Doublethink on Groundwater (Part 2)

Water is meant to be a really precious commodity in Australia, particularly in the Murray Darling Basin. Yet the Murray Darling Basin Commission recently announced, and with some pride, that the ‘National Salinity Prize’ had been awarded to Pyramid Creek Salt Interception and Harvesting Scheme, a scheme that evaporates precious water to sell subsidizes salt using old technology.

The project was explained on Television, on Channel Nine’s Sunday Program:

“ROSS COULTHART: Courtesy of this month’s Budget, the Murray Darling Basin Commission has another half a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money to spend. Much of it will be going on expensive schemes to stop salt reaching the rivers similar to this one in northern Victoria near Pyramid Hill. This is Pyramid Salt a private company funded with $13 million dollars of taxpayers’ money. Here they pump saline water from underground and harvest the salt it contains, for sale.

Does it make you laugh that people in Sydney are paying six bucks for a 250g box of salt that you blokes are desperate to throw away in this part of the world?

GAVIN PRIVETT, project manager, Pyramid Salt: No it doesn’t make me laugh. Actually, it makes me cry because the in-between guy is getting all the money.

ROSS COULTHART: But it’s only here at all because of an environmental blunder years ago, when attempts to lower the watertable under here ended up poisoning the Murray River.

GAVIN PRIVETT: Initially, what they looked at, they started putting drainage systems and then the problem was they realised they were transferring the problem from one place to another. They put in drainage systems. The next thing it was going into the Murray.

WENDY CRAIK: That’s true and I think that’s a fact of life, that science moves on, that people learn more about systems, learn more about what they should and shouldn’t do.

ROSS COULTHART: So it’s a multi-million dollar patch-up for a past mistake and it’s not a long-term solution for salinity.

GAVIN PRIVETT: You can’t put projects like this all over the place. One, people don’t eat enough salt. It’s a low value commodity. It’s not the answer to the problem. What we’re doing is we’re just intervening and I believe it’s probably as a short-term fix which we’re probably looking to buy some time.”

Its not only a “multi-million dollar patch-up”, the salt interception scheme is using groundwater, extracting groundwater, to evaporate the salt.

I explained in my last blog post with reference to a recent report titled ‘Risks to the shared water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin’ written by the CSIRO and published by the Murray Darling Basin Commission, in particular the section titled ‘Groundwater Extraction’, that groundwater stores are declining at alarming rates and that there is a high level of groundwater extraction in the Shepparton-Katunga region from the salt interception schemes.

The Pyramid Creek Salt Interception Scheme is in this region.

But this is the spin that the Murray Darling Basin Commission put on it in the media release announcing the prize:

“National Prize highlights continuing fight against salinity

A joint public-private salt harvesting scheme that each year diverts 22,000 tonnes of salt from the Murray River today won the prestigious Engineers’ Australia National Salinity Prize.

The prize for new technology and other practical outcomes tackling salinity was awarded to Pyramid Creek Salt Interception and Harvesting Scheme by the Governor-General, Major General Michael Jeffery, AC, CVO, MC at Parliament House Canberra.

The first stage of the $13 million Pyramid Creek Salt Interception Scheme near Kerang, Victoria, was opened in April this year and is funded by the Victorian, South Australian, New South Wales and Australian Governments through the Murray-Darling Basin Commission (MDBC).

Goulburn-Murray Water (GMW) has overseen construction and now manages the scheme on behalf of the MDBC’s partner governments, while Pyramid Salt run the commercial salt harvesting facility.

MDBC Chief Executive Dr Wendy Craik said MDBC co-sponsor the award as it serves to highlight the ongoing battle against salinity across Australia.

Dr Craik said the consensus of scientific knowledge underpinned the commitment Basin governments have consistently shown by investing in such schemes. “This prize will further encourage the important ongoing debate about the salinity challenges faced by the nation”.

“This prize also acknowledges the positive effects such projects have on communities, the environment and the local economy.

“One of a network of engineering works, schemes like Pyramid Creek make immediate gains against salinity Basin-wide and form part of the $60 million Basin Salinity Management Strategy supported by all Basin governments,” Dr Craik said.

“More than 1,000 tonnes of salt would enter the Murray River system every day were it not for the operation of these schemes at strategic points along the river”.

Pyramid Creek, like several other salt interception schemes, is a large-scale groundwater pumping and drainage project that intercepts water flows and disposes of them, generally by evaporation. The salt is then harvested for commercial purposes.”

What’s the relative value of the water to the salt?

What about a prize for a technology that gets rid of the salt without evaporating the water?


6 Responses to Doublethink on Groundwater (Part 2)

  1. Sylvia Else June 14, 2006 at 11:40 am #

    “What about a prize for a technology that gets rid of the salt without evaporating the water?”

    A desalinator in other words.

    The usual issue raises its ugly head – cost. There are already plenty of financial incentives for reducing the capital required for these systems. I can’t see a prize is going to make any difference.


  2. James Pilkington June 14, 2006 at 1:06 pm #

    what’s sad is how a project that does nothing to reduce the problem of salinity – merely tries to make money from it (like most salinity ‘solutions’ being implemented) – is what wins the award. australian salinity policy is basically bankrupt in that what needs to happen is changes in landuse but the government isn’t interested and instead a ‘live with an adapt’ approach to salinity has become the dominant thought. this has prevailed over previously exciting ‘perennial farming systems’ envisioned by john williams and others at csiro. grain and wool industry capture of the main research bodies has a lot to do with it. it’s ironic the threat of salinity has retreated somewhat (both in people’s minds and in reality) not because of the $1 billion plus National Action Plan and National Heritage Trust (the former especially is a huge brewing scandal), but largely because of the climate crisis that we have created!

  3. rog June 14, 2006 at 10:22 pm #

    Ironic isnt it, all that science distilled in ‘to obtain the salt get rid of the water.’

  4. detribe June 15, 2006 at 1:59 am #

    West Australia is now falling behind the EAST, with the announcement by the Chinese of a salt-tolerant pasture grass.


  5. Col. June 12, 2009 at 9:08 pm #

    According to Peter Andrews in his book ‘Back from the Brink’ in North America salt used to be worth more than gold in the times when the sub-continent was heavily vegetated because the vegetation was taking up a tiny amount of salt for each plant but of course the cumulative effect was extroidinary

  6. Keith Haas PhD December 20, 2013 at 7:10 pm #

    As water moves down basin, as in the Shepparton and Calival Geological Formations referred to in this case, in fact in any large drainage basin on the planet, meteoric water infiltration at the head of the formation will always tend towards a higher TDS as it moves down basin. Vegetation destruction up basin caused by generations of poor farming techniques practiced by Victorian, NSW, and QLD residents, through increased infiltration, renders the groundwater useless and a poison to the receiving body – the Murray Rvr. Nevertheless, even prior to European settlement the basin has always experienced short term (decades) shifts in groundwater levels leading to transitory saline soil profiles. This natural process has been amplified by farming and will continue regardless. That is, the majority of the groundwater that has moved down basin over a kyrs is useless to all eukaryotes – stock, wildlife, humans, plants, etc. The water is therefore of no use and never has been. Desalination of this water would generate large amounts of greenhouse gases and is wasteful and destructive. Commercialisation of the halite from this groundwater does no damage, provides employment, and benefits those who are most likely to suffer from high groundwater levels.

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