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Scathing report prompts changes to reef programs

Just when we thought the Great Barrier Reef was safe from UN listing as ‘in danger’ the Queensland auditor general has delivered a scathing report about reef programs. And while the government has been quick to act on most of the recommendations there’s some unfinished business on regulations and implications for the federal government too.

The auditor general describes the Queensland government’s programs to reduce agricultural pollution to the reef as disparate projects across multiple agencies with no clear accountability for their delivery. It found they won’t achieve the government’s goals for reducing pollution to the reef. And it questions the way the government reports on improvements in water quality on the reef, describing the annual Reef Report Card as potentially misleading.

While none of this is particularly new to reef watchers, it’s remarkable because no-one has said it publicly and so comprehensively before.

The report examines the Queensland Government’s programs under successive joint Reef Plan agreements with the federal government since 2003. The goal of reef plan is that by 2020 the quality of water entering the reef from broadscale land use does not have a detrimental impact on the reef. There are specific timed, targets for reducing pollutants such as nitrogen and sediment.

The state government’s programs range from supporting development of industry led better practice management standards, or BMPs, and research and development, through to modelling and monitoring, and regulations on reef water quality and land clearing.

The report found signficant conflicts between improving agricultural production while reducing run-off to the reef. It recommends the programs would be better managed through a single point of responsibility with clear authority for delivering on the environmental imperatives.

The Queensland government promptly adopted the recommendation by establishing a new Office of the Great Barrier Reef within the department of environment with central responsibility for co-ordinating the state's contribution to reef plan. And it’s set up a new Great Barrier Reef Water Science taskforce to advise on the best approach to achieving the targets for reducing agricultural pollution to the reef.

But the government is yet to respond to the report’s findings about the problems caused by poor regulations. It found that the voluntary and self assessed BMP schemes in the grazing and sugar cane industry were not achieving the changes needed to meet the reef targets. The former Queensland government had a policy of not enforcing reef water quality regulations, relying instead on the voluntary schemes. The regulations, introduced in 2010, require sugarcane farmers and graziers in specific high risk reef catchments to limit certain practices and adopt best management practice.

Reducing the use of fertilisers in sugarcane farming is a high priority for the reef because it’s linked to outbreaks of the coral eating Crown of Thorns starfish. Yet according to the report, in the Smartcane BMP program, ‘the balance between producing more, making more money and looking after the environment is tilted towards the former two.' The report concludes there is a ‘lack of clear, appropriate incentives and disincentives in the design of these voluntary BMP programs,’ particularly without a regulatory compliance framework.

The report also found vegetation clearing had increased by an astonishing 229 per cent between 2008-09 and 2012-2014 in the reef catchments regions after changes to state land clearing laws under the former LNP government. Even though Queensland Labor was elected on a policy of restoring land clearing controls it is yet to announce details.

Queensland Natural Resources Minister Mark Lynham told the Courier Mail on 12 June, the day after the report was released, that there would be no rushed changes on vegetation management. “It’s integral to carbon emissions, sediment run-off and biodiversity,” he said. “But it’s also integral to landholders, farmers and their businesses and the jobs they support across the state.”

Minister for the Great Barrier Reef, Steve Miles, has been equally coy about whether the government plans to reactivate the reef water quality regulations.

The report’s findings about the effectivness of the BMPs have implications for the Australian government’s grants programs under the $150m Reef Program and $140m Reef Trust. Decisions about grant applications under those programs rely on the BMPs and often suffer the same ‘imbalance’ in favour of improving farm productivity over the environment.

When I conducted a review of the grants program in 2013 I found most of the regional funding bodies administering the grants had little or no rigorous assessment of the impacts on the reef from farm practice changes that the grants were subsidising. The federal government at the time had set their priorities around getting a majority of farmers on board so meeting the Reef Plan targets weren’t always top priority.

After over $150m was spent on reef water quality grants between 2008 and 2013 little progress has been made in reducing nitrogen flowing into the reef lagoon. The 2008 reef plan had a target of reducing nitrogen by 50 per cent by 2013, but only 10 per cent reduction was achieved. While scientists said at the time that the disappointing results were caused by unprecedented cyclones through the area, the simple fact is that farmers are still using too much fertiliser.

In 2013 I advocated for the federal government to explicitly link the grants to the impact of their farm practice changes on the reef, using competitive tendering for grant applications. Earlier this year the federal government trialled a $5m Reef Tender providing grants to sugar cane farmers in the Wet Tropics region, the highest risk region for Crown of Thorns. The tender, which was funded from Reef Trust, invited farmers to nominate what they were prepared to do to reduce excess nitrogen use and how much they wanted to be paid for it. By assessing applications against specific targets for reducing nitrogen the government was able to identify the most cost effective measures by the applicants.

According to the Environment Department's website a total of $1.4m has been provided in grants to 22 farms under the Reef Tender. There’s no explanation of what happened to the other $3.6m. Perhaps there weren't enough applicants that met the targets? In May the government announced another reef tender for grants to reduce fertiliser run-off from sugar cane farms in the Burdekin region as part of Phase 2 of Reef Trust, which is worth a total of $15m.

The tenders should be revealing the higher risk practices that sugar cane farmers are prepared to adopt when they have the support of a government grant. Hopefully the government will eventually release the results so lessons can be used for the other, bigger reef water quality grants program.

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