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?