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Bolder targets in latest Reef Plan

Most responses to the final Reef 2050 long term plan focussed on the lack of a serious policy on climate change and coal mining. But reef scientists have applauded stronger targets for reducing water pollution and extra funding to achieve them.

The new targets reflect the Queensland Labor government's election promises to cut the amount of nitrogen flowing on to the reef from key catchments by 80% by 2025promised an extra $100m over three years fro programs to improve water quality and environmental sustainability.

And the federal government added another $100m for the programs they've been funding under the joint 2013 federal-Queensland government Reef Plan.

Some progress has been made since 2008 in helping farmers to change farming practices to stop excess chemcials and sediment running off their land. Nitrogen runoff is a big problem because of its link to outbreaks of the coral eating crown of thorns starfish.

But more could have been achieved if regulations introduced by the former Queensland Labor government in 2009 had not been abandoned by the Newman Coalition government in 2012. Queensland government reef scientists warned ealier this year that the reliance on voluntary schemes has proven ineffective.

The new Queensland Labor government, who took office in mid-February 2015 has indicated that new regulations may be introduced to achieve its targets for the Reef.

“I don’t want to pre-empt any discussions but there are a range of levers available, from regulation to education to innovation and we’ll be looking to all of those to make sure it works,” Steven Miles, Queensland’s newly-appointed environment minister and minister for the Great Barrier Reef told Guardian Australia on 17 February.

"I don’t want to disparage previous efforts on this, but we want to really aggressively reduce run-off” he said.

The extra $100m from the Queensland government will doubel the $35m a year that's been spent on programs such as the industry based 'better practice management' standards.

The extra $100m announced by the federal government will go to improving reef water quality as part of the federal government's Reef Trust. Federal environment minister Greg Hunt launched Reef Trust in late 2013 using $40m from the Reef Program which provides subsidies to farmers to help reduce agricultural pollution to the reef among other things.

Reef Trust was supposed to attract new private money from biodiversity offset obligations and philanthropy. But given public senitment about the government's policies on the Reef the only private money going into reef progams is in partnerhips with environment groups such as WWF. And to use payments in lieu of offset obligations requires amendments to federal environment laws which would be unlikely to pass the Senate.

Reef Trust has so far been used for some smaller experimental projects such as a $5m Reef Tender.

The federal government ran the Reef Tender from November 2014 to March 2015 to test whether using a reverse auction or tender for grants to sugar cane farmers would produce different results to general farmer subsidies. By assessing tender applications against specific targets for reducing excess nitrogen use the government would be able to identify the most cost effective measures that sugar farmers are prepared to take.

The tender approach sits in contrast with the general Reef Program water quality grants program, which offer all farmers about $20,000-30,000 to subsidise them adopting better management farming practices, regardless of location and impact on the reef.

I wrote to the federal environment minister in March to ask about the results of Reef Tender and whether it wil lbe expanded with the extra $100m for Reef Trust. I'm still waiting for a response.

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