Calming the Western Australian salt monster
This article was written by Jim Heath for
Western Power. It first appeared in the SkyWest Airlines
in-flight magazine Destinations. May-June issue,
sleep comfortably in the land for thousands of years.
But when something disturbs the monster, we hear stories
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
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
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
water-table rose. As it did, it started dissolving the
ancient salt in the ground.
Where the water-table 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
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 water-table.
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'
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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 water-table 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.
© 1997 by Jim Heath. All rights reserved.
Photo credits: Western Power. Photos © 1997 by
Western Power. All rights reserved.