27/02/2007 - 22:00

Visionary Coyne worth his salt

27/02/2007 - 22:00


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Few would disagree that February 2007 was the month the dual questions of perceived water shortages and suspected climate change were firmly embedded onto Australia’s political stage.

Few would disagree that February 2007 was the month the dual questions of perceived water shortages and suspected climate change were firmly embedded onto Australia’s political stage.

Because of that, State Scene decided to meet, rather than just have the occasional telephone chat, with Western Australia’s leading water-harvesting advocate, Peter Coyne, head of Perth-based Agritech Smart Water.

Before outlining his farsighted vision – which is bolder than CY O’Connor’s legendary plan implemented during 1898-1903 – a few background facts.

Mr Coyne overlapped by two years attending the same school as State Scene, the now-closed St Ildephonsus’ College in unique, historic New Norcia. He was in years one and two, I in four and five, so we had limited contact.

I attended St Ildephonsus’ because New Norcia was the place so many Wheatbelt lads – Catholics and, I should add, non-Catholics – were sent since its classrooms opened on the eve of World War I.

Mr Coyne’s father, also Peter, who held, for the Liberals, the outback seat of Murchison-Eyre between 1971 and 1986, attended St Ildephonsus’ during the 1930s.

As with so many WA secondary schools, sizeable numbers attending were the offspring of old boys.

Peter Jr, although with a similar predisposition, is noticeably more forceful, especially on WA’s crucial water needs and encroaching farmland salinity issues.

Here’s his vision, which State Scene outlines and invites readers to comment on, should anyone spot a flaw.

State Scene would go so far as to say WA should forget Ernie Bridge’s costly Kimberley pipe dream and discard Colin Barnett’s pie-in-the-sky, impractical and costly canal.

Consider instead Mr Coyne’s Wheatbelt desalinisation plan, which, he says, would cost taxpayers less than the Water Corporation’s recently publicised $850 million price tag to restore Wellington Dam.

It’s therefore fair to say the Coyne water plan is farsighted indeed.

The first and most crucial aspect to note is that it was devised to overcome four major state problems simultaneously – not just Perth’s water shortage.

These, in order of importance, are:

• removing salt from WA’s central and southern Wheatbelt;

• supplying desalinated Wheatbelt water to Perth and environs;

• revegetating significant sections of WA’s salt affected farmlands; and

• supplying up to 55 megawatts of environmentally friendly hydro-generated electricity into WA’s electricity grid.

Not even CY O’Connor matches that, since his outstanding achievement was one dimensional – supplying desperately needed fresh water from a Darling Scarp catchment to the dry but crucially important Goldfields.

Mr Coyne’s many faceted plan envisages saline water being steadily extracted from the central and southern Wheatbelt and channelling it to the coast – Perth and environs – and the extracted water being desalinated and/or used to generate power as the water descends from the scarp to the ocean.

In other words the Wheatbelt – through which O’Connor’s pipeline passes – would: become a source of desalinated or potable water for coastal residents and industry; and its dissolved salts would be slowly expunged from the Wheatbelt, with the water table no longer able to rise high enough to destroy farmlands.

Years before high-flying mammologist, Tim Flannery, who has re-badged himself as a dogged eco-warrior and climate change guru, warned of the possible fate of Perth's outer hinterland, Mr Coyne noted that not only was WA’s Wheatbelt being transformed into a growing salt pan, but the salt was rising from ancient water courses to higher country.

This gave him the idea of using the now salt-laden courses as pathways for a network of man-made gravity fed canals – five metres wide, three metres deep – to steadily remove saline water for final disposal to the ocean, since the Wheatbelt drains east-to-west.

“In brief, there are three major projects, covering the Blackwood, the Murray and the Avon catchments,” Mr Coyne told State Scene.

“These areas contain most of WA’s salinity problem, some 2.2 million hectares of lost land.

“WA is losing land at the rate of 100,000ha annually – every river, stream and lake in the Wheatbelt is saline.”

He said the Blackwood, Murray and Avon were once fresh water rivers, whereas the Blackwood now discharges more salt than the Murray-Darling system, which is 60 times bigger.

Lake Dumbleyung was a 5,000ha freshwater lake but is now more saline than the sea, Mr Coyne said.

A drainage canal network across the three catchments would steadily remove salt to the coast, with the top two metres of soil forever freed of rising salt penetration.

“The three canal networks would annually remove about 5 per cent of the region’s rainfall, which would be about 400 gigalitres of saline water from each catchment,” Mr Coyne said.

“Farmers wouldn’t object to the canals because they would only run through land that’s already lost to salinity.

“Removing 400 million cubic metres of saline water annually from each catchment would restore vast tracts of lost land and the rivers, streams and lakes.

“Land alongside the canals would be revegetated up to 75 metres each side with bushland identical to that which existed in various districts when clearing began last century.”

Saline water seeping into the Blackwood, Murray and Avon canal networks would be directed by natural fall to three points at the top of the Darling Scarp – above Brunswick Junction, above Pinjarra, and at the western end of the Chittering Valley.

At each, a 20MW station would be built because the fall to the coastal plain exceeds 200 meters, so is adequate for hydro-generation.

The 400 gigalitres of water reaching each station could be partly used to generate electricity and be partly desalinated using the reverse osmosis method with gravity feed pressure.

In other words the desalinating would operate like the $400 million Kwinana plant but without using costly polluting coal and gas-fired generated energy.

Together, the hydro-stations would supply about 55MW of pollution-free electricity and about 250GL of potable water annually, which is 20 per cent more than the $14 billion Barnett canal plan, and all within 200 kilometres of Perth.

With Wheatbelt lands being steadily de-salinated via the three canal networks, the region’s presently destroyed lands could be recovered and selectively revegetated.

Farmland grain and stock output would not only be unaffected by the network, but would actually achieve a significant boost to productivity. The region’s bio-diversity would also be restored.

Mr Coyne said the Avon Catchment, which would focus on Chittering Valley, would lead to the removal of salt from lands as far north as Moora, whereas the Blackwood Catchment’s saline water would be directed by canal from Duranillin towards Collie-Bunbury, not Augusta.

Among other things, this would deprive the important Blackwood River of saline water from its upper catchment.

“The three salinity reduction schemes would revive salt affected land over a total area of eight million hectares,” Mr Coyne said.

“The reversal in rural salinisation could be achieved within a generation.”

So far, he said, the government had been promoting the biological approach to combating salinity – deep-rooted vegetation, trees and pastures.

“What my proposal envisages is an engineering remedy to this mounting problem, one that would complement biological methods, because you can’t plant trees on salt-affected land,” he said.

“For the band-aid biological approach to work without resorting to the engineering one we’d need to see revegetated some 80 per cent of the Wheatbelt, meaning virtually no more broadacre farming in WA.”

Mr Coyne said he had spent the past six years lobbying politicians and outlining his vision to farmer and community groups.

The last time was just before Christmas, to the state government’s Investigation into Water Source Options in the Collie-Wellington Basin, which his plan envisages freeing of contaminating salt, thereby restoring the huge Wellington Dam.

Mr Coyne has his fingers crossed that this committee becomes the catalyst that finally gets things moving for his water plan.

He may even be in danger of one day being dubbed CY O’Coyne.


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