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Great Barrier Reef report to UN shows the poor progress on water quality

Water quality is one of the biggest threats facing the Great Barrier Reef. Tatters ❀/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Great Barrier Reef report to UN shows the poor progress on water quality

The Australian and Queensland governments have delivered their progress report to the UN on the Reef 2050 Plan to ensure the long-term survival of the Great Barrier Reef.

The report focuses on water quality, and managing pollution runoff, but only deals in a superficial way with the other preeminent issue for the reef - climate change.

It shows recent progress on water quality has been slow, and ultimately we will not meet water quality targets without major further investments.

Progress?

The progress report claims some success in managing water quality through improved practices in sugarcane cultivation under the SmartCane program, and in rangeland grazing.

But actual reductions in sediment and nutrients loads to the reef over the last two years have been very small, as shown in the Reef Report Card 2015. This contrasts with the first five years of Reef Plan (2008-2013) where there was modest progress, as you can see below.

Great Barrier Reef Report Card 2015

The positive news out of the Report Card was that grain cropping and non-banana horticulture were doing well, but these are the industries we have little robust data on.

And there’s been little progress towards adequate management practices in sugarcane and rangeland grazing as well as gully remediation in the large dry tropics catchments of the Burdekin, Fitzroy and Normanby.

The specific actions and funding promised in this area over the next five years mentioned in the progress report which have some real substance are:

  1. Direct a further A$110 million of Reef Trust funding towards projects to improve water

  2. Bring forward the review of the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan and set new scientifically based pollutant load targets

  3. Invest A$33 million of Queensland government funding into two major integrated projects

  4. Better prioritise of water quality as a major theme in Reef 2050 Plan.

What we need to do

However these fall far short of the real requirements to meet water quality targets on the reef, set out in the Reef 2050 Plan and the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan.

The best estimate is that meeting water quality targets by 2025 will cost A$8.2 billion. Other estimates suggest we’ll need at least A$5-10 billion over the next ten years.

If we assume that about A$4 billion is needed over the next five years, the amounts mentioned in the progress report (perhaps A$500-600 million at most) are obviously totally inadequate.

There is thus almost no chance the targets will be reached at the nominated time.

This reality has been clearly acknowledged by Dr David Wachenfeld, the Director of Reef Recovery at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. In fact the current progress towards the targets is so poor that we will not even get close.

The actions actually needed to manage water quality for the Great Barrier Reef are well known and have been published in the Queensland Science Taskforce Report and scientific papers.

The most important of these are:

  1. Allocate sufficient funding (A$4 billion over the next five years)

  2. Use the legislative powers already available to the Australian government under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act (1975) and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) to regulate agriculture and other activities in the reef’s water catchment

  3. Examine seriously the need for land use change in the reef catchment. For example, we may need to look at shifting away from more intensive forms of land use such as cropping, which produce more pollutants per hectare, to less intensive activities such as beef grazing, forestry or conservation uses

  4. Continue to improve land management in sugarcane, beef grazing and horticulture but acknowledge the need to extend these programs. We also need better practices in urban and coastal development

  5. Critically examine the economics and environmental consequences of the further expansion of intensive agriculture in the reef’s catchment as promoted under the Australian government’s Northern Australian Development Plan

Progress on water quality management for the Great Barrier Reef, as clearly reported in the 2015 Report Card is poor. There is little chance we will reach the water quality targets in the next ten years, without upping our game.