‘Australia’s Salinity Crisis: What Crisis?’ ask Ross Coulthart & Nick Farrow

“Unless you’re prepared to redo thirty years of scientific research yourself, the debate on this point [the salinity crisis] comes down to a pure question of comparative credibility,” wrote Professor John Quiggin in April 2004, click here. John Quiggin was suggesting that I had no credibility on Murray River issues because my thesis contradicted “thirty years of scientific research”.

In my discussions with John Quiggin over the Murray River, he has been reluctant to consider the evidence. For him, and many others, it’s been a case of backing the orthodox view, also known as ‘the consensus’.

Anyway, some months ago a producer at Channel 9’s Sunday program contacted me. Nick Farrow said that he had heard that I had information showing that salinity levels in the Murray River were falling, not rising. I sent him a copy of ‘Myth and the Murray’.

Some weeks later I was interviewed by Ross Coulthart, also from Sunday, and in the following video clip, click here, which is an advertisement for this week’s program, I am seen stating that we don’t have a salinity crisis, but rather an ‘honesty crisis’.

Peter Cullen (a Director of the National Water Commission), Wendy Craik (head of Murray Darling Basin Commission), John Passioura (CSIRO) and others, are quoted in the clip suggesting the Murray River is not dying and that the problem of salinity may have been grossly overstated. The television reporter, Ross Coulthart, describes it as, “Misguided pessimism”.

To John Quiggin, who has relentlessly attacked me, and my credibility, over this issues, I say:

Maybe I was just a bit ahead of my time.

Following is the media release from Channel 9:

Australia’s Salinity Crisis: What Crisis?

The SUNDAY Program
Nine Network Australia
Sunday 28th May 2006 – 9am

Reporter: Ross Coulthart
Producer: Nick Farrow

It’s an apocalyptic story of environmental disaster we all know so well.

The Murray Darling basin is being poisoned by salt. Adelaide’s water supply is threatened, along with some of our most productive farmland – and our beautiful rivers are dying.

It’s a frightening scenario. But is it true?

In this week’s SUNDAY programme, reporter Ross Coulthart takes a look at the real threat posed by salinity – and finds things are going badly wrong in public science.

As Coulthart reveals, some of the claims being used to support calls for billions of dollars to be spent on fixing a ‘looming salinity crisis’ are simply not true.

Salinity is a problem. But it seems nowhere as bad as we’ve been told by environmental groups, government departments and many in the media.

Claims that an area of land twice the size of Tasmania is under threat are false. The reality is a fraction of that. Even top scientists now admit the predictions of a disaster have been exaggerated.

They say this may be because the theory about what causes salinity in non-irrigation areas is flawed.

Worse still, scientists suggest a cheaper and easier solution for salinity problems is being ignored – for very unscientific reasons.

“It’s a disaster for science. It’s a disaster for farmers,” one former CSIRO scientist tells SUNDAY.

Taxpayers have now given Government scientists billions of dollars to spend on efforts to understand and tackle salinity. But how solid is the science behind it?

Watch the SUNDAY Program this Sunday 28th May at 9am to find out.”

And here’s the link to the video promo: http://www.nextgenmedia.com/nine/promo/sunday_060528_vid_300.asx

22 Responses to ‘Australia’s Salinity Crisis: What Crisis?’ ask Ross Coulthart & Nick Farrow

  1. Jim May 26, 2006 at 1:47 pm #

    Now that you’re a TV star , can we poor ordinary folks continue to blog with you???

  2. Jim May 26, 2006 at 1:48 pm #

    Looking forward to seeing it in full Jen!!!!

  3. Jennifer May 26, 2006 at 1:54 pm #

    Hardly a star!
    But I am was impressed that the journalists bothered to read ‘Myth and the Murray’ and I am amazed that they have some of the past stars/experts acknowledging that they may have got it all a bit wrong.

  4. Katherine May 26, 2006 at 4:44 pm #

    Jennifer, I’m wondering why this is important. Clearly, we have many scientists acknowledging that some earlier salinity projections were erroneous because we’ve now taken steps to clean up the Murray. But native fish stocks are still a problem, water quantity is still a problem, and in some areas salinity remains a problem. Surely it’s a good thing to channel funds into better understanding this and acting upon it?

  5. Rob Gourlay May 26, 2006 at 4:56 pm #

    Jennifer, this program is a team effort to give the public system a wake up call about the dogma of public science and the inability of this public system to interact in a positive manner with the knowledge companies in industry and farmers who have their feet on the ground.
    Your effort over the years in challenging the public system to lift its game is admirable.

  6. Jennifer May 26, 2006 at 6:08 pm #


    How do you know water quality is still a problem? And how much money should be spent fixing what up?

    Do you want the Murray River to be fresh, blue and always brimming with water? Can’t you accept that its an old river that runs through a semi-arid environment that is naturally salty?

    And which native fish are in trouble, and why?

    As I see it the CSIRO and the MDBC continue to mislead the Australian public on many issues.

    We will see the full interview with Wendy Craik on Sunday. But given her, and Peter Cullen’s past record … well, I should think, they should both be considering their positions.

    Under their leadership the Ausralian public has been terribly misled and many millions of dollars secured under false pretence.

  7. Louis Hissink May 26, 2006 at 9:22 pm #

    When science reduces to comparative credibility, then it is no longer science where the facts speak for themselves, but on the authority of the proposer.

    Quiggin seems not to understand the scientific method.

    Science is driven by empiricism – hard physical evidence described by repeatable and replicable measurement of physical phenomena – and its conclusions are determined by the “available evidence” subject to the strict rule that if new data contradict it, then the theory becomes false and a new theory required.

    Religion, on the other hand, descends from authority and remains unchangeable despite any overwhelming contradictory facts. Religion is driven by aprioristic belief.

    Further, belief is an estimate of future conditions beyond the present, and thus incapable of being tested by the scientific methos.

    True science occurs when the models we frame from observation and sound theory become verified in the future.

    In Jennifer’s case here, point proven.

    In this case too, Jennifer has shown, again, that scientific progress is made by the mavericks in science, not from consensus.

  8. Jennifer May 27, 2006 at 8:36 am #

    Hi Louis,

    Thanks for the words of support.

    I am soon going to do a new post on Brian Tunstall. He, with Rob Gourlay, have done a lot of good work showing how salt does move in the landscape … they are two clever mavericks!

    I started this blog in part because of Quiggin and his attacks on my credibility which focused mostly, but not exclusively, on this issue. He has insisted that salt levels must be about to rise again because that’s what the experts have told us.

    So, and with reference to your comments, I think it most appropriate the video clip begins in a cathedral in Adelaide with an organist playing the Toccata.

    But let us not forget St Paul who wrote in the scriptures:

    “Test everything, and hold fast to that which is true.”

  9. Sinclair Davidson May 27, 2006 at 12:21 pm #

    Great post. I found this is Quiggin’s comments, “I honestly don’t see how public debate can function unless, at some point, you’re willing to accept expert judgements and to reject the claims of non-experts with an obvious axe to grind.” This comment is looking a bit sick. He also invokes the “the debate on this point comes down to a pure question of comparative credibility” argument a lot. Basically, he seems to blindly accept anything and everything said by any lefty.

  10. Jim May 27, 2006 at 4:35 pm #

    I’ve made the point here before – questioning motive should come AFTER the argument is dealt with NOT as a substitute for argument.
    It’s also common for the left of the political spectrum to assume ( rather arrogantly) that only they argue the facts and are untainted by any other motive be it money, ideology, or the self indulgence of moral superiority.
    It will be interesting to witness the reaction to the Sunday programme.
    Imagine for a minute that the nuclear power lobby ( to rely on a current debate ) presented supposedly scientific data about some future catastrophe to cajole billions of dollars of taxpayer funds from state and federal governments and then the research was exposed as highly questionable and corrupted for sectional interest.
    Now how would the MSM and many on the left react?
    Calls for royal commissions?
    Accusations of dishonesty by the Prime Minister?
    Headline news for a month?
    If we’re going to get all biblical about obvious axes to grind Jennifer;
    “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

  11. rog May 27, 2006 at 6:28 pm #

    leading on from Louis’ comments, the left tend to represent the emotional aspect of life and as history has always shown, emotion is as big a force as reason and is always destructive.

    It may be incumbent on the ‘right’ to appease those fears of the left, be they real or imaginary, instead of dismissing them as self indulgent quackery.

    Lefties are frightened of competition, but they do love a good game of footy and a bet on the races.

  12. Paul Williams May 28, 2006 at 11:48 am #

    I particularly liked the following passage;

    “ROSS COULTHART: Murray Darling Basin Commission boss Wendy Craik now admits many of the predictions of disaster were badly wrong. A decade ago in 1993, the MDBC predicted that dryland salinity was increasing at a rate of 10 to 15 percent per annum. It’s not happening is it?

    WENDY CRAIK: Well I think Ross that it’s fair to say that as a result of the consensus of science at the time organisations make, because of that consensus of science, provide the best information they can to decision-makers. That’s life.

    ROSS COULTHART: In 2000, Wendy Craik was heading the National Farmers’ Federation. At the height of the salinity hysteria she called for $65 billion to be spent on fixing Australia’s land and water crisis — with a whopping 37 billion to come from taxpayers.

    WENDY CRAIK: We were basing our recommendation on the best available information at the time.

    ROSS COULTHART: But that information was wrong wasn’t it?”

    Nice to see the media presenting something other than doomsday predictions. Well done, Jennifer!

    Next week is another report that interests me, hunting and gun laws. Let’s see if they can manage to somehow blame the Port Arthur massacre on hunters.

  13. Helen Mahr May 28, 2006 at 12:03 pm #

    Thanks for letting me know that the salinity issue was to be featured. I rarely watch Imparja, but this feature was gratifying.

    I particularly enjoyed Peter Cullen and Wendy Craik wriggling around in damage control, and Wendy’s attempts to distance herself from her past.

    Well done Jennifer, with your restrained, but plain speaking.

  14. Jim May 28, 2006 at 7:03 pm #

    Just played the disc Jen ( all day out at the Dayboro Fair with the kids so missed it this morning).
    Pretty succinct arguments all round.
    I was particularly interested in the mentions of computer modelling – I wasn’t aware that this had played a significant role previously.
    Is this a case of “garbage in / garbage out”?
    I thought Wendy Craik curiously non-penitent; she called publicly for $30b plus of taxpayers money and received plenty of uncritical media coverage at the time but she didn’t actually say sorry?
    I wonder if we’ll see NYT type apologies to readers of not having been sufficiently sceptical from our major newspapers?

  15. David Brewer May 28, 2006 at 8:54 pm #

    Quiggin is a funny bird. He appears to have a strong sense of social justice, but his thinking on public policy is based not on facts and real human consequences but on what he considers to be the valid social democratic approach to the issue. Since facts themselves have no such political colouring, this method boils down to supporting the views of reality adopted by the Labour left. But more than some other members of this group, he adopts these views in an extremely political manner, seeing facts only in terms of the political uses to which they might be put.

    The method leaves Quiggin open to serious error himself whenever such errors are likely to occur among the Labour left, e.g. when its members have a career in the field, or when they have taken a political approach to an issue, deciding their position on the basis of lobby group propaganda or perceived electoral advantage. (Of course Liberal or other parties’ views will be no better whenever they are based on similar considerations – witness Costello’s recent kneejerk largesse on this very issue of the Murray.)

    Quiggin’s website promises “Commentary on Australian & world events from a social-democratic perspective”. If he would only stick to commentary and not make pronouncements on facts based on political evaluations of whoever is speaking, he would avoid getting into holes like the one he is in at the moment. It was always clear that the main salinity graph on which Quiggin relied was a misleading confection of model estimates and doctored, smoothed data that gave a deeply wrong impression of the problem, but he has never admitted this or even apparently looked into it.

    It is worth checking his site now to see how he reacts in cases where his whole view of a problem is shown to have been misguided, precisely because he failed to engage with facts and instead relied on general prejudices (government scientists good, Marohasy and the IPA bad), and other scientific bedrock such as his notion that “irrigation systems worldwide have been overallocated more often than not”. Instead of admitting even the smallest error, he switches the argument onto whether a 1999 MDBC report could be thought to disprove Marohasy’s claims that the MDBC was promoting a disaster scenario. Since he quotes even that report as saying that “Despite the undeniable gains, salinity remains a pressing issue”, he hardly has much of a case, and as a response to the collapse of his whole position on the topic it is truly pathetic.

    Quiggin calls his post “Bait and switch”, but does not seem to realise that this is a perfect description of what he himself is attempting. He further reinforces this impression when he responds to the only critical comment he receives with a taunt that the commenter is a known climate sceptic, untrustworthy by definition. It is as if he is trying to give a demonstration of how many logical fallacies he can employ while avoiding any substantive discussion or even a simple apology for being so awfully wrong himself, and ungracious while he was at it.

    It’s true that his “fact-free” approach to issues has advantages in arguments. Instead of concentrating on the substance of an issue, and testing its core claims, you can claim victory by focusing on minor details, quibbling about interpretations, or even just crowing that other people have changed their opinion.

    Time and again it is the argument from authority supporting his own view, and ad hominem arguments against its opponents. I suppose he can keep swirling around in this bubble of “official science” forever if he wants to, steadfastly refusing to confront contrary facts. After all, as his authority on this pointed out when defending the official view on salinity two years ago, how could contrary facts have “comparative credibility” when set against “the judgements and opinions of more than 60 publicly funded…scientists based on decades of professional training”? And moreover Quiggin has an even more decisive argument: “I’ve already stated my reasons not to give any credence to anything said by the IPA.” That should really help him sort the wheat from the chaff!

    And yet, the official line on salinity was all a load of balls and we are just lucky that Costello is only going to waste another $500 million on it, and not many times more.

  16. grant mc millan May 29, 2006 at 8:18 am #

    i found the story jennifer did on salinity throughout the murray darling basin very interesting.i would like to see the report again.is there any chance of obtaining a copy

  17. Jennifer May 29, 2006 at 2:54 pm #

    Hi Grant,
    You can try phoning the Sunday program in Sydney reception number is 02 9965 2470. They may have a spare DVD of the program.
    I am hoping to get a couple of DVD’s by mail and if you send me an email I might be able to on forward one to you.

  18. Graham Finlayson May 29, 2006 at 3:23 pm #

    It’s been a long time since I was last on this site, but I notice some things have not changed. A lot of arguing over who’s opinion is more validated then the other, and who has the correct ‘facts’ and who has the incorrect ‘facts’ etc etc.
    I got back here via a link on the transcript of Sunday’s show as I had missed the program. I thought that I may have found some discussion on improved soil and land management, that the two featured on the program talked about and how they were addressing real problems with great results. The trouble with government policy I believe is their tendency to focus on the river only, and not what is happening on the landscape.
    I had mentioned “pasture cropping” here before as having some of the much sought after answers for our problems,far in advance of any chemical reliant zero till system currently talked about.
    I don’t believe there was much response. Maybe too simple and not reliant enough on “technology”.
    Great pioneers of change have nothing to do with scientists…mavericks or otherwise.
    The acedemics are all just trying to explain their version of ‘why’ it is.

  19. Sinclair Davidson May 29, 2006 at 3:32 pm #

    If the Sunday show packaged the salinity show and the fabrication of history show from 2003, they could sell it under the rubric “Fraud in public funded science/academia”.

  20. Jennifer May 30, 2006 at 10:25 am #

    Graham F., Thanks for your comment and just to add, I’ve asked some of you guys managing farms to write a few paragraphs for this blog, to get some discussion on soil health issues going. What about sending us a piece?

    And I’ve just cut and pasted the following comment from David Pannell from John Quiggin’s blog http://johnquiggin.com/index.php/archives/2006/05/26/bait-and-switch-2/ so I’ve a copy filed. I don’t agree with his assessment that if it gets wetter again the salinity problem will get worse, but he makes some good points:

    Hello John

    It is really interesting to watch a program on a topic about which one is really well informed. I had the experience I’ve had before of having doubts about all the other current affairs programs on topics where I don’t know any of the details. It was agonising seeing all of the issues jumbled together and muddled up. The low points were the Goulay gang’s total dismissal of the rising groundwater model (which is just preposterous) and the farmer’s claim that ploughing and cutting fertilizer can somehow get rid of salt. Nevertheless I think that Jennifer M is basically correct about the corruption of science by politics in the period when salinity was at its height as a hot political issue. You (John) are right that she is spraying bullets around a little indiscriminantly, but the basic point is correct, especially in relation to the National Land and Water Resources Audit.

    David Tilley: How did it happan? I’ve spoken to people who know exactly how it happened. It was a mixture of several things: failure to anticipate the dire political consequences of defining salinity hazard in the broad way they did (although they were warned); succumbing to pressure to provide results despite a lack of data; and in at least one state, yes, a shameless determination to ride the political wave right to the money-laden beach.

    There is a sensible middle ground in all this that says that salinity was never as bad as claimed by a bundle of sources who should have known better, but that it is still a serious problem that could get worse if/when rainfall returns to average levels in the Basin.

    Dogz and John: Do these farmer’s technologies work? They have nothing to to with Whittington banks, which proposed a totally different causal mechanism and are discredited now. In the case of the irrigation farmers, they were just doing what any scientist would advise: be careful and systematic with your water use. In the case of the farmer growing native grasses, I think the point was just that he could – that the land was not saline as predicted. If you reduce fertilizer use in that sort of country, native grasses will come back. I don’t think there was any implication that they would reduce salinity, although they may do so to a modest extent, since they are perennials. In the case of the guy with the “special” plough, I am told that groundwaters fell throughout his district, so it clearly wasn’t due to his actions. He found some fresh groundwater, but groundwater salinity is highly variable, sometimes over small distances, so my expectation is that the groundwater at that site was fresh all along. You’d need before-after comparison to prove otherwise.

    Do the more traditionally advovated techniques work (planting perennials)? Well, not as well as we’d like. The problem is you need a very large area of them, and the economics is against it unless the perennials are pretty close to being financially attractive to farmers in their own right. This has big implications for the way that the policy program should be designed. For more on this see the transcript of my Ockham’s Razor talk: http://cyllene.uwa.edu.au/~dpannell/dp0504.htm, or a more detailed paper of mine that is a little old now, but still largely correct: Pannell, D.J. (2001). Dryland Salinity: Economic, Scientific, Social and Policy Dimensions, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 45(4): 517-546. http://cyllene.uwa.edu.au/~dpannell/dpap0101.pdf.
    end of quote from David Pannell

  21. Maya May 30, 2006 at 10:54 pm #

    John Quiggin makes a fairly convincing (ie well referenced) case that Jennifer has been blowing over a straw man and, in dong so, engaging in misrepresentation of the scientific position. I would be interested in her response. As John says, conning Sunday into presenting your perspectivce doesn’t make it right.

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