A month after toxic algal blooms killed up to a million fish in the Murray Darling Basin, farmers say the cost of preventing similar tragedies in West Australian waterways is “too expensive” for them to handle on their own.
Effluent run-off from dairies is thought to be a significant contributor to algal blooms in regional waterways — something that can be toxic to fish and cause a smelly sludge in build-up in waterways.
To mitigate the risk, effluent systems are designed at dairies to reduce run-off.
But there are concerns the effluent management systems in WA are not up to scratch.
The State Government has been offering grants of up to $60,000 for farmers to upgrade their systems to “best practice” through the Regional Estuaries Initiative and the Revitalising Geographe Waterways project.
But in the two and a half years they have been running, just two people have completed upgrades.
Cash-poor industry prohibiting upgrades
The issue of effluent run-off is not lost on dairy farmers, with many admitting upgrades are needed.
Scott River dairy farmer and Nuffield Scholar Ross Woodhouse has recently spent $160,000 on upgrades of his own.
But he said due to the current state of the industry there was no way he could afford the best practice upgrades that the State Government was supporting.
“You’re getting $60,000 for a $300,000-$400,000 capital spend and farmers just don’t have the capital to commit to the project,” he said.
“I think everyone is conscious of the issue and farmers are doing a lot — fencing waterways, planting trees and distributing fertiliser in responsible ways — but that sort of capital cost is [unaffordable].”
Costs for upgrades vary depending on the size of the farm and the condition of the current system.
What can be done to encourage upgrades?
Mr Woodhouse said a rethink of the incentive program was needed.
He suggested a slurry system, like the one he has implemented at his property, which sprays the effluent onto dry areas of land to avoid run-off as a more affordable alternative.
High hopes for incentive projects
According to the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation, the systems they design are based on the dairy industry’s code of practice in WA.
Despite the low uptake so far, the State Government believes the programs will still meet its target of 30 farms by 2020.
Kath Lynch from the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation is heavily involved in both projects and said there were a further 29 people that had put up their hand to be involved in the project.
While these are only expressions of interest, and did not guarantee upgrades will go through, she said she was confident the projects would be a success.
“I think it’s an amazingly good uptake, to be honest,” Dr Lynch said.
Dr Lynch said the code of practice on effluent systems was always open to change with further research, but the State Government could not support effluent systems that were not considered best practice.
“Our commitment to the taxpayer who is funding the incentive [the code of practice] is the minimum standard that we will go to,” she said.
The power of poo
In the interim, residents of the Shire of Augusta-Margaret River have another solution brewing — turn the poo into power.
Dairy farmers and the Lower Blackwood Land Conservation District Committee have teamed up with Augusta-Margaret River Clean Community Energy to explore the possibility of building a biodigestor at Scott River.
A biodigestor can turn organic matter into energy and also produces a smell-free manure.
While it is early days, and the business case is still being worked on, deputy chair Ian Williams said it was looking promising.
“The base case is to sell the power into the grid, but the more attractive option is that it’s used behind the meter so that the farmers can use the energy that’s there,” he said.
A biodigestor was recently built at a dairy in west Victoria, and a year on was still looking to be a success.
Mr Williams said it was currently about seeing if those methods could be applied to a region with a different land layout and different diet.
“It’s looking promising, we’ve got a reasonable story to tell. It’s up there for people to look at and kick it around and at this point they haven’t kicked it over.”