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TABLE 5.3. Renmark Sample Characteristics



1-5 ha  
6-10 ha 24
11-15 ha 16
16-20 ha 10
21-25 ha 9
30-50 ha 5
Land Use: Citrus/vines 26
Citrus/stone fruit 13
Citrus/stone fruit 8
Vines 10
Vines/stone fruit 1
Citrus 6

Two hundred residents of Adelaide were also selected for interview. These people were chosen at random and interviewed in the central business district of Adelaide.

In addition, a selection of officials associated with the management of River Murray waters in South Australia and/or the management of irrigation farming were interviewed. These included representatives from the Engineering and Water Supply Department in Adelaide and Berri, from the Department of Agriculture in Berri, Loxton, and Renmark, from the Renmark Irrigation Trust, and from the State Planning Authority in Adelaide.


This is very much by way of a preliminary investigation. The most obvious trends evident in the questionnaires are analyzed, but no attempt has been made to apply statistical tests to the results. Obviously there is scope for more detailed and exacting analysis of the more important variables in the future.

Because of the obvious similarities in the replies, the respondents from Loxton and Renmark have been grouped as one. This means that each hypothesis will be investigated in terms of the response of three separate groups: (1) Upper Murray irrigation farmers; (2) Lower Murray irrigation farmers; and (3) Adelaide residents. In addition, the responses of these three groups will be compared with the views of official resource managers and advisers as obtained through open-ended interview.

Hypothesis 1

Because salinity is such a complex and slowly developing phenomenon, both farmers and the general public will have a very sketchy and distorted idea of the nature of the problem and of the range of solutions available.

It has already been suggested that research into slowly occurring environmental phenomena has shown that most people have sketchy and distorted information about such phenomena. This survey provides ample evidence for such a conclusion with respect to the problem of salinization in South Australia.

TABLE 5.4. Perceived Causes of the Salinity Problem

Response MB/Mb L/R
Irrigation water being pumped or seeping back into the river 14 54
Low river due to insufficient rainfall; low flow 12 16
Upstream irrigation 3 3
Soils naturally saline   14
Locking of the river   11
Topography   5
Use of overhead sprinklers   5
Salt bed at river bank   1
Cyclic salt   2
Overdevelopment   1
Clay pans   2
Seasonal changes   2
Overwatering   3
Sewerage and artificial fertilizers 1  
Evaporation 1  
Poorly situated evaporation basins 1  
Creeks flowing into river 1  
Open channels   1
People   1
What salinity problem?   1
Don't know 3 9
N= 27 101

The Nature of the Salinity Problem


Irrigation farmers in the Murray Bridge/Mypolonga district and in the Renmark/Loxton district were asked the question: "What do you think are the major causes of the salinity problem?" The responses are summarized in Table 5.4. The wide variety of responses is in itself an indication of confused thinking about the nature of the problem. In both districts a majority of those responding to the questionnaire suggested that the major cause of salinity derived from the amount of salt-contaminated irrigation water being pumped directly back into the main river channel, or indirectly seeping back.

The second most frequently mentioned cause of salinity was the frequent low river levels experienced during periods of drought. This, of course, is not a real cause of salt being in the river. It merely accentuates the problem by concentrating the salt already in the water. From the farmer's point of view this is a perfectly reasonable response because it is during periods of low flow that he sees the effects of the salt being carried in the river.

It is clear that the large variety of responses to this question is related to the difficulties of conceptualizing the salinization process. In neither district is there any indication in the responses that the farmers are aware that salinization is a natural process deriving from highly saline soils and a groundwater flow towards the river. For the most part it is assumed that the problem is entirely manmade. This again is quite reasonable, as it is the human input which is critical as far as agricultural viability is concerned, and this is what the farmer is primarily concerned with.

It is perhaps surprising that the farmers, with their almost exclusive focus on the human causes of salinization, did not give more attention to the effects of irrigation upstream, particularly in the states of Victoria and New South Wales. It is certainly in these areas that the most significant man-made saline inflows occur. Yet only six people from the two districts mentioned upstream irrigation as a significant cause.

It is also surprising that there appears to be no significant difference in response between the Upper Murray irrigators and the Lower Murray irrigators. The farmers in the Murray Bridge/Mypolonga district experience much higher levels of salinity which is still often of critical concentration despite the fact that, over the years, agricultural practice in the area has gradually adjusted to the prevailing conditions. From the response to this question, it appears that this group of farmers is not significantly more aware of the impact of upstream irrigators than is the group from the Loxton/Renmark district. The long period of adjustment and adaptation could very well account for this. What are regarded as acceptable salinity levels vary greatly from place to place. The variation in accepted standards from country to country is striking (England 1971, 267). For low and even moderate salinities, users adapt to the water available and, in fact, may be unaware that the water quality is worse than elsewhere (Callinan and Webster 1971, 235). What may be regarded with horror in one place will be accepted without concern in another.

There is a marked distinction is response between the Murray Bridge/Mypolonga group and the Loxton/Renmark group with respect to the question: "Is the salinity problem getting better or worse in your district ?" (Table 5.5).

Again, it is clear that this question has been answered in terms of each farmer's individual experience. The fact that salinity levels have generally improved since the 1967 drought is reflected in the short-term view adopted by a significant proportion of the respondents who said that the salinity problem is getting better. It is clear, however, from Fig. 5.6 that, in the long term, salinity levels have increased and are increasing dramatically.

TABLE 5.5. District Perception of Salinity

Responsea Murray Bridge/Mypolonga Loxton/Renmark
Frequency Percentage Frequency Percentage
Better 1 2.7 24 23.7
Worse 18 48.6 21 20.7
Static 3 8. 1 27 26.7
Fluctuates 1 2.7 15 14.8
Don't know 4 10.8 14 13.8  

This tendency for a proportion of the population to think only in the short term has come to light in the general findings of extensive research into human perception of natural hazards (White 1974). It creates severe difficulties with respect to taking effective measures for the solution of long-term problems, and the salinity problem is no exception here. If salinity is to be regarded as an aspect of desertification, then it is clear that, at least with respect to some farmers, land can be slowly losing its productivity through salinity without the process ever becoming really apparent.

The most marked difference between the two groups of irrigation farmers occurs in the case of those who said that the salinity problem is getting worse. While nearly 50 per cent of those in the Murray Bridge/Mypolonga district chose this answer, only 20 per cent from the Loxton/Renmark district chose similarly. On the other hand, 15 per cent of the Loxton/Renmark irrigation farmers said that salinity fluctuates with the seasons while the figure for the Murray Bridge/Mypolonga district was only 2.7 per cent. In general it could be said that the Murray Bridge/Mypolonga irrigation farmers think that the salinity problem is getting worse, while those from the Loxton/Renmark district are almost equally divided as to whether the problem is getting worse, getting better, or remaining static.

Explanations are not difficult to find. While salinity certainly fluctuates in the Murray Bridge district, it is consistently high at this downstream location and farmers are continually dealing with the problem. In the case of the Loxton/Renmark districts upstream, it is only in very dry seasons that salinity has any noticeable impact on the irrigation blocks. During wet seasons, the irrigation farmer does not need to think about salinity or its management. It is apparent then, that for these farmers, short term fluctuations tend to mask long-term trends, and this would account for the great difference in response between the two groups. This is certainly an area where further research is warranted because any effects which produce such a failure in perception and a consequent failure to take remedial action against long-term environmental deterioration will ultimately have very serious consequences. Students of desertification throughout the world have found the problem very difficult to get to grips with just because of this very problem where long-term trends are effectively masked by short-term fluctuations. It is most important that populations in affected areas be given the opportunity to #e gradual environmental deterioration going on around them. This is essential if any effective remedial action is to be taken.

Although it was to be expected that there would be some confusion about the cases of the salinity problem, the perception of the effects should be another matter. Question 3 investigated the effects of salinization as perceived by the farmer with respect to his own property, his own district, and other districts either upstream

FIG. 5.6. Salinity Levels at Murray Bridge (8-year averages)

TABLE 5.6. Perception of Salinity as Major Problem



(a) Personal (b) District (c) Other District
Retardation of growth/loss of production 15 22 10 22 8 34
Burning of leaves 6 3 2 3 3  
Kills trees 1 4 4 12 - -
Kills young plants 1 1 - 6    
Financial burden - 1 - 1    
No effect 6 33 1 17 - 13
Don't know - 3 10 12 18 26
Affects Waikerie - - - - - 24
Irrelevant 3 30 3 28 2 6

(Murray Bridge/Mypolonga) or downstream (Loxton/ Renmark) (Table 5.6).

It can be seen from Table 5.6 that there is a degree of disagreement among farmers from both districts as to the extent of the effects of salinization. With respect to immediate effects on their own farms, 62 per cent of irrigators from Murray Bridge/Mypolonga and 30 per cent of irrigators from Loxton/Renmark were aware of some adverse effects. This represents a significant difference between the two groups. On the other hand 16 per cent of irrigators from Murray Bridge/Mypolonga and 33 per cent of irrigators from Loxton/Renmark were not aware of any effects of salinity on their farms. These results are surprising. Even though there are generally much higher levels of salinity in the downstream region, agricultural practice in that region has, over the years, adapted to this, and the effects of salinity should no longer be so noticeable. On the other hand, although salinity levels are much lower in the upstream region, the citrus and the vines which dominate the region are highly sensitive to variations in salinity, and it would be expected that the effects of the high levels during drought periods would be quite noticeable.

With respect to the irrigation farmers' perception of the effects of salinity on their districts, the pattern is somewhat different. The figures for those who are aware of adverse effects are very similar for both groups-43 per cent for Murray Bridge/Mypolonga and 44 per cent for Loxton

Renmark. However, significantly more farmers in the Loxton/Renmark district (17 per cent as compared with 3 per cent) do not perceive any adverse effects. There is also a significantly high percentage of irrigators in both groups (27 per cent for Murray Bridge/Mypolonga and 12 per cent for Loxton/Renmark) who admit that they do not know what the effects on their districts are.

The pattern is again different with respect to the irrigators' perception of the effects of salinization on their fellow irrigators either upstream (Murray Bridge/Mypolonga) or downstream (Loxton/Renmark). Twenty-nine per cent of irrigators from Murray Bridge/Mypolonga were aware of various adverse effects in upstream areas, while 58 per cent of Loxton/Renmark irrigators were conscious of adverse effects in downstream districts, particularly in Waikerie, which was singled out by 24 per cent of respondents from this district. Again, the percentage of farmers who did not know what the effects were on upstream or downstream districts respectively was quite high (48 per cent and 26 per cent).

The pattern of responses to this question points to several important conclusions. In the first place it appears that the perception of the effects of salinization is indeed related to salinity levels. In the Murray Bridge/Mypolonga district with its consistently high salinity levels the level of awareness of the effects is much greater than for the Loxton/Renmark district. There is a suggestion here that, because the effects of salinity are more related to seasonal fluctuations in the Loxton/Renmark district, this makes the perception of the effects that much more difficult. This brings us back to an earlier conclusion relating to the masking effect of short-term fluctuations. Irrigators who are continually dealing with critical seasonal fluctuations learn to think in the short term and can lose sight of long term changes that are going on around them. Some of the irrigators in the Loxton/Renmark district claimed that the salinity problem was no longer important because they were looking at everything in terms of the 1967 drought when salinity levels were critical and severe damage was caused.

It also appears that a significant number of irrigators either do not know what the effects of salinity are in their own district or in other districts, or do not believe that there are any effects. This again points to some important conclusions. The preoccupation of irrigators with their own on farm problems can mean that they are not able to perceive the salinization problem in its wider perspective. Thus, they rarely think about the broad trends or about the possibility that their very livelihood might be threatened by a process which has much wider ramifications than its immediate effects on farms. The River Murray Working Party (1975, 10/12) concluded:

If irrigators are to be motivated to improve water management they need to see that it is their farming future that is at stake and that they can improve their chances of economic survival. Because of recent wet years irrigators are aware of the problem and therefore educational activities in the near future are needed whilst memories are still fresh.

This is a very real problem because the irrigators do need to see the problem in true perspective. The same committee stresses the importance of this:

As the mechanism controlling the accession of salts to the river is complex and only imperfectly understood, the committee feels that there are no improvements in farm practices which by themselves could be expected to significantly reduce the salt load of the Murray. Nevertheless, improved farm practices are regarded as essential if profitable irrigated farming is to be maintained in the future. [River Murray Working Party 1975, 1 0/3]


Adelaide is very dependent upon the River Murray for water for domestic and industrial consumption. As has been mentioned, the increasing salinity of the water supplied is already causing problems, and these problems are likely to become much greater in future years. Since Adelaide is the capital of South Australia, and the people of Adelaide exert a powerful influence on the political process, ultimately, either directly or indirectly, the people of Adelaide will have an imprtant say on what is done or not done with respect to the problem of salinization of irrigated lands and the increasing salinity of the River Murray.

As a supplement to the investigations into the irrigation farmers' perception of salinity, it was decided to also investigate Adelaide residents and their perception of the problem.

Two hundred people were chosen at random and interviewed in the central business district of Adelaide. The questionnaire used appears as Appendix 2.

In Question 3 those interviewed were asked to list the problems associated with the River Murray water supply. The results are tabulated in Table 5.7.

It is apparent that salinization associated with irrigation is perceived as the major problem associated with the management of the River Murray. Some 62 per cent of respondents listed this, with the next most important listing being other forms of pollution. The answers to this question could be somewhat biased as there was extensive press coverage of the salinity problem just prior to the survey.

The responses to Question 1 clearly show a high level of concern on the part of Adelaide residents about the quality of their domestic water supply (Table 5.8).

More than 64 per cent of the sample regarded the quality of Adelaide's water as being poor or worse.

The responses to Question 2, however, show that the salinity of the water plays a very small role with respect to the perception of water quality (Table 5.9).

Most of the respondents tend to judge the quality of their water according to its "aesthetics." Other researchers (Constantine and Hanf 1972, 214) have received similar responses to questions about the perception of water quality. Undue weight is given to aesthetics, while the nonvisible but more important aspects of quality tend to be largely neglected. Certainly, in this case, although salinity is recognized as an important problem, it is not an important element in the perception of water quality. The fact that salinity cannot be seen is obviously an important factor with respect to people's perception of the problem.

The relationship between salinity and the quality of Adelaide water is not well understood (Table 5.10).

TABLE 5.7. Perceived River Murray Problems

Response Percentage
Irrigation salt flow into river 62
Pollution-effluent 51
Mud from Darling River 32
Water level-flora and fauna 26
Pests-carp and hyacinth 18
Don't know 6
Irrelevant 33

a: Q: "What problems do you know affect the River Murray water supply? List as many as you can."
b: Multiple answers allowed.

TABLE 5.8. Adelaide's Water Quality

Response Percentage
Very good  
Good 4
Acceptable 32
Poor 36
Very poor 28

a: Q: "Which of the following descriptions do you think is appropriate in describing the quality of Adelaide's water ?"

TABLE 5.9. Evaluation of Adelaide's Water Quality

Responsea Percentage
Colour 40
Taste 35
Hardness 20
Smell 4
Salinity 1

a: Q: "Which of the following most influences your quality grade in Question 17"

TABLE 5.10. Impact of Salinity on Adelaide

Response Percentage
Damage to gardens 20
Poor drinking water 17
Affects health 7
Creates difficulties for industry 2
Don't know 54

a: Q: "What effect is the River Murray salinity having on the Adelaide Metropolitan Area ?"

The majority of those interviewed were not able to give any answer to this question. Although many of these people had previously indicated that they regarded salinity as an important problem, they really have very little conception of the nature of the problem.

That the nature of salinity is not understood is further indicated by the answers to Question 5 (Table 5.1 1).

TABLE 5.11. Filtration as Solution to Salinity

Response Percentage
Yes 57
No 35
Don't know 8

a: Q: "Will filtration help us reduce salinity?"

A majority of the sample holds the false belief that salinity can be removed by filtration. This is a very important finding because it relates to the establishment of priorities with respect to water management in South Australia. In 1977 the federal government called for a submission from the South Australian government outlining its priorities for the use of funds for water resources development. The South Australian government placed the filtration of the metropolitan water supply as the first priority, with measures to control salinity in the River Murray being relegated to second place. The state government has been under severe pressure from Adelaide residents in recent years to do something about the "quality" of Adelaide's water. It could be that the inadequate perception of the nature of salinity on the part of the residents has played an important role in this whole process. The end result could well be that Adelaide gets in the future a highly saline, but pleasant-looking water supply.

There is very great ignorance on the part of Adelaide residents with respect to the measures that are being taken and/or planned for the amelioration of salinity in the River Murray (Table 5.12). Most people interviewed were unable to name any single improvement measure being undertaken either in South Australia or in any of the other states. Filtration features prominently but it is, of course, no solution to the salinity problem.

TABLE 5.12. Salinity Improvement Measures

Response Percentage
Filtration of water 27
Evaporation basins 4
Drainage scheme for  
irrigation farms 6
Dartmouth Dam 3
Don't know 60

a: Q: What actions are currently being taken to reduce salinity levels in the River Murray ?

TABLE 5.13. Priorities for Water Improvement Frequencies

Response 1st preference 2nd preference Total
Filtration 124 96 220
Salinity 80 88 168
Sewerage 8 20 28
Reservoirs/dams 68 40 108
Pollution 40 76 116

It is clear that Adelaide residents' perception of alternative solutions for the salinity problem is very limited. This is a very disturbing conclusion because it is the residents of Adelaide, through the pressure they exert on politicians, who will have a strong say on the allocation of funds and the alternative courses of action to be adopted.

The last question asked was designed to establish Adelaide residents' priorities with respect to the allocation of funds for water resources development in South Australia (Table 5.13).

The priorities are clear here and these reflect the recent decisions of the South Australian government. While the link between public perception and government decision making is still not clearly understood, it is clear that there is some danger in an ill-informed public with an inadequate understanding of a very complex process either directly or indirectly pressuring the government to adopt a set of priorities which has been established without any real foundation.

Question 8 asked whose responsibility it should be to inform the public about the salinity problem (Table 5.14).


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