Coming to grips with salinity? by Denys Slee

Photo: Maria Taylor

There were about 20 people from four states in the room — among them farmers, engineers, hydrologists, soil scientists, plant breeders, catchment planners, government advisers and research funding providers.

They had been at a GRDC-organised workshop in Canberra for nearly two days, taking in the facts and figures about Australia’s dryland salinity problem. Hearing and saying things like:

“The area in Australia currently at risk for salinity is 5.6 million ha — which is projected to grow to 17 million ha.”

“Annual crops are like a leaking tap. They fill up the bucket which then overflows, so we have to find ways to empty the bucket.”

“Current perennials have their own limitations such as lack of tolerance to salinity itself, and acidity. They also tend to be more viable in the higher-rainfall areas.”

“Government investments (in salinity remedial programs) will be driven by water quality and biodiversity issues.”

“Farmers are saying: ‘we have planted lucerne and trees and our land is getting saltier — so we are going to dig drains’.”

How would you spend the money?

And so, in the afternoon of the second day, this august body was asked by GRDC Investment Manager, John Harvey, to suggest priority actions to counter salinity.

Each workshop participant was given a nominal $100 to spend and asked to allocate portions among the identified priorities.

Here is how the ‘expenditure’ came out:

  • 23 per cent on agronomy/plant breeding/ farming systems solutions. Likely benefits from this investment were seen as high, as was the adoption rate by landowners
  • 22 per cent on developing a range of new and profitable perennial plant options to counter salinity and waterlogging. It was agreed that this was a high-risk research area but one that needed to be tackled
  • 16 per cent on making better use of salty land and salty water. Individuals could benefit greatly from breakthroughs and solutions would have a high adoption rate
  • 11 per cent on technology transfer programs aimed at getting high adoption of profitable solutions to dryland salinity
  • 10 per cent on engineering solutions. Breakthroughs would be quickly adopted. Off-site benefits would accrue to stream and river quality and to biodiversity
  • 10 per cent to further define catchment characteristics and on catchment planning
  • 8 per cent on economic policy issues with high pay-offs likely in influencing policy advisers and makers.