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Industries in the Great Barrier Reef catchment and measures to address declining water quality

Research report

Released 26 / 02 / 2003

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  • Key points
  • Media release
  • Contents

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

Greg Murtough (Research Manager) 03 9653 2163

Soil erosion and runoff of fertilisers and chemicals pose a significant threat to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), particularly the inner reefs.

But the Productivity Commission concluded, in a report released today, that there is no single highly-effective policy measure that can reduce threats at reasonable cost to both governments and land users. Different combinations of measures will be needed for the grazing lands, such as the upper Fitzroy and Burdekin catchments, compared to the cropping areas along the coast.

‘Best Management Practices for a particular region, or individual property, cannot just be decreed from Brisbane or Canberra. What works well in one place could be counter-productive elsewhere’, said Commissioner Dr Neil Byron.

'Targeting hazard areas is important, since much of the threats comes from a relatively small proportion of the GBR catchment and particular land management practices. Local knowledge is so important. That is why the proposed regional Natural Resource Management bodies must be carefully set up to be workable and accountable,' said Dr Byron.

The Commission’s suggestions to governments include removing perverse incentives in existing programs; modifying conditions on pastoral leases; targeted incentive payments; more information-extension; and, in specific high-hazard areas, some smart regulation. But parties other than governments — such as industry associations and farmer groups — could also take actions to address the threats.

The Commission also argues for more research to better understand the links between land uses and the health of GBR ecosystems, and for continued monitoring of the effectiveness of the measures taken.

The Commission’s report — Industries, Land Use and Water Quality in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment — was requested by the Commonwealth Government. A draft of the report, released in November 2002 for public discussion and input, focused on the importance of industries in the GBR catchment and land management practices relevant to water quality. The final report includes information covered in the draft report, as well as an examination of policy options.

Background information

02 6240 3330

Cover, Copyright, Foreword, Terms of reference, Contents, Acknowledgments, Abbreviations and explanations, Glossary, Key points ,Overview


1 Introduction
1.1 The Great Barrier Reef and its catchments
1.2 Study background
1.3 Research methods
1.4 Structure of analysis

2 Water quality in the GBR lagoon
2.1 Measuring water quality in the GBR lagoon
2.2 Water quality changes in the GBR lagoon
2.3 Causes of water quality changes
2.4 Impacts of water quality changes on the GBR ecosystem
2.5 Summing up

3 Government policies and programs
3.1 Managing water quality in the GBR lagoon
3.2 Managing water quality in Queensland catchments and coastal waters
3.3 Policies with unintended water quality impacts
3.4 Funding vehicles for MOU actions
3.5 Summing up

4 Economic and social importance of the main industries
4.1 Defining the GBR lagoon and catchment regions
4.2 Indicators of economic and social importance
4.3 National and state importance
4.4 Importance of individual industries to the GBR lagoon and catchment
4.5 Distribution of output and employment across GBR regions
4.6 Future economic importance of industries
4.7 Summing up

5 Current management practices
5.1 Beef
5.2 Horticulture
5.3 Sugar cane
5.4 Other agricultural industries
5.5 Concluding comments


6 Analytical approach
6.1 Nature of the problem
6.2 Existing policy approaches
6.3 Assessing abatement options

7 Prioritising threats
7.1 Approach used to prioritise threats
7.2 Preliminary evidence

8 Understanding land users’ capacity for change
8.1 The diversity of land users and properties
8.2 Understanding land users’ decision processes
8.3 Characteristics of sustainable farming practices
8.4 Characteristics of land users
8.5 Conclusions

9 Abatement options
9.1 Developing abatement options
9.2 Soil erosion
9.3 Overuse/misuse of fertilisers and chemicals
9.4 Concluding comments

10 Roles and responsibilities
10.1 Managing diffuse pollution
10.2 Issues in developing a new approach
10.3 Concluding comments


A Submissions received

B Persons and organisations visited

C Memorandum of Understanding

D CRC Reef consensus statement

E Industry data

F Assistance estimates

G Projections of future economic importance

H Management practices in other industries


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