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The salinity demon

By Ian Mott - posted Wednesday, 19 September 2007

The $900,000 in funds provided by Peter Beattie for a "friendly" version of his place in history will not obscure the darker side of his regime that is now leaking from numerous holes in his bloated, spin-driven bladder of public perception. Perhaps the most defining moment in his rule would be the time he addressed a gathering of farmers in St George and he proclaimed for all the cameras that "there would be zero tolerance of denial" in relation to his official position on salinity.

That official position, backed up by almost every "scientist" and departmental hack with a snout, was that widespread land clearing was increasing runoff and groundwater flows to a point where rising water tables posed a major threat of salinity-based land degradation. And the entire urban community bought the line that it was time to "take some hard decisions" to protect those silly farmers from themselves.

The entire weight of the Department of Natural Resources, and the EPA, was thrown into producing the now infamous "Salinity Hazard Maps" that painted large parts of numerous catchments in the obligatory bright red to denote extreme danger. What they didn't show was that some of this salinity was more than 100 metres below the surface and would require anywhere up to 400 megalitres of water per hectare to bring to the surface. Where this water might come from in the first half of what some called the worst drought for a millennia, was another question.


Beattie had carefully chosen St George as the site for his zero tolerance pronouncement because it was at the heart of the Condamine-Balonne river system that, along with the border rivers, feeds into the Murray-Darling. The Condamine had been presented as one of our most “at risk” systems with only 27.95 per cent of the catchment recorded as woody vegetation by the satellite scans in 2001. The implication was that some sort of clearing Armageddon had already taken place and the marching hordes of demon salinity were already at the gate.

The only problem with this perception, and one fully appreciated by all the farmers who had just been gobsmacked by the advice that their views on salinity amounted to nothing more than psychological "denial" of reality, was that, as confirmed by the natural resources atlas, much of the Condamine was covered in very sparse woody vegetation prior to settlement. And much of the vegetation found there today was regrowth which, because of its vigour, actually uses more water than the original vegetation and therefore reduces the risk of salinity.

Put simply, if trees in an open woodland only cover 10 per cent of each hectare, then the removal of those trees can only have 10 per cent (or less) of the impact that would occur if trees covered 100 per cent of that hectare. Both events would be recorded as clearing but the outcomes are worlds apart. The net change in woody vegetation since settlement was quite modest. See here.

But the most damning evidence against Beattie and the entire departmental entourage can be found in the definitive description of Queensland remnant ecosystems, prepared by the Queensland Herbarium and published by the EPA. The Conservation Status of Queensland's Bioregional Ecosystems edited by Paul Sattler and Rebecca Williams (1999) is an impressive work. It is the most comprehensive description of a state’s ecosystems ever attempted in Australia. And in accord with that process it was required to describe a particular landscape about 200km from St George, referred to locally as the Yelarbon Desert.

This area was mapped as the largest single outbreak of salinity in the state. As environmental scientist Dr Peter Wylie reported in The Courier-Mail (August 25, 2007) "the secret that tree clearing is not responsible for salinity has been let out of the bag". He advised that of a total of 9,428 hectares of salinity in the Queensland portion of the Murray-Darling Basin, "we find the bulk of this saline affected land, almost 7,000ha, was contained in two areas where natural salinity has been observed since white settlers first explored Queensland".

He went on to state, "the biggest of these is referred to as the Yelarbon Desert, where hard setting saline soils have been degraded by grazing. It is certainly not a pretty area, but has always been salty and the report admits it is "primary" salinity rather than "secondary" salinity, which is induced by farming."


Dr Wylie refers to a recent departmental report by Biggs & Power that now admits that the area was always saline. But this is not a new revelation. Indeed, Sattler & Williams, in 1999, made it very clear that this was a "Remnant Ecosystem". Its official description, then, was:

Regional Ecosystem 11.5.14
Description: Triodia sp. grassland with scattered low trees and shrubs on Cainozoic sand plains and remnant surfaces. Alkaline soil (subsequently changed to "highly alkaline soil").
Comments: This is a localised occurrence known as the Yelarbon Desert.
Estimated extent: >30 per cent remains of a naturally restricted type.
Conservation status: No concern at present.

Unlike most other entries, the estimated extent section does not provide an estimate of the original area. But we do know that if the current mapped area is, or was, slightly more than 30 per cent of the original area, then the removal of the other 70 per cent for farming purposes has not induced salinity. Indeed, farming practices may have actually reduced the extent of saline affected land.

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About the Author

Ian Mott is a third generation native forest owner, miller and regenerator from the Byron hinterland. For more information on the "New Farm States" campaign contact Ian Mott at Discover more Bon Motts here.

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