revegetation scheme, that sort of thing. They fund things like part of the fencing, like $600 a kilometre maximum. But the answer comes back: no, there isn't enough money to fund it. It's because this group of farmers hasn't got some endangered wetlands, or special kind of frog or something. So far only a very small percentage of farmers have got help. There's just so much that needs to be done, and the money can't spread around enough."
Some private organisations have helped the farmers in Narrogin. Notably: Men of the Trees, Greening Australia, and Alcoa. But their resources only reach so far. Most farmers are still on their own.
Many farmers put aside a bit of money for landcare every year. In one area, the average is $1000 a hectare. Others have been trying to make the tree-planting pay for itself. Farmers in the Great Southern are experimenting with oil mallees. Others are trying the maritime pine -- a tree that grows in poor soil, too sandy for most other crops. The plantations promise a profit, and they'll also lower the watertable.
Then something new pops up
In November 1995, the General Managers at Western Power began to study a novel proposal from their Environmental Branch. The proposal was this: ask if any employees wanted to volunteer for an unpaid weekend in the country - planting trees. They'd plant trees on farms where there was salination or erosion. The Department of Agriculture could advise where to plant, and what to plant. Western Power would pay for the seedlings, transport the volunteers and their families, and accommodate them - and also pay part of the farmers' fencing costs.
The Managers who reviewed the proposal began to like it. It would obviously be good PR. There was also merit in bringing together employees who'd never meet otherwise, and that would foster a wider team spirit. And there'd be indisputable merit in doing anything that might help slow down salination in the State.
So the Environment Branch got the go-ahead and a budget. At that point, no one knew how many people might volunteer. Would people want to spend a weekend doing fairly hard and dirty work, then retire at night in pretty basic accommodation?
"The response almost knocked me out," said Cliff Morris, Senior Environmental Officer at Western Power who co-ordinated the weekends. "We had people calling up from every level in the organisation - from senior managers to new employees, eighteen years old. We had volunteers from the Perth Metropolitan Area and all over the south-west country - Collie, Bunbury, Kalgoorlie, Kondinin and Merredin. Most of them wanted to bring husbands, wives, friends, partners, children, elderly but spry parents, and even the Darlington scout group."
The accommodation and transport plans were swamped. The 400 available places filled in days. Accommodation was found and arrangements made to take another 200. Those places filled too, and people simply had to be promised a place next time, if Western Power did it again.
Narrogin or bust
Western Power picked Narrogin as the place to plant the trees. It was like much of the wheatbelt and suffered from salinity and erosion. But it wasn't too far to take people (200 km south-east of Perth), and there was accommodation at the Lions Dyranda Village.
In December 1995, CALM got an order from Western Power for 250,000 seedlings. Which meant a rush job for CALM: December is the last month for sowing seedlings that will be planted in the winter. (Think of sowing 250,000 seedlings in little trays in a few weeks, and you'll understand why it was a rush job.)
Meanwhile, Western Power asked the Department of Agriculture Landcare officers in Narrogin to suggest which farms and areas to plant, and what kind of trees to plant. Eliza Dowling said: "We'd already had submissions from our groups of farmers that we'd put through to the National Landcare Program and State Revegetation Scheme, but they'd been knocked back because of lack of funds. Farmers had already said what they wanted to do, and we were looking for a funding source for them. So Western Power stepped in at the right time. We already had the detailed proposals on paper."
Landcare and CALM were startled -- but exhilarated - by the large number of volunteers that were coming. "This was much, much bigger than anything that's gone on with volunteers here in the past," said Landcare's Jenny Crisp. "Up until now, there's been the Australian Conservation volunteers, and Men of the Trees. Men of the Trees normally come up, in a group of maybe five people, on one weekend to one farm. There've been some small school groups, like the Bushwalkers Club and the Four-Wheel Drive Club that come out to do specific plantings for specific reasons. They're all on a much smaller scale. Nothing big like Western Power, with 600 people to plant such a large number of trees."
Mud, mud, glorious mud
The first weekend was environmentally damp: unending misty rain. The ground was already gooey after 125mm of rain a few days before. But the seedlings didn't mind, and the volunteers seemed protected by force-fields of good cheer. Anyway, everyone was ready for wet weather - what else in June? Most wore Wellingtons, and some were decked out in raincoats that might have been able to repel a waterfall.
Some volunteers carried seedlings on a little tray, with a strap that fitted around the waist. Others did the planting, usually with a metal device that looked like a bird's beak attached to a pipe (impressively called a "potti-putki"). The beak part was used to punch a hole in the ground. A lever at the top of the pipe was then used to open the beak, and the seedling was dropped into the pipe. It slid right into the waiting hole. A little tramping around the stem and the job was finished. No bending.
Other people used a similar device welded together by apprentices at the Muja Power Station. It was easy to make and worked well. And there might have almost been a planting-tool competition going on, because one farmer designed his own and welded it together for the big day.
On the planting weekends, most of the farmers ran back and forth in little tractors, transporting trays of seedlings to people, and sometimes giving muddy rides to the gleeful city kids.
"I was just very, very encouraged by the enthusiasm of the volunteers," said farmer Max Watts. "It gives farmers such a boost. It's a snowballing effect. Everyone here was just doing their own individual thing, with not much support from anyone. It's had a big impact."
Landcare's Eliza Dowling agreed: "The people who came down were probably the best advertisements for Western Power that they can have, really. Because they were incredibly enthusiastic, really interested, really keen, and some times we had a real job keeping them supplied with seedlings. You know, we'd get there at nine o'clock in the morning and they would have been all packed up and ready to go for an hour and a half on a Sunday morning, you know dying to get out there and do some more."
"For some of them it was nice to do something as a family. Quite a few people said that. To actually do something as a family unit, rather than someone to go off to football and someone go off to something else. And there was a gorgeous couple from Bunbury, I think. They'd put off their trip to Europe which they'd been waiting to go on for about 25 years - they put it off for two months just so that they could come tree planting!"
The volunteers planted 260,000 trees. Up to 140 people came each weekend, for four weekends from 22 June to the 3 August 1996. Eighty sorts of native species were planted - in fifty sites (which strained the transport system).
The planting weekends also gave farmers a chance to inform city people that for a long time it was government policy to clear the land. One farmer said he'd kept a copy of an old letter from the Lands Department, warning him to clear the land or his title deed wouldn't be granted. "In those days," he said, "No one knew for sure that clearing land did any harm. There were a few theories floating around, but no one was certain."
Farmers with attitude
It is plain now what needs to be done. It's the scale of the re-vegetation job that's intimidating. Which raises the question: can volunteers make any impression on this thing? Wouldn't machinery be better, or legions of paid workers?
Machinery is used already, but has limits. Farmers use tree-planting machines - tractor attachments - to plant windbreaks on the higher ground. But the machines are useless along creek lines or in waterlogged places.
Hand planting is the only way to do it there. Paid workers could certainly do that - if someone could afford to pay them. Most farmers run a one-family enterprise. Often they're on a tight budget. There's no way they could plant large numbers of trees themselves in the short time for planting each year.
And there's something else. To tackle a thing as large as this, a farmer needs to keep up a buoyant attitude over a long period. But farmers with too little money, too little time, and often very little outside encouragement, can just lose it and give up. Depression can also settle over government employees who are trying to help - with thinly spread funds.
So when an animated crowd of volunteers shows up, exceedingly keen to help, it changes the very air. The volunteers plant seedings, but they also plant something else that lasts.
As one volunteer said, a long-time linesman for Western Power: "The trip and the tree-planting, it's probably one of the best things you could ever do, for anybody. You know, I've helped lots of customers during storms, when their power went off. You always enjoy helping someone else out. This was more satisfying and in a different way."
Western Power have also received a more formal tribute for their efforts: they won the 1996 Business Category of the Greening WA John Tonkin Awards - awarded in part because the work went "beyond Western Power primary commercial aims."
Because the first planting went well, Western Power has extended the program for four more years.
This year, and until the winter of 2000
In the winter planting in 1997, the volunteers will work on farms in one catchment (Hotham). The number of seedlings per farm will be increased to at least 5000. That avoids the transport problems in running around trying to do lots of little sites.
"Concentrating in one area is exactly right," said Tim Bowra from CALM. "5000 trees in one site is better than 5000 scattered over 10 sites. The more intense the planting, the more chance you've got of a remedy in that area. But also you're concentrating your information. The farmers get to know what they need to do. Whereas if you do one session here, and next you go there, you lose that local momentum."
Cliff Morris at Western Power said: "The Avon catchment already has quite a lot of funding from Alcoa, and so has the Blackwood. But the Hotham River Catchment hasn't in the past got anything much from anyone. It's north of Narrogin, and the Hotham River joins the Murray, and ends in the Peel Inlet at Mandurah. The catchment is within reach of Perth, so we decided to help there."
The WA government's salinity plan
The government booklet Salinity - a situation statement for Western Australia may inspire confidence that the technical side of the menace is understood. The technical people agree on what's happening "out there" and what needs to be done, in a broad way. And they give evidence. Graphs show the way the watertable rose when an experimental area of land was cleared. And how it fell when trees were planted on land that had been cleared before. The booklet's tone is factual, not pontificating.
The follow-on booklet, the Western Australian Salinity Action Plan, may leave you feeling hesitant but hopeful. There are dollars here, dollars there, and a lot of data. But no projections of falling salinity or curves bending down. Much activity is planned, and much expenditure. So it will certainly help, right? But how much, no one is promising. Maybe that's beyond human powers, at this early stage of the fight with the monster.
If I had to compress the Western Australian Salinity Action Plan into a few lines, it might read like this: plant deep-rooted perennials, shift to some crops that use more water, drain or divert surface water, and protect remnant vegetation. The government will pay for some things, and encourage the rest. Then they'll keep a scientific eye on how it's all going.
That "remnant vegetation" may have made some farmers smile in a resigned way. It aims to "reduce the expectation to clear land." In other words, no more demand letters to clear the land. Instead, farmers will see "augmented clearing control procedures, including the consideration of natural resources conservation values." Which could mean they may not be allowed to clear certain land without permission. That's a switch. And it's not all. Legislation is on the way so that farmers can "place voluntary covenants on their land titles to protect nature conservation values including remnant vegetation in perpetuity." So if they sell their land, they can write clauses into the deed that will prevent the buyer ever from clearing certain patches of native vegetation. The same will apply to all future buyers, forever. A kind of DIY nature reserve.
But what do country people think of all this? Those who may be looking forward to the "action" in the Salinity Action Plan? I haven't exactly carried out a Gallup poll, but I did hear candid comments.
From a government employee: "It's just my thoughts, but I haven't seen any of the money yet for a start. All we've seen is cutbacks, rather than anything else. I'm yet to see where that money is to come onto the ground. And also internally, they reckon a lot of that was money that was there already, just relabelled. I don't really know." Cautious, probably reasonable.
From a Narrogin farmer: "A lot of money can be spent on what proves to be the wrong way. There's one school of thought that drainage is the way to go, and pumping out the underground saline water and bringing it to the surface and draining it into the water systems. Others say find your areas of underground moisture and plant a heap of trees on it." The outlook of someone who's being encouraged to spend his own money in a certain way. He wants to be sure.
Another farmer: "I think we can see some of the promises are starting to move. But you don't solve the problem of salt by throwing a lot of money at it. Some people are a bit negative about it, saying, oh yeah, government seems to think they can fix it by throwing a heap of money at it."
But when you mention the tree-planting volunteers, a lot of the tension drops away. It shows in people's faces and you hear an easier note in their voices. Those new seedlings on the land are tangible, not promises. Maybe even more important, they were put in by a neighbourly helping hand.
This article first appeared in the SkyWest Airlines in-flight magazine Destinations. May-June issue, 1997.