The need for a new approach to dryland salinity investment
David Pannell (Univ. of WA; CRC Salinity) & Anna Ridley (DPI Victoria; CRC Salinity)
We face a difficult dilemma: there are limited public resources for addressing dryland salinity, but the level of response required to protect any particular asset is large. In many situations, perennials are needed on over 50% of a sub-catchment, while in others, within-catchment targeting is possible, provided the technical information is available. Even in the latter cases, the area of perennial vegetation required is usually large compared to the current situation.
Our current approach has put a strong emphasis on using public funds to work simultaneously across very large areas with thousands of landholders. The technical realities already mentioned mean that spreading the available public resources thinly across many areas will inevitably result in no effective protection of any of the threatened assets. The sad reality is that we can only protect a subset of the things we would like to protect. Given the available resources, if we try to do more than protect this subset, we are likely to achieve less. For this reason, most of the identified assets need to be flagged as “not a priority for regional salinity investment”.
The change implied by a tighter salinity investment framework is, at face value, unpalatable to some in the community. However, the reality is that, over the past 20 years, the approaches used by CMAs have progressively become more targeted, with the realisation that the salinity problem is harder to address than we would like or had previously realised.
This does not mean that most landholders will be disengaged. There are other avenues to reach the broader community who are not closely connected to specific salinity-threatened priority assets. One is through other programs that are not focussed on salinity (such as Envirofund), and another is through “technology development” (as outlined in section 3).
Another reason to be concerned about the current widely dispersed “on-ground” works is that it puts at risk the relationship between landholders and public agencies (CMAs and government departments). The existing strategy has been useful in changing farmers’ attitudes to perennials. However, the scale of uptake in most areas will not achieve salinity outcomes. Of particular concern is that most high-value assets (priority rivers, wetlands and vegetation) are unlikely to be protected under the current approach. There is a high risk that the CMA will, in time, burn up the good will of participating land-holders as it becomes clear that regional investment in salinity has not achieved the desired level of protection to assets. To preserve their trust and credibility, CMAs need to be honest with their landholders.
The logical evolution of investment targeting by CMAs is to base decisions around key threatened assets. If we do not focus decisions on particular assets, there is a high likelihood that funded works will not contribute cost-effectively to salinity outcomes. As part of the asset-based approach, it is crucial to ask what is actually needed to protect an asset, and not assume that it is always widespread perennial vegetation. In some cases, perennial vegetation can actually make matters worse by using up fresh surface water! The solution may be widespread vegetation, highly targeted vegetation, or engineering, or a combination.
Most resources so far have been spent on extension and accompanying small, temporary incentives. The assumption in all cases has been that the change required is the adoption of new land-uses on private lands, mostly to protect agricultural land threatened by salinity.
Both of these tools are only suitable for situations where the desired land-use changes are sufficiently attractive to be widely adopted, or can become so as a result of extension or incentives. There is strong evidence that this is only true in a minority of areas: (a) perennial pastures have been recommended in some areas for over 30 years and it is still rare to see landscapes with even 20% perennials; (b) in a number of the target areas, incentive money has not been able to be fully expended; (c) some areas for which lucerne incentives have been paid in the past have subsequently moved back to cropping.
This does not mean that past programs have been a waste. They have effectively alerted many landholders to the need for change, and commenced the process of that change. But they have not gone close to achieving change on the scale required to manage salinity. In future, we need to be smart about where extension and small, temporary incentives are applied (in areas where the required land-uses are widely adoptable), and hard-nosed about their targeting. If we are not confident about their enduring adoption, then the CMA should require landholders who receive incentives to keep perennials in for long enough to have a lasting effect.
An important additional avenue for CMA investment is “technology development”, which means the development of new, sustainable farming options that are attractive enough to landholders to be widely adopted. For example, it may include plant breeding to develop more productive species of perennial pastures, or research into better salt-tolerant plant options. This strategy provides the potential to increase the number of assets that can be protected within the available budget, by providing adoptable options for locations where the current perennial options are inadequate. If successful, the strategy can generate benefits over much larger areas than can be achieved through incentives, including on areas that are not priorities for direct investment. From a social and political perspective, it is the only option with the potential to achieve salinity outcomes while also providing benefits to the majority of landholders. On the negative side, it does inevitably involve a time lag between the investment and the delivery of new options.
Another important tool that could be more widely used is direct investment in engineering works. There are situations where this can be the most cost-effective response, particularly where a high-value asset is facing an imminent salinity threat (many such assets are currently not protected), and where the effect of revegetation would be too little, too late. Pumping of saline waters might be the only technically feasible response in such cases, but it is expensive and so needs to be carefully evaluated before proceeding.
This highlights the broader need to undertake detailed feasibility assessment to precede the expenditure of large sums on selected priority assets. The technical and economic conditions around salinity are highly variable and case-specific, including the responsiveness of salinity to particular treatments. Feasibility assessment is needed to inform final decision to proceed with investment in a particular asset, and to help target the required works for that asset.