LANDHOLDERS losing productive cropping country to salinity and saturation caused by a salt disposal basin say they are growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of concern shown about the issue by the Department of Environment and Water and present Minister of the portfolio David Speirs.
Preliminary findings of a report by agricultural consultant Chris McDonough, shared with Stock Journal in early November, showed salinity damage to farmland adjoining the Noora Basin, east of Loxton, was spreading at a rate far greater than predicted by DEW modelling.
Gary and Yvette Frahn have witnessed 40 hectares of cropping land become unproductive and Dr McDonough's findings showed another 204ha was under imminent threat.
Despite bringing their most recent findings to the attention of DEW, Dr McDonough and the Frahns say they have heard nothing in the four months since.
"Our biggest disappointment is that we have done all the work to provide the evidence DEW needs about the situation and they have done absolutely nothing to resolve the problem," Mrs Frahn said. "They have shown no care or concern and have avoided the issue."
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Getting their voices heard through the political realm has also failed.
In January, Member for Chaffey Tim Whetstone requested the Minister, his colleague, meet with the Frahns, but no meeting has been forthcoming.
Questions directed to Mr Speirs about why he had been unwilling to meet with the Frahns for more than three years, even after Mr Whetstone's recent lobbying, were left unanswered.
The state government entering caretaker mode ahead of the upcoming election was given as the reason for Mr Speirs' inability to comment.
There is a small glimmer of hope for Noora landholders seeking a path forward, with Labor's Environment and Water spokesperson Susan Close telling Stock Journal she was committed to meeting with affected landholders if her party won the upcoming election.
"It's difficult for me to comment on decisions taken 30 years ago and in subsequent decades, but I will meet with relevant parties if I'm fortunate enough to be Minister... after the election," she said. "I think an elected representative's responsibility is to listen to people's concerns and try to understand an issue before making any decisions, and that is what I will do in this case."
Who is ultimately responsible for third-party impacts caused by the Noora Basin has been a question carefully tiptoed around by various departments and authorities.
Noora was established in 1982 and DEW previously argued landholders were informed of the potential salinity risk, but multiple farmers said risks were not conveyed at all or severely downplayed at the time.
DEW also purchased swathes of impacted land adjoining the basin more than a decade ago, but have not conceded those purchases were an admittance of liability.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority, who oversee salinity management schemes like that at Noora and had their Ministerial Council commit to avoiding third party impacts from them in 2015, was asked who was responsible and responded with a statement highlighting the Basin's ownership.
"Two salt disposal basins operate in SA," a MDBA spokesperson said.
"The SA Department for Environment and Water is responsible for the operation, management and ownership of Noora Basin.
"The Stockyard Plain disposal basin is jointly owned by the Australian government and SA, NSW and Vic state governments."
A DEW spokesperson said Noora was managed under the River Murray Act 2003 and was operated to further the Act's objectives, including river health and water quality, so the Minister and government held "no liablity for any localised impacts associated with operating the Noora Basin".
No comment was given as to whether adjoining landholders were considered collateral damage as long as those objectives were met.
The spokesperson said reports of salinisation were investigated by DEW's scientific team in 2017.
"The study found the water table surrounding Noora had been affected by saline groundwater and localised rainfall during the years following the Millennium Drought," they said.
Stock Journal has access to DEW's report and while it does mention high rainfall in the years 2009 to 2012, it concedes the operation of Noora was the cause of longer-term water table rises.
It also warned that increased pumping into Noora could heighten the water table and cause salinised areas to expand and affect nearby cropping land.
Despite the warning in the 2017 report, DEW previously conceded that it increased pumping into Noora since the completion of the Pike River interception scheme more than 12 months ago, but have not commented on whether this could be contributing to rapidly-growing saline patches on nearby farmland.
As the waters of responsibility are muddied, farmers are left to ponder the long-term ramifications of fast-growing salinisation.
One such case is young part-time farmer Tyrone Obst, who owns a 110ha block adjoining Noora.
While more than a hectare has patched out on his block in recent years, the situation is worse on the property of his father Peter, who has 1000ha adjoining Noora.
The situation means Peter is reluctant to see Tyrone take the property on.
"We were looking at buying land off Dad in future, but due to the basin situation, he'd rather the government buy it than sell it on to us, because the salt damage is getting worse and worse," he said.
Tyrone has been investigating ways to make the salinised areas productive, but thinks DEW or government involvement could hasten that process by funding trials and investigating ways to make it sustainable.
"I'm still optimistic that we can somehow utilise that land," he said.
"Hopefully we can overcome it and it can become an asset to us.
"It's going to be a long-term problem, so it'd be good if the department could at least look at ways to tackle it in the long-term."
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