Salinity

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Increasing salinity is one of the most significant environmental problems facing Australia. While salt is naturally present in many of our landscapes, European farming practices which replaced native vegetation with shallow-rooted crops and pastures have caused a marked increase in the expression of salinity in our land and water resources.

Rising groundwater levels, caused by these farming practices, are bringing with them dissolved salts which were stored in the ground for millennia. Salt is being transported to the root-zones of remnant vegetation, crops, pastures, and directly into our wetlands, streams and river systems. The rising water tables are also affecting our rural infrastructure including buildings, roads, pipes and underground cables. Salinity and rising water tables incur significant and costly impacts.

The impacts of salinity are separated both in time and space from its causes. This means that while Australia's salinity problem is already significant, it is expected to increase as a result of past and present practices. For example, the National Land and Water Resources Audit estimates that 5.7 million hectares have a high potential for the development of dryland salinity, and predicts this to rise to 17 million hectares by 2050. This creates a major challenge for governments, industry and the community to develop management approaches which protect environmental and human assets which are at risk; address the problem of rising water tables; and make productive use of saline resources.

The risks posed by salinity to biodiversity are substantial. A recent report on the Implications of Salinity for Biodiversity Conservation and Management, highlights the need for urgent action by governments, industry and the community to prevent further outbreaks of salinity by retaining vegetation cover and, where possible, to protect areas of biodiversity significance from salinity impacts. The report, released in June 2001, was endorsed by all Australian, State and Territory environment ministers.

Area severely affected by salinity

Area severely affected by salinity near Lake Toolinbin, Western Australia
Photo: Annie Crawford

The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, together with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, is providing national leadership on salinity and water quality management through the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, which was endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments on 3 November 2000. The National Action Plan seeks to prevent, stabilise and reverse trends in dryland salinity and to improve water quality and secure allocations for a range of uses.

Links

Further information on salinity can be found on the following web sites:

Dryland Salinity Impacts on Vegetation

Dryland Salinity Impacts on Vegetation, Cookes Plains, SA
Photo: Peter Lyon

State and territory salinity web sites