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UNIT 7

Saltland Toolbox

 

7.4  Saltland options

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Options for salty land & water

The first truly comprehensive overview of the opportunities for using saline land and water resources in Australia was the OPUS (Options for Productive Use of Salinity) project completed in 2001 as part of the National Dryland Salinity Program. OPUS assessed the potential of various industries to beneficially use and/or potentially rehabilitate saline land and water. The focus was on identifying and assessing potential industries that could turn the salinity ‘problem’ into a business opportunity. The OPUS database can be explored on the NDSP website.

The broad spectrum of saline industries was broken into four categories:

  1. agriculture,
  2. forestry and horticulture,
  3. fauna and algae,
  4. mineral harvesting and production of energy.

Each is briefly explored below, but in the OPUS report, full business development cases have been prepared, exploring all the elements of 13 of the most ‘promising’ options.

Leaving aside saltland pastures, most of the ‘opportunities’ for using saline land and water resources suffer from the following significant weaknesses that are likely to confine them to niche opportunities:

  • Production levels and return on investment are not well demonstrated and/or appear limited.
     
  • Salinity areas are often distant from major markets making it prohibitive for some industries without regional processing facilities or infrastructure (e.g. forestry).
     
  • Most options suffer from strong competition from competing industries, usually based in or near the ocean.
     
  • Many options face significant salt and water disposal challenges because they either do not actually use up any salt or water (eg aquaculture) or they concentrate the saline solution (eg salt and mineral harvesting)
     
  • The tolerance of some plant-based technologies to multiple biophysical stresses, including salinity with waterlogging, is limited or there is insufficient information to determine multiple stress tolerance.
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Agriculture

Halophytic (salt loving) and salt-tolerant pasture species have been leading the way in creating productive uses for saltland. In Australia, individual landholders, supported by research and development funding have successfully demonstrated grazing systems that incorporate salt-tolerant pastures.

The main groups of pasture options are based on:

  1. Volunteer pasture (fence off and use the species that are already growing on the site);
     
  2. Halophytic shrubs (solid plantings or more frequently with sown or volunteer under-storey)
     
  3. Temperate perennial and sub-tropical grasses (sown or vegetatively propagated)
     
  4. Shotgun mixtures (typically including a mix of grass and legume species with a range of salt and waterlogging tolerances to fill the various niches)

The best available information about these pasture-based options has been synthesised into 11 packages that provide in-depth advice and assistance about how to implement and manage an effective saltland solution for your particular situation. These packages are available on this website, and Saltland Genie can help you decide which option is for you:

The advantages of saltland pastures include that they fit well within existing agricultural production and marketing systems, they require relatively small investment and they present minimal social disruption.

The CRC for Future Farm Industries is well advanced in the development of more salt-tolerant cereals, but these are not yet commercially available.

Detailed business cases are presented in the OPUS report for saltbush based pastures, salt-tolerant grass based pastures, and for Distichlis (a relative newcomer to Australia, Distichlis spicata has been imported from the USA).

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Forestry and Horticulture

Worldwide research seeking to identify and breed new species and varieties of salt-tolerant crops is ongoing but sporadic. The potential for producing timber, fruits or vegetables from saline land or saline irrigation for broad scale application appears limited. Nonetheless, a few examples exist of marketable products that can be grown on saltland of moderate to high capability.

In Australia, there has been research attempting to breed salt tolerance into conventional crops such as wheat, barley and potatoes. Alternative crops such as sandalwood, jojoba and cut flowers have also shown some promise.

Native fruit and nut trees have been trialled for salt tolerance in Israel and Pakistan and samphire, a halophytic vegetable, has been commercialised in the USA. Research has also produced a viable Eucalyptus hybrid for saline land by crossing a species that has desirable wood properties (e.g. bluegum) with a salt-tolerant species (e.g. river red gum). Trials have produced mixed results to date, but the potential exists to breed better hybrids using advanced molecular engineering techniques.

While forestry and horticulture species may successfully tolerate soils of low to moderate salinities, their growth or productivity drops significantly with increasing salinity. For example, date palms can survive high soil salinities but will not produce fruit at these salinity levels.

Most potential new crops lack sufficient background information on markets, economics, optimum conditions and management. In most instances, widespread adoption would require substantial funding to undertake scientific and market research. On the other hand, new varieties of existing products that can tolerate soils of low salinity could fill a valuable niche in the saline industry sector. The strength of conventional produce lies in its known production and marketability.

Detailed business cases are presented in the OPUS report for saline forestry and date palms.

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Fish & algae

One of the most promising saline industry sectors is the use of salty groundwater for aquaculture, algae production, brine shrimp culture and seaweed farming. Domestic and exports markets for these products, although not thoroughly explored, are identifiable and demand for these products is expected to increase.

In recent years, numerous fish species have been trialled and farmed in Australia up to commercial scale using saline groundwater. Fish species include black bream, mulloway, snapper, rainbow trout and silver perch. A significant body of knowledge exists on different aquaculture systems and optimum conditions for individual species.

The process requires extensive and detailed production, market and economic data, which are not currently available, in order to attract investment.

Niche products, such as health food supplements and colourants, are generated from algae such as Dunaliella salina and Spirulina spp. One of the largest producers in Australia of beta-carotene, a natural colourant for the food manufacturing industry, is based in Whyalla, South Australia using algae grown in salinities up to 10 times that of seawater.

Both fish and algae farming are at the stage where support from government and the private sector is required to expand and scale-up the industry by targeting investment and exploring market opportunities. Other promising saline industries that have not reached the development stage of fish or algae are brine shrimp and seaweed farming. Individual landholders are experimenting with the exotic species of brine shrimp, Artemia sp., which can be supplied to local markets as a fish food and protein source. Several species of seaweed are being considered for farming in saline groundwater to supply mostly export markets. These are all potentially high-value products but insufficient data are yet available to support large commercial-scale development.

One of the barriers to these industries expanding in Australia is the presence of competing seawater facilities supplying the market with the same or comparable products.

Detailed business cases are presented in the OPUS report for fish, seaweed, algae and brine shrimp.

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Mineral Harvesting and Energy

Saline water has many well-recognised properties such as its mineral composition and its capacity to store energy. Throughout the world, technology has been developed for generating energy and extracting minerals and fresh water from saline water sources, in particular seawater. In Australia, some of these technologies are being applied to brackish or saline groundwater. For example, salt harvesting and mineral extraction facilities now exist at a commercial scale.

The major barrier to these industries expanding in Australia is the presence of well-established alternative industries supplying the market with comparable products. Large coastal facilities harvest a range of salts for industrial and domestic uses and mining companies scour mineral sand deposits for magnesium.

The alternative energy supply market is highly competitive and dominated by solar and wind technology though this may change as pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions increases.

Research has proven overseas that generating electricity from saline (solar) ponds can be economically and practically viable. However, to gain a significant share of the alternative energy market will probably require the development of products or services with some unique attributes that appeal to this specialised marketplace.

As with aquaculture, the real value in this option lies in its capacity to generate income from the disposal of water from drainage and groundwater interception schemes that are already operating for other reasons and therefore many of the ‘establishment’ costs have already been sunk.

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