Industries, Land Use and Water Quality in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment

Key points

Issued with Research report on 26/02/2003.

Water quality in rivers entering the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) lagoon has declined because of diffuse pollutants, especially sediments, nutrients and chemicals from cropping and grazing lands in relatively small areas of the adjacent catchments. This diffuse pollution threatens inshore reefs and associated ecosystems.

Because of the World Heritage values at risk, a strategy to identify, prioritise and manage risks is warranted, notwithstanding remaining scientific uncertainty about the condition of reefs and the effectiveness of remedial actions.

Existing water quality policies largely ignore diffuse pollution and involve prescriptive end-of-pipe controls. Prescription is not the answer. Because of the complexity, heterogeneity and dispersion of the diffuse sources, and the inability to monitor them, governments cannot prescribe land management practices that are both viable and cost-effective

  • Solutions will have to be built up from local knowledge and insights, within a general framework set by the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments

Some primary producers (from each industry) have already demonstrated that it is possible and viable to reduce land and water degradation on their own lands. The challenge is for these practices to be more widely adopted or adapted.

No single solution will control diffuse pollution entering the GBR lagoon. Various combinations of measures — tailored to particular land uses, locations, and pollutants — will be necessary, giving land users flexibility to choose abatement actions best suited to their property.

Local groups have an important role in designing and delivering programs and monitoring outcomes, but serious questions remain about the structure, transparency and accountability of proposed regional groups.

  • Regional groups should not create an additional layer of complexity but instead be part of a simplified approach that is integrated with the actions of other parties, notably the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments.

Improving downstream water quality in rivers and estuaries flowing into the GBR lagoon will generate benefits apart from reducing the threat to the Reef. But zero discharge is unnecessary and, if possible at all, would be at prohibitive cost.

Background Information
Phone: 03 9653 2163
Greg Murtough (Research Manager)