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Fixing water pollution on the Great Barrier Reef will take a huge effort. Reef image from

Queensland commits to fixing water quality in the Great Barrier Reef

Current measures are not enough to protect the Great Barrier Reef, according to experts in a government report released today.

After a year of careful analysis, the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce has delivered its final report to the Queensland environment minister, Steven Miles. This is part of efforts to resource the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, which was designed to meet the challenges facing the reef.

The report is part of the response to the United Nations’ concerns that the reef is in danger of irreparable damage – with declining water quality from farming and land-use change being a major driver. The reef narrowly missed being listed as “in danger” in 2015.

The Queensland government has committed A$90 million over the next four years specifically for water quality. The federal government has also committed funding, but it remains to be seen how much will be directed specifically to water quality concerns.

The report recommends the money should be directed at understanding and beginning to reverse the impact of sediment and nutrient from rivers flowing into the Great Barrier Reef.

By any degree, the taskforce has done well in terms of bringing together a wide range of opinions and perspectives on a potentially contentious issue — views that are unified around the report’s conclusions.

While the report is not about climate change, climate change is critically important to whether the plan will ultimately succeed or fail. Stronger storms, floods, droughts and underwater heatwaves will all make the task of solving the water quality issue even harder.

So there is an assumption that we will beat the climate change challenge through mechanisms such as the international commitments that Australia agreed to under the Paris Agreement in December 2015.

Starting to reverse the damage

The Great Barrier Reef and its river catchment are bigger than Italy. With problems going back over 100 years, A$90 million is not going to fix all of the problems, but it can start to significantly reverse the damage.

The Queensland government has committed to ambitious water quality targets adopted in the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan — for instance, reducing nitrogen runoff by 80% and sediment by 50% across the key catchments of the Wet Tropics and the Burdekin by 2025. As many have noted, these targets will not be achieved under current practice — even if farmers fully adopt best management practices — and the taskforce report agrees.

Angry voices on soapboxes won’t solve this monumental challenge. That will only come about through inclusive and considered processes — it needs a long-term, sustained and coordinated reef-wide strategy.

We must redefine how we manage — and therefore resource — the Great Barrier Reef system, from the ecosystems that thrive in it to the industries and communities that depend on it for the long term. That strategy should coordinate all existing but separate approaches.

We’ve been here before

Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it — Australia has been here before with a complex environmental problem that crosses multiple borders. Particularly in the past 15 years, state and federal governments have attempted to undo a century of mismanagement in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Although water quantity is the issue in the basin, as opposed to water quality in the Great Barrier Reef, there are similarities.

The two systems are a similar size — the Murray-Darling Basin covers a million square kilometres, and the Great Barrier Reef half-a-million sq km. In both cases, productive industries such as farming cotton or cane closely interact with valuable ecological systems. Overall, they produce billions of dollars of annual revenue from food production, tourism and other industries.

In each case, international pressure (the RAMSAR convention on wetlands in the Murray-Darling, UNESCO for the reef) have played very significant roles in encouraging responsible actions from Australia.

Billions of dollars have been spent on the Murray-Darling — and similar investment is probably required for the Great Barrier Reef catchments. While action within the Murray-Darling system hasn’t been (and still isn’t) perfect, we can learn much from the experience.

Where to from here?

In our opinion, and drawing on the experiences in the Murray-Darling, the following principles should be core to any strategy for the reef.

First, recognise that a significant shift is required in how we manage and develop land next to the Great Barrier Reef. While this is politically, economically and socially difficult, the fallout will be greater if we don’t get this right.

Farmers must be enabled and supported to care for the land to deliver both economic outcomes and ecosystem services. They are the stewards of our natural capital as well as key contributors to our economy.

We’ll also need to take a small proportion of land out of production to form riparian strips, and incentives will need to be established to ensure the careful use of fertiliser, better use of cover crops, and the like. Again, these initiatives are occurring now, but we need to adopt a whole-of-system approach that corrals these actions into a coherent strategy.

The efficiencies introduced through the National Water Initiative and later the Murray-Darling Basin Plan did achieve such a shift there.

Second, acknowledge that nothing we do to address water quality issues makes sense if we don’t also address climate change as a major source of the problem. Any strategy to protect the reef has to include meaningful action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and vice versa. Solving the climate issue only to let the reef down on the water quality issue doesn’t make any sense either.

Third, full and enduring cooperation and coordination between the Commonwealth and Queensland governments are essential. Anything else risks duplication, redundancy, confusion and, more than likely, a monumental waste of money.

The political heat in the lead-up to the National Water Initiative, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the 2007 Water Act served only to diminish the opportunities for a lasting and meaningful solution to excessive water allocation in the basin.

Fourth, in support of the cooperative federalist approach, a statutory authority that oversees the implementation of the strategy — with appropriate financial incentives and regulatory powers — will be necessary. This authority would operate across Queensland river catchment and estuarine regions. We would argue that this should be a separate entity to GBRMPA, which already has its hands full managing the reef.

One of the successes from efforts in water reform was the National Water Commission, which played a crucial role in the implementation of the National Water Initiative. Its subsequent demise was regrettable.

Fifth, well-designed, market-based mechanisms work. Just as some efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are cheaper than others, we need to know which measures that reduce water quality are most cost-effective. If designed correctly, these mechanisms have the potential to drive innovation and game-changing ideas.

A water quality “trading scheme” should be explored. If done properly, such a market could prove to be enormously beneficial to farmers as well as the reef.

Finally, make sure the strategy has the resources to get the job done. While throwing money at the problem won’t solve it on its own (the billions spent in the Murray-Darling Basin proved that), the challenge will demand significant resources over the coming decade.

Such finance need not come from governments alone. If the principles above are implemented in a way that provides transparency and certainty to the market, then the private sector may be able to contribute.

These are the first steps of a journey that is critical for the long-term survival of the Great Barrier Reef. As the taskforce stresses, this is a journey that will require clever policy that adapts to a dynamic world.

The reforms to address the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin were triggered by the Millennium Drought. The recent coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef should inspire the same urgency.

And, if so, let’s hope that we are now truly on a pathway to a future for the Great Barrier Reef where its people, industries and ecosystems thrive into the future.

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