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Planning For Change

Tony McGrane MP

The Select Committee on Salinity

The Select Committee on Salinity was established on 17 August 2000. Its terms of reference are to examine:

  • Business opportunities created by salinity that contribute to the improved management of groundwater recharge and discharge areas.
  • The options for salinity management that are available to local councils, including but not limited to, planning instruments, building codes, urban water management plans, differential rating, development of local council expertise and resource-sharing between councils.
  • Any barriers to adoption of salinity management strategies by local councils, and means to overcome the barriers.
  • The adequacy of the Commonwealth’s response and contribution to addressing salinity.

The Committee:

  • put out an Interim Report in June to encourage further input from the community.
  • has undertaken regional visits to Deniliquin, Wagga Wagga, the Lower Murray and Western Australia to see first-hand the problems of, and solutions to, salinity.
  • has attended the Conference on the Productive Uses and Rehabilitation of Saline Lands and also the National Local Government Summit on Salinity.
  • is currently finalising a report on options for, and barriers to, the management of salinity by councils.

The speech will discuss one of the key findings of the Report.

Most councils are not involved in managing salinity

Councils in NSW currently have no specific statutory responsibility to manage salinity. The NSW Government does not intend to give them specific responsibility but intends that they will be required to address matters identified in regional plans.

Regional plans will pick up Catchment Management Plans along with other key regional documents. Plans for the whole region will be an important step in bringing together consideration of land use planning, natural resource management and economic issues. But the details of this approach are not yet clear.

It is not clear how long it would take to bring in regional plans and rewrite Local Environment Plans across the whole of NSW.

Councils do have scope under the Environmental Planning Assessment Act and Local Government Act to address salinity. Wagga Wagga City Council, Coorong Shire Council (SA) and Dubbo City Council lead the way in the management of salinity. Many small rural councils, however, would not have the capacity to implement salinity management without support and direction. Unlike Wagga Wagga and Dubbo City Councils, most councils do not currently see salinity management as part their core business. The Report will address the range of reasons for this and what needs to be done by the NSW Government and by councils to ensure that councils do have the capacity to manage salinity.

Why should councils be involved in managing salinity?

Cost impact on councils

The costs of damage to infrastructure will be as great, or greater than, the loss of productivity in agriculture.


The RPD Group states:

“The greatest long term financial impacts from dryland salinity may not be on agriculture, but rather on the life shortening affect on infrastructure such as roads, bridges, drainage systems and parks.” (24: Local Government Project Final Report, January 2001)


The RPD Group reports that annually dryland salinity costs $130m in lost agricultural production and $100m in damage to infrastructure and $40m in damage to environmental assets (RPD Group, Some Initial Findings

  • The costs of salinity damage and lower land values will drive local government finances in salinity affected areas.
  • The costs to councils of doing nothing, will be greater than the costs of addressing salinity.
  • The Report, The Financial Costs to Local Government of Dryland Salinity, prepared by Spiller, Gibbons Swan and SMEC, September 2000 makes predictions about the impact of salinity if no action is taken.
  • The predictions are based on three scenarios, severe, moderate and low impacts of salinity.
  • The model is based on case study municipalities and best estimates of experts on infrastructure and economic policies.
  • Under the moderate impact scenario, after 50 years:
  • About 85% of council income is induced by salinity
  • The income required to meet infrastructure expenditure needs (as a percentage of land value) is 5.3-12.8%
  • Land values have declined by about 83%

The RPD Group also makes the point that the costs of salinity may be highest for the councils with the smallest budgets:


“Generally the cost implications may well be highest for the least resourced councils” (RPD Group, Some Initial Findings)

There are no funding arrangements to assist councils to address these costs.

Cooperation between land holders, Catchment Management Boards and Councils will be needed to address damage to council infrastructure

Catchment scale salinity from land use change impacts upon urban infrastructure.

The impact of salinity on roads has been identified as one of the highest costs of salinity damage.

Across Australian local government transport and communication is the largest area of expenditure (30% of total expenditure).

The Report The Impacts of Waterlogging and Salinity on Road Assets: A Western Australian Case Study identifies that in many situations damage to roads can only be addressed through catchment wide measures, such as permanent tree belts on road reserves and adjacent private land.

Road authorities cannot achieve results in isolation.

The Report identifies the need for works to be carried out in consultation with catchment groups.

It states:

“Increasing road reserve widths and subsequent reafforestation is potentially an option for [Main Roads Western Australia] MRWA. Due to the nature of the salinity problem, however, better results will be achieved by consulting and working directly with local communities already attempting to stabilise rising watertables on a sub-catchment basis. Attempts to regain the water balance locally (ie by acquiring more land) could potentially be defeated by farming practices in the upper catchment areas.” (McRobert and Foley, 59: 1999)

Urban causes contribute to the salinity problem

Urban causes of rising groundwater such as:

  • overwatering of parks and gardens,
  • houses not connected to stormwaterwater disposal,
  • leaking water pipes,
  • vegetation clearance for development,
  • building and road maintenance which intercepts underground aquifers or dams them

Addressing the barriers to councils involvement

One of the key areas examined in the Report is the need for councils to have input to Catchment Management Plans

Current representational arrangements

The Commonwealth Government and NSW Government have not involved councils in the development of a national or state strategy to address salinity. At a strategic level the involvement of councils is ill-defined. The Commonwealth and NSW Governments see councils as having an operational role in implementing aspects of Catchment Management Plans. Neither government has provided councils with formal input to strategic planning to manage salinity.

The Commonwealth Government report ‘Managing Natural Resources in Rural Australia for a Sustainable Future: A discussion paper for developing a national policy says:

“[The Steering Committee] agrees that local government needs to be closely involved in a collective process for improved natural resource management, without necessarily having a more prominent role over other stakeholders.” (p31)

This approach is also adopted by the NSW Government in relation to councils input to Catchment Management Plans. There is representation by councils but it stops short of providing them with any formal input to planning. The President of ALGA is an observer on the National Resource Management Ministerial Committee but negotiations under the National Action Plan are bilateral with the States.

In NSW, two councils in a catchment are included on Catchment Management Boards. However they are present as individuals with expertise on local government not to represent their councils. There can be up to 25 councils in a catchment and there are no arrangements for input from the other 23.

The LGSA’s view

The LGSA’s view is that local government is being marginalised in natural resource management arrangements. The LGSA advocates that regional consortia of councils replace Catchment Management Boards.

But it is not appropriate to treat councils in the same way as other stakeholders

Although councils are not in a position to play a regional decision-making role on salinity, this does not mean that their role should be no greater than other stakeholders. It would be different if there were regional councils rather than local ones. Mike Young of CSIRO at the National Local Government Summit on Salinity made a radical suggestion. He said regional councils could be formed through amalgamations of local councils and regional offices of NSW Government departments. However, we are a long way from this.

What is needed to give councils input to Catchment Management Plans

There needs to be a mechanism for engaging all councils in a region in the development of Catchment Management Plans. The appropriate mechanism would be a regional grouping of councils which could provide a nominee to the Catchment Management Board to represent the collective view of the member councils Regional groups could also act as working parties in developing aspects of Plans for consideration by the Board, particularly how land use planning could compliment natural resource management objectives.

Given the size of some catchments, there would need to be several such regional groupings providing a nominee to the Catchment Management Board. There are three models which warrant consideration.

Regional Organisations of Councils

A number of areas have regional organisations of councils. Regional organisations of councils deal with many issues of concern to councils, not only natural resource management matters. Currently, regional organisations of councils are not structured on catchment boundaries. In theory, they could restructure on a catchment or sub-catchment basis to provide input to Catchment Management Boards. However, the difficulty is that Regional Organisations of Councils deal with many matters and the boundaries for all these matters are different.

Even with the issue of natural resources management the Committee understands that there are around 72 natural resource management committees in NSW with representation from councils and that the boundaries covered by these committees are not consistent. Catchments are the basis for some natural resource committees and plans. However, other committees are based on Local Government Areas, follow rivers or vegetation types It may not be practical for Regional Organisations of Councils to restructure unless the boundaries of natural resource management committees and other regional structures are made consistent.

Regional alliances

In order to address this councils in the upper part of the Macquarie catchment have formed a single purpose regional alliance to address salinity. The alliance means that councils can align themselves more effectively with Catchment Management Boards. Ken Rogers of Dubbo City Council in a paper to the National Local Government Summit on Salinity states:

“There are pretty strong arguments for local government councils to form regional natural resource alliances based on catchment areas. Such regional alliances should have two primary objectives, one to equally represent all stakeholders and two, to focus primarily on physically addressing NRM issues such as salinity ‘on the ground’. (Dubbo CityCouncil, p7)

There are 25 councils in the Central West Catchment, an area of 92, 200Km with Oberon at the upstream end and Bourke at the downstream end. Dubbo City Council is establishing a regional consortium of councils based on the upper part of the catchment.

The Council has applied for an NHT grant for a salinity project officer to develop the project. The Salinity Action Alliance, as it is known, will develop linkages with the Regional Organisations of Councils in the area.

Dubbo City Council also proposes that the Alliance develop salinity action projects which can be accredited under the Commonwealth Government’s National Action Plan arrangements so that the Alliance can access funding.

The Chairman of the Central West Catchment Management Board in a letter to Dubbo City Council states:

“It will be through the formation of organisations such as yours that we will be able to facilitate and achieve the wide landscape change that is necessary. The regional partnership that you have formed will be integral in the implementation of the recommended strategies developed by the CWCMB….." The CWCMB hopes that your organisation will take this opportunity to comment and contribute to the direction of the Board’s planning” (Dubbo City Council, p9)

County Councils

Councils have a general power to establish joint committees to undertake activities,works and services and may raise funds individually for expenditure on joint works across council boundaries. This power could be used to establish regional committees to manage salinity which could also nominate a representative to the catchment management board

County councils:

  • already deal with natural resource management issues (eg water supply, weed control)
  • have a regional focus
  • deliver services
  • employ staff
  • have a statutory basis under the Local Government Act 1993
  • hold funds
  • raise funds through rates, charges, levies and sometimes commercial activities.
  • are familiar to residents who are likely to accept additional charges and levies, if supported by a community education program which explains the benefits to them.

County councils could be established to carry out actions required under Catchment Management Plans. Under the Catchment Management Amendment Bill 2001 Catchment Management Boards include representation from: “not less than 2, but not more than 4, members, who in the responsible Minister’s opinion, are capable of representing the interests of local government…”(16D).

If local government does establish regional structures to align with the Catchment Management Boards, the Minister for Land and Water Conservation could seek one representative to the Board from each regional council structure.

This is subject to the regional structures being sufficiently large that the number of council representatives does not exceed four.

The need to streamline other committees and make their boundaries consistent

The Committee also believes that natural resource management committees should be further streamlined and their boundaries made consistent, wherever possible. The 1999 paper by the Department of Land and Water Conservation (DLWC), Strengthening Catchment Management in NSW states that there were a growing number of natural resource management committees:

  • 45 Catchment Management Committees
  • 5 Regional Catchment Committees
  • 22 water management committees
  • 15 regional vegetation committees
  • 70 floodplain and coast/estuarine committees.

DLWC states: “This has placed strain on and limited the number of people available, willing and skilled to contribute to them.”

During 1999 the State Catchment Management Coordinating Committee undertook a review of the number of natural resource management committees and their functions. There was community support for reducing the number of committees. The Committee is pleased to note that the Minister for Land and Water has replaced 43 Catchment Management Committees and five regional catchment committees with 18 Catchment Management Boards.

The Committee believes there is merit in the Minister continuing this process of reform to streamline both the number of natural resource management committees and their boundaries. This would assist the process of integration of natural resource management and land use planning. The Report which will be tabled next year examines in detail the support and direction councils need from the NSW Government across a range of issues and what councils themselves need to do to develop their capacity to manage salinity.


Congratulations to Ken Rogers, President, Australian Association of Natural Resource Management and other office holders for organising the Conference.

Congratulations to the sponsors:

  • Land and Water Australia
  • Department of Land and Water Conservation
  • Dubbo City Council

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