Home > Economic policy, Environment > Gourlay and Tunstall on dryland salinity

Gourlay and Tunstall on dryland salinity

May 30th, 2006

The Sunday program on salinity, as it related to irrigation and the Murray-Darling, was pretty old stuff; pointscoring about some silly past statements (such as the NFF/ACF proposal to spend $65 billion) combined with a Pollyanna view of the current situation, familiar in general tone to anyone who’s followed climate change denialism.

What was interesting and new to me was the claim, put forward by Rob Gourlay and Brian Tunstall that the standard model of dryland salinity, based on rising water tables, is wrong and that the real cause is poor soil quality. The show also featured a farmer who claimed to solve salinity problems by defying the advice of the experts. This reminded me of a much older challenger to standard hydrology, Harry Whittington and his interceptor banks, which I discussed briefly here

I haven’t worked on dryland salinity for a few years now, but I’ve followed the issue reasonably closely, particularly through the work of Dave Pannell at University of Western Australia, who’s one of Australia’s leading agricultural economists. Unlike me, Dave’s a bit of an enviro-sceptic* (he’s written favorably about Lomborg, for example), but no-one I know is better informed on dryland salinity. So I was interested to see his reaction to all this. Suffice it to say he’s unimpressed A quick summary

that the rising groundwater theory of salinity is wrong, and should be replaced by a theory based on soil health) is problematic, to say the least. Channel 9 interviewed almost all of the small band of scientists (the “soil-health teamâ€?) who have for some years been pushing this line, but not a single person who would be qualified to present the counter view. Now Australia is a big place, and there may well be different mechanisms in operation in different places. But for the soil-health team to claim that the rising groundwater theory is universally wrong is quite outrageous. …

The proponents of the alternative theory need to subject their ideas to the standard method of quality assurance in science, by publishing their evidence in a peer-reviewed journal. They have not yet done that.

*Not perfectly phrased. Dave takes a properly sceptical attitude to the evidence on salinity and other environmental issues he’s worked on, as all good scientists should do. At times, though, I think he’s too kind to people like Lomborg, who claim to be sceptics but are promoting a viewpoint that’s just as credulous as that of the environmental alarmists like the Club of Rome, but in the opposite direction.

On the other issues, Pannell agrees with Jennifer Marohasy that scientists overstated the salinity problem in the late 1990s, though in comments here he agrees with me that “she is spraying bullets around a little indiscriminately”. I broadly agree with Pannell’s criticism of both of the National Land and Water Audit (as I mentioned here, and the NFF/ACF $65 billion proposal (I estimated about $2 billion here). But I don’t think these instances of exaggeration amount to a large-scale fraudulent conspiracy or anything like it.

Coming the core point of my disagreement with Marohasy, Pannell notes

The causes of the fall in salinity are well known: extensive pumping of saline groundwater, and a long period of below-average rainfall.

Despite this positive news, it is believed that, if rainfall returns to average levels, salinity from dryland areas will eventually overtake the effects of the groundwater interception schemes – river salinity levels will rise again. Indeed, if there is even a brief period of above-average rainfall, salinity levels will probably be elevated for some time afterwards. (It is now appreciated that salinity in the river is driven to a large extent by episodic flooding.)

… we should not forget that the likely future area of salt-affected land is still very large (probably something of the order of 6 million ha) and that for salinity’s impacts on water resources, infrastructure, and biodiversity, area is not the issue, anyway. The lesson is that salinity investments (like other environmental investments) need to deal with the issues soberly, based on the best available evidence.

I couldn’t agree more.

A final note on Gourlay and Tunstall. As Dave Pannell pointed out to me, their model is totally different from, and inconsistent with, Whittington’s. Yet if you look at this report presenting their views, they say

The clearest evidence of the lack of general applicability of the rising groundwater
model is presented by Paulin. The work and observations by Whittington in the Western Australian wheat belt reported by Paulin demonstrate …

So it looks as if it’s back to the interceptor banks!

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  1. rog
    May 30th, 2006 at 22:15 | #1

    John, there is a CRC forum on salinity http://forum.crcsalinity.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=59

    Paulin’s paper is available on http://www.europe.canterbury.ac.nz/conferences/tech2004/tpp/Paulin_paper.pdf (your link is busted)

  2. May 31st, 2006 at 10:22 | #2

    John, Thanks for this.

    “large-scale fraudulent conspiracy”? No, I agree, there wasn’t that.

    Nevertheless, some of the things I’ve heard from insiders about the behaviour of one or two of the state agencies at that time are a worry (not the scientists, but the managers). Also, a private consultant in Victoria recently said at a meeting (attended by one of my colleagues) that their earlier predictions of salinity hazard were exaggerated, and more-or-less admitted that this was due to the political needs of that time.

    More generally, I think there was a sort of a feeding frenzy around salinity for a while, with the media getting right behind the idea of a crisis, and almost nobody other than me publicly trying to hose it down a bit. There doesn’t need to be a conspiracy for this to happen. The love of a crisis seems to be deeply rooted in us, people respond to it, and this has been clevery exploited before now. e.g. Y2K bug, and I could mention here a couple of issues here that John and I don’t quite see eye-to-eye on :-) .

    Enviro-skeptic am I? I actually think of myself as an environmentalist, but one who wants the environmental dollar to achieve as much environmental benefits as possible. In my mind, a skeptic is someone who asks questions and seeks evidence. If you are not a skeptic, then you aren’t a researcher!

    Cheers
    Dave

  3. Dogz
    May 31st, 2006 at 11:10 | #3

    David Pannell, in JQ’s world a skeptic is either dogmatic, ideologically driven, or corrupt (“skeptic for hire”). They are his own words on the subject, from which he has never resiled.

    Only RWDBs depart from the revealed truth of the eco-alarmists.

  4. May 31st, 2006 at 11:39 | #4

    Given a choice between conspiracy theorists and cock-up theorists, I’ll take the cock-up theorist every time.

  5. jquiggin
    May 31st, 2006 at 11:53 | #5

    Dogz, I made this characterization in January this year IIRC specifically about people who profess to remain sceptical in the light of the now-overwhelming evidence supporting human-caused climate change. The rush of people abandoning previously sceptical positions suggests I was on the mark, though maybe I should have allowed for a lag of a few months while people digested the evidence.

    I’m trying to rescue the sense of “sceptical” stated by Dave from the likes of Steven Millloy and Sallie Baliunas.

    And, since you keep raising the point, let me observe again that you’re a confirming instance for two of three categories I listed.

  6. Dogz
    May 31st, 2006 at 12:30 | #6

    JQ, you have repeatedly made the characterization over the last couple of years.

    My issues are with the predictive power of the models. I’ve yet to see any of the scientific literature adequately address the issue of overparameterization. The sensitivitty studies to date (eg climateprediction.net) only support my point of view. And I have no ideology whatsover with respect to global warming. If anything, I am anti-ideological: I don’t want global warming exploited for ideological purposes by the right or the left.

    So, since you keep getting it wrong, why don’t you put up or shut up? Show me where I have been dogmatic and ideological (and while you’re at it, show the same for David Attenborough). I assume you are not accusing either of us of corruption.

    Failing that, you might like to apologize to all “genuine sceptics” for your arrogant slur.

  7. jquiggin
    May 31st, 2006 at 15:56 | #7

    “Show me where I have been dogmatic and ideological ”

    Obviously these things are in the eye of the beholder. Your comments on this blog strike me as consistently dogmatic in tone and ideologically rightwing in substance.

    Maybe other readers don’t share this perception.

  8. The Lithophyte
    May 31st, 2006 at 16:03 | #8

    The mapping model for dryland salinity risk as published in the National Land and Water Audit (which was really a hazard map) then became the funding model for the NHT to disburse salinity mitigation moneys to catchment management groups etc. These maps were done in a hurry in many places and on a timetable to complete the NLWRA.

    When the science improved as it should, largely based on airborne survey and 3-D imaging of likely groundwater surfaces, the hazard map changed signficantly in some places. Unfortunately this has created a problem for funding patterns. There’s no doubt that investment needs to be made in better natural resource management but I think the problem was with the whole NHT model – not the science.

    I have been around the salinity issue for a long time – my father was involved and instrumental when the world was deaf – and frankly don’t think there has ever been systematic overstatement of the science except for some me too-ism in less affected regions when the funding started to roll in. Salinity is still a sleeping giant with a huge underlying momentum. Because estimates of its expression may change this is often interpreted to suggest that the underlying problem is not there, or not very serious.

    Reductions in rainfall currently being experienced will reduce recharge over the long term if they persist (likely under climate change). Unfortunately in-stream salinity will increase over the short to medium term because there will be less water to carry what salt that is being discharged out to sea. That there are more salinity denialists does not surprise me – I have been arguing with them and global warming denialists for a long time. They share a common trait in being impervious to scientifically evaluated evidence.

  9. Dogz
    May 31st, 2006 at 16:12 | #9

    Ideology may be in the eye of the beholder, but dogmatism is pretty objective: “Characterized by an authoritative, arrogant assertion of unproved or unprovable principles”.

    I guess there’s a certain irony in dogmatically asserting that another is dogmatic.

  10. May 31st, 2006 at 17:35 | #10

    Putting David Attenborough in the same company as global warming “skeptics” is stupid.

    Attenborough was skeptical, but unlike the vast vast majority of global warming “skeptics” he never said anything on the topic under he actually understood what was going on (for example, Attenborough has never used a chemical catalyst as an analogue for the role of CO2 on global temperatures). By that stage his views had changed dramatically.

    By comparison, the rest of the “skeptics” camp is intellectually no better than the creationists (John Cristy may be the exception that proves the rule).

    There is a massive difference between somebody who is skeptical about a topic under they research it, and the current clownshow who make up the global warming skeptics.

  11. Dogz
    May 31st, 2006 at 18:18 | #11

    If you define “global warming skeptics” to be only those at the fringe extremes, then of course you’ll only find “clowns”. But that is not how the term has been used. It has been used in the plain-english sense of anyone who is skeptical of any aspects of the science and claims behind global warming. That includes David Attenborough.

    It is a useful, common, but entirely disingenuous rhetorical tool to classify entire populations by their most extreme members. Taking the same approach to global warming proponents would have them all locked up in the same padded cell as James Lovelock.

  12. May 31st, 2006 at 18:32 | #12

    Dogz, the big problem is that it’s not just the extremists who are the clownshow. It’s virtually the whole damn movement.

  13. May 31st, 2006 at 19:24 | #13

    Dogz,

    I was just wondering where you got the definition of dogmatism that you used to support your contention that “dogmatism is pretty objective”. Where’ s the proof, if any, that this definition of dogmatism is acurrate enough, and precise enough, to provide the basis for a pretty objective (i.e. a largely unsubjective) assertin that JQ is a dogmatist and you ain’t. Or vice versa.

    You’re right on the money in your remarks re the irony of dogmatically proclaiming that someone else is a dogmatist. Was the demonstration by example intentional? Just curious.

  14. jquiggin
    May 31st, 2006 at 19:58 | #14

    What Ken said. Lindzen is about the most rational of the remaining denialists and he’s irresponsible enough to promote smoking both by example and by claiming the risks are overstated.

  15. Dogz
    May 31st, 2006 at 20:31 | #15

    Same old, same old. This is an almost entirely pointless exercise:

    - all skeptics are clowns.

    - all environmentalists are fascists

    - all lefties are commies

    - all rightwingers are nazis

    have I left anybody out?

    [Gummo, I got the definition of dogmatic from google - the definition link that comes up when you search on "dogmatic". A reasonably independent source I would have thought - certainly not an "authoritative, arrogant assertion of unproved or unprovable principles", which is what JQ's assertions (thus far) are.]

  16. SJ
    May 31st, 2006 at 20:52 | #16

    Here’s the google definition (actually from answers.com)

    1. Relating to, characteristic of, or resulting from dogma.

    2. Characterized by an authoritative, arrogant assertion of unproved or unprovable principles. See synonyms at dictatorial.

    You’re the one claiming that global warming is unproved or unprovable.

    Yet what do you use as your criterion that it’s unproved or unprovable:

    I’ve yet to see any of the scientific literature adequately address the issue of overparameterization.

    To most people, saying “I’m not satisfied” or “I don’t believe it” is insufficient to demonstrate that something is unproved or unprovable. Especially when the person saying it is anonymous, and admits to having no relevant qualifications or experience.

    But by your criterion, the only things that aren’t dogmatic are the things you believe in. Conversely, having you believe in something makes it true (for you, at least). But, see, that’s the definition of dogmatic.

    Happy now?

  17. Dogz
    May 31st, 2006 at 21:08 | #17

    SJ, “I’ve yet to see any of the scientific literature adequately address the issue of overparameterization” would indeed be insufficient if I had never backed it up. But I have addressed the issue of overparameterization in far greater (in fact nauseating) detail on previous global warming threads on this blog. Threads in which you actively participated as far as I recall.

    Do you want me to go over it again?

  18. Dogz
    May 31st, 2006 at 21:13 | #18

    BTW, I never admitted having no relevant qualifications. Quite the opposite.

    Anyway, as above, this is all just irrelevant point-scoring. Forget it.

  19. June 1st, 2006 at 13:00 | #19

    And now the big question – who wants the ears and the tail?

  20. June 1st, 2006 at 18:48 | #20

    Dogz, the problem with your previous statements about the parameters is that they essentially amount to an argument from authority. Which would be ok, if you were actually an authority, but it’s pretty obvious you aren’t. This in turn leads you to significantly overstate the problems with parameters in climate models.

    For example, in one of the last mega global warming threads you stated:

    I wasn’t advocating excision of those free parameters, just conversion from free to bound (for want of a better word). There are 20 of the most poorly understood parameters listed here: http://www.climateprediction.net/science/parameters.php

    Just looking at the top one: vf1 – ice fall speed through clouds. I don’t know what the valid range for this variable is (you could probably dig it out from the site), but let’s say it is from 5m/s to 20m/s. If the model is sensitive to that parameter, it’s predictions will change dramatically depending upon whether you set it to 6m/s or 12m/s (say). When you multiply that by 20 poorly understood parameters, you get an enormous space of possible parameter settings which leads to a large variability in the model predictions. So if we can go out and measure the value of vf1 and hence reduce its range in the model, we’ll be more confident of the model’s predictions.

    While the parameter vf1 isn’t as well defined as most other parameters, it is no where as bad as what you make out. Generally (unless there is a very large water-ice content) it is about 0.5 m/s. In the case of snowflakes, it is approx. 1 m/s. It is thought that the we know (experimentally) the value of this parameter to within +/- 20 %. So what is the effect of varying. In the case of the CSIRO GCM, there is only a tiny effect. When vf1 is altered by 20% in either direction, there is no statistically significant change. Only when vf1 is shifted into unrealistic values do significant effects occur. And even these are minor.

    My source this is Climate Sensitivity of the CSIRO GCM: Effect of Cloud Modeling Assumptions by Leon Rotstayn (Journal of Climate 1999, vol 12 pg 334).

  21. Dogz
    June 1st, 2006 at 19:50 | #21

    Ken, vf1 is just one of the unknown parameters. The passage you quote above was meant to illustrate the general problem associated with overparameterization, not to be a definitive critique of a single parameter. It was specifically in response to the following question:

    “What are the more important free parameters are you referring to? When does the excision you recommend become susceptible to the charge of reductionism?”

    My authority is modeling and overparametrization in general, not in specific climate models, and I don’t think I have ever pretended otherwise. I also don’t think I ever tried to appeal to authority – I’ve always tried to explain what I think the problem is.

    You don’t need to be a climate authority to level these criticisms: we know from the climateprediction.net results that the model predictions are highly sensitive to plausible variations in the model parameters, since that was what their experiment was explicitly designed to test.

    In my opinion the climateprediction.net folks drew the wrong conclusion from their results, namely, that the earth’s temperature could be much more sensitive to CO2 levels than previously thought. The correct interpretation is that the models are much more poorly understood than previously thought. If the models had shown consistent very high temperature outcomes, then their conclusion would have been valid. But they didn’t – even with their somewhat dubious pruning methodology the predictions are all over the map (so to speak).

    But this is just my particular bugbear. These shortcomings are becoming less important as alternative evidence for AGW mounts. Like I said earlier, I am about 75% convinced, based on the rest of the evidence.

  22. jquiggin
    June 1st, 2006 at 20:03 | #22

    Dogz, one of the drawbacks of pseudonymity is that you can’t claim authority of any kind (unless of course, you’ve established that your pseudonymous persona is a source of authoratative judgements).

    And it seems to me you’re relying on a claim that you are a good judge of these matters which is an appeal to authority.

    But I’m heartened by your last paragraph. We may differ on what constitutes dogmatic adherence to a past position, but at least we agree on the way the evidence is running.

  23. Dogz
    June 1st, 2006 at 20:33 | #23

    My reference to my area of expertise was meant as a counter to claims that I am appealing to or claiming authority on climate issues – I have never claimed that.

    I do claim authority on modeling issues, but I don’t appeal to or rely on it. As you point out I cannot expect anything else given my choice of pseudonymity. I expect my arguments to be treated on face value, nothing more and nothing less. (I have in the past been a strong proponent of blind review, precisely because I felt that people’s arguments should stand independently of their reputations. I know that may be a strange notion in the social sciences but in the harder sciences it has quite a bit of currency).

  24. June 2nd, 2006 at 14:14 | #24

    Dogz, I don’t doubt that you’re an expert on parameters nor than they are an issue in climate modelling. What I do doubt is whether or not they are as big an issue as what you are making them out to be. That the parameter which you chose to illustrate your point isn’t that much of an issue, supports my POV. I’m not a modeler, but I have read alot of the scientific literature on global warming, and I’m impressed with the predictive power of climate models (examples would include troposphere temperature trends, variations in Amazon rainfalls, changing heat content of the oceans, changes in the tropopause height, the effect of volcanic eruptions etc).

    I also think that the climateprediction folks have over hyped their conclusions by playing up the probability of a high climate sensitivity. The overall conclusion which I get is that most variations only lead to small changes in the climate sensitivity. There are also a small minority of variations which lead to large increases in the climate sensitivity. No plausible variation leads to a large decrease in the climate sensitivity.

    When you combine this with results from paeloclimatic studies, it appears that climate sensitivity is approximately 3 K which is pretty much in the middle of the road of IPCC estimates.

  25. Dogz
    June 2nd, 2006 at 15:28 | #25

    Ken, we may just have to agree to disagree. From my viewpoint the climateprediction.net results show pretty wide-ranging behaviour for plausible parameter variations.

    I have also downloaded and managed to run (after a great deal of effort, I must say) the GISS fortran model code. Sometimes the simulations go haywire – generating singularities in wind-speeds at the poles for example. Those simulations obviously have to be pruned from the results, but they don’t engender confidence.

    “When you combine this with results from paeloclimatic studies,”

    I think that is the key. No-one seems to take the global climate model predictions on face-value. They always rule-out simulations if they contradict other evidence. One of the criticsims I have seen of the climateprediction.net studies is that they don’t do that. But that criticism misses the point: if you have to use external evidence to decide when to trust the model predictions, what are the models actually modelling?

  26. June 2nd, 2006 at 16:45 | #26

    Fortunately the debate has now reopened and perhaps we can properly address the issues raised in the Channel Nine Sunday Program, and the claims and assumptions from the critics of the Program. This is what science is all about, ie. questioning rather than suppression.
    Dr Brian Tunstall (Director of ERIC) is currently supervising a PhD student on this issue and this student can not find the evidence in scientific papers that proves or supports the rising groundwater model. This rising groundwater model is a pigment of David Pannell’s imagination, or he has become sensitised to the inertia of public science. This inertia creates paradigms where lazy scientists gravitate to simple models because they provide stability to thinking, explanation m and funding.
    The Channel Nine Program provided evidence from independent scientists and farmers that dryland salinity is exacerbated by soil degradation (eg, soil health effects) and that there were examples provided of salinity being solved/rectified within paddocks and farms through soil health management measures. Two farmers gave examples of using soil health measures to solve salinity in a very short period of time, and suggested that the rising groundwater model (as the general model for dryland salinity) was flawed. These paddock and farm solutions could not arise within a rising groundwater model.
    The scientific process is that if the hypothesis is disproven than it is disproven and therefore the rising groundwater model is not the general model based on this evidence (the 2004 House of Representatives Report says that the rising groundwater model is not the general salinity model). The onus is now on the Establishment/ CRC for Salinity to disprove the hypothesis that dryland salinity is caused by soil degradation (either natural or human induced). The point is that the rising groundwater model has been disproven based on evidence of salinity existing in the absence of a groundwater system, salt moving laterally in the soil system/landscape as opposed to a vertical rising groundwater, and salinity existing even when an aquitard of 6m of clay exist on most saline plains areas above the groundwater system, etc.
    The Establishment raised a number of issues throughout the Channel Nine Program investigation and ERIC has addressed these issue at http://www.eric.com.au/html/news.html, for the benefit of the critics and the believers.
    The establishment and the Salinity CRC has to get serious about the contra evidence on salinity causes and engage with independent scientists and farmers who are questioning the science, otherwise the public scientists are not fulfilling their public duty of care.
    I suspect that the existing salinity programs have been driven in the public sector in the absence of knowledge of soil health science and the process of through-flow of soil water. When public scientists separate the soil water from the groundwater as different water system dynamics, an understanding of the impacts of soil health declines on salinity will be better understood.
    It is a sad day in Australia when the press has to expose flaws in the public science system, or create an environment for an honest and open debate.
    The public scientists owe it to the taxpayers to step outside of the box of theories and models, and discard the dogma that underlies their current position. If the government can spend over $13M to fix a salinity drainage mistake at Pyramid Hill, surely it can spend some monies on independent scientists and farmers to investigate the soil health linkage to dryland salinity, as the general model.
    How much money has the public system allocated to farmers such as Colin Seis or Ross Hercott (featured on Ch 9), or ERIC (Gourlay and Tunstall) to investigate the alternative evidence: ZERO. Given that the rising groundwater model has received $ millions on publicity, how much money has the public sector allocated to promoting alternative information on salinity science: ZERO. The suppression by the public sector of salinity information and proposals from the private sector is significant, and I can understand why the critics of the Ch 9 response are protecting their vested interests.
    So far the feedback to Ch 9 has been negative from the public sector and positive from the private sector, including farmers on Catchment Management Boards. Interestingly, no scientist has provided solid evidence to Ch 9 of the science behind the rising groundwater model and while criticising the ERIC explanation, the public scientists have provided no solid evidence to rebuke the linkage of salinity and soil degradation as the general model.
    Appropriate links on the alternative salinity model are:
    1. Responses by ERIC to assumptions and comments by public scientists to the Channel Nine Sunday Program, Salt Solutions: http://www.eric.com.au/html/news.html
    2. Research papers by ERIC on salinity: http://www.eric.com.au/html/papers_salinity.html
    3. Technology applications by ERIC for dryland salinity mapping that provide evidence that dryland salinity is a soil issue not a groundwater issue: http://www.eric.com.au/html/product_assessment.html
    I can not help David Pannell if he can not get his mind around the simple dynamics of soil salt and soil water in a healthy soil and the processes that operate in a degraded soil that has low % soil carbon, microbes, oxygen, etc; and the negative impacts on soil health of compaction, soil hard-pans, over-use of acid fertilisers, burning, ploughing that overturns a soil profile, chemical/pesticides that kill soil organisms, etc.
    Fortunately, there are a number of scientists in CSIRO (and other institutions) that have been in touch with me and supported ERIC’s findings on salinity and dismissed the rising groundwater model. At least one of these scientists has had to sign a document that he would not speak publicly on his contra view on salinity. So much for independence in science in the public sector.
    Regards,
    Rob Gourlay
    MD ERIC

  27. jquiggin
    June 2nd, 2006 at 17:01 | #27

    Rob, the rising groundwater model isn’t just an Australian idiosyncrasy. It’s the generally accepted international view.

    http://www.fao.org/documents/show_cdr.asp?url_file=/DOCREP/005/Y3796E/y3796e08.htm

    that doesn’t prove it’s right, of course.

  28. June 2nd, 2006 at 17:43 | #28

    John, the rising groundwater model IS JUST an Australian idiosyncrasy. IT IS NOT the generally accepted international view. Besides, Pannell has not presented any papers that prove the rising groundwater model, as the general model for addressing salinity. The model is an Australian invention in about the 1920′s that no scientist has tested or proven. This is the point in the Ch 9 story and represents the greatest and most costly scientific blunder in Australia’s history. My company ERIC has provided many examples during the past 15 years that disprove the RG model, and many farmers have disproven the model, as seen by examples in Ch 9. Pannell has to stop whinging and gripping about ERIC and misrepresenting Whittinton’s work and provide the proof of the RG model.
    Rob.

  29. jquiggin
    June 2nd, 2006 at 18:03 | #29

    Again, I’m not an expert in soil science but I was certainly aware of Whittington in the 1980s, and, as I recall

    (i) Most people who adopted his approach eventually abandoned it
    (ii) Tests done by the Ag Dept showed it had little value

    What’s your take on these points?

  30. June 4th, 2006 at 10:50 | #30

    John, I can not find evidence that Whittington’s techniques have not worked or have been abandoned. Sally Paulin’s book on Harry Whittington addresses this point. The Department of Agriculture study was only an exercise in promoting the rising groundwater model and had nothing to do with disproving Whittington. Government agencies still today carry out kangaroo courts to discredit new innovations in industry that provide contra evidence to the Establishment. The Establishment is only protecting its pious position and funding stream. The Channel Nine program was an attempt to bring balance, evidence and new science into a very lopsided public debate.
    Whittington proved beyond doubt by his methods, field measurements and results that the rising groundwater model was flawed (I address this below). However, time and experience in managing soil salinity has moved on and farmers would now use a Yeomans, EcoPlow or Wallace plough (and other variations on Yeomans) to break open the soil hard-pan and increase water infiltration on the hill slopes, rather than construct Whittington Interceptor banks. Interceptor banks worked at that time, and for the right reasons, ie. to increase soil hydration and soil structure, and hold soil water up in the hills were it would naturally be in a healthy soil situation.
    I suggest that people read Why Salt? Harry Whittington, OAM and WISALTS: Community Science in Action by Sally Paulin. This book examines how Harry Whittington found a solution to his own land degradation problems at Springhill, Brookton WA, and the formation of WISALTS (Whittington Interceptor Salt Affected Land Treatment Society). (Book is available at: http://wwwistp.murdoch.edu.au/publications/why_salt%20order%20form.doc)
    Paulin says that the interceptor banks were designed to capture rainwater where it fell by controlling surface and sub-surface throughflows, so that moisture could be utilised throughout the soil profile, thus preventing waterlogging and dead soil in valley floors.
    Whittington was a true community scientist in that he researched all available literature to find solutions and then carried out major experimentation to prove the veracity of his ideas. Once satisfied, he promoted his solution and the cause of sustainable agriculture, soil and water conservation to whoever would listen to him – and many did.
    We can not say this about Pannell. He quotes observations of groundwater rises in piezometers to justify the rising groundwater model, however a piezometer measures the pressure head not the level of groundwater. I have sited and observed 100’s of bores over the past 8 years and know that you can hit groundwater at say 100m and the piezometric head will rise to 20-30m from the surface. This head will rise and fall with changes in atmospheric pressure and other reasons, but it has nothing to do with groundwater rising, salt in the soil or dryland salinity. Whittington had no groundwater in piezometers on his property, only surface ponding (that concentrated soil salts) in the flats due to through flow in the soil from the hill slopes. Whittington knew that it only takes one exception to negate the rising ground water model as being general. Pannell does not seem to understand that there are now many other exceptions to the rising groundwater model and it is now disproven, beyond doubt.
    Pannell has not investigated the science and relies on theories invented by others. Whittington was an articulate scientist who did the hard yards on the ground and proved that the rising groundwater model was flawed in the 1950’s. Whittington was punished by the Establishment in the same manner as Peter Andrews with his chain of ponds and soil health measures. However, Andrews is now a hero for solving salinity through soil hydration and soil health techniques.
    The Australian government’s National Dryland Salinity Program describes the Whittington method at http://www.ndsp.gov.au/engineering/Docs/interceptordrains.pdf and it does not condemn the method or suggest that it was abandoned by farmers, but suggests that there are farm productivity benefits when properly constructed.
    Also, see this website for other information: http://www.rosneath.com.au/ipc6/ch02/woodward/index.html
    My company, ERIC addresses Whittington in a paper titled Common Assumptions of the Process of Dryland Salinity at http://www.eric.com.au/html/news.html.
    If Pannell can not handle soil biology and hydrology he should go back to economics.
    Regards, Rob Gourlay, MD ERIC

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