Water damage and the Great Barrier Reef

 

Vince Papale is an environmentalist, but wouldn’t dream of describing himself that way, and the green movement wouldn’t recognise him as one of their own.

His family has farmed sugar cane on the table-flat fields of the Burdekin, about an hour south of Townsville, since his great-grandfather emigrated from Sicily almost a century ago.

Nearly a decade ago, Papale and his wife Rita made a decision that dramatically changed how they and their three children ran their Home Hill farm, and how they thought about themselves.

Frustrated to breaking point by poor drainage on their property that constantly flooded the cane fields, they signed on for a $195,000 federal government grant and poured in another $270,000 of their own.

With it, they reconfigured the four hectares at the heart of the problem into a wetland that traps and filters water running off the property, removing nutrients and pollution before it drains into the sea.

The result is a thriving hub of aquatic life. Lined by more than 1000 trees, it is home to fish including a school of barramundi, seabirds of all shapes, sometimes a crocodile.

Papale says building it was a big deal; not just the financial investment, but also the cultural change.

“I had neighbours and family say ‘What are you doing getting in bed with the greenies?'” he says.

The wetland brought with it a significant side effect – it’s good for the Great Barrier Reef, and is part of a suite of changes that have reduced the nitrogen runoff from the property by more than 20 per cent, while improving productivity by up to 25 per cent.

Papale says, “I didn’t set out to do something for the reef, but it makes me feel proud that if my kids get challenged about farming they can say, ‘My parents did something good for the environment.'”

After climate change, poor water quality – largely caused by agricultural run-off and dredged or dumped sediment – is the biggest threat facing the reef. Dealing with it won’t save the reef in a warming world, but gives it the best chance of putting up a fight. While measures like those being taken by the Papales are steps in the right direction, the evidence across the length of the reef suggests we are failing, badly.

A Commonwealth report card released in October based on 2015 data found the inshore marine area was in poor condition, grading it a D on a scale of A-to-E. Where it should be clear, pollution has made the water cloudy in some areas, affecting the health of coral and seagrasses. Scientists say little has changed in the past year.

Environmental scientist and former marine park manager Jon Brodie published a paper earlier this year setting out what it would cost to fix: $10 billion over a decade. A Queensland government water science taskforce later put the price at $8.2 billion by 2025, most of it to be spent in the Fitzroy Basin around Rockhampton.

While governments agree the problem is serious, to date they have offered less than a $1 billion over the next five years.

“The spending is totally inadequate,” says Brodie, now a professorial fellow at the ARC Centre for Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. “At the moment the reef is in terrible condition and continuing to deteriorate, and we’re not really arresting the decline with anything we’re doing now.”

Jon Day, a former director with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, says the government is failing to live up to the commitment it made to UNESCO in 2015, when the reef was threatened with having its world heritage listing categorised as “in danger”.

“At this rate, Australia will not meet the water-quality targets committed to in the [federal and Queensland governments’] 2050 reef plan,” he says.

Agricultural runoff from the nitrogen used in fertiliser and pesticides is one of the biggest threats to water quality on the reef.

Nitrogen is linked to outbreaks of crown-of-thorns, the deadly starfish that feed on coral and spawn at a rate that makes them difficult to tackle once they take hold. Females produce up to 65 million eggs in the five-month annual spawning season.

The impact of the starfish is difficult to overstate. The Australian Institute of Marine Science found coral cover on reefs that it surveyed had been cut in half over the past three decades; if not for the crown-of-thorns it is estimated it would have increased. There have been four major outbreaks of the starfish since the 1960s, including a current episode on the mid-shelf of the reef between Cairns and Townsville, which is heading south.

Steps are being taken to kill the starfish, most notably divers collecting them and killing them with an injection of ox bile. James Cook University PhD student Lisa Bostrom Einarsson discovered injecting crown-of-thorns with vinegar was just as effective and is overseeing a wider trial.

But all agree these are only piecemeal solutions, and the threat must be dealt with at the source on the land. The 2050 reef plan set goals of a 50 per cent cut in nitrogen run-off by 2018, increasing to 80 per cent by 2025.

Besides nitrogen, a primary threat to water quality is sediment dumped in the marine park, washed into the ocean from grazing properties and churned up during dredging. The sediment deprives coral and seagrass of the light and oxygen they need, effectively smothering them.

Former environment minister Greg Hunt won praise in 2015 for banning the dumping of spoil from dredging for capital works in the marine park, but the dumping of about 1 million cubic metres a year from maintenance dredging continues.

There is also a looming issue with what we flush into the sea – microplastics from clothes and other products, but also the growing number of prescription drugs we wash through our bodies. They can accumulate in the food chain and disrupt animals’ endocrine systems.

To date, sugar cane is the main focus of government-funded programs to save the reef. Cane is king along the Queensland coast, the basis for an export industry worth $2 billion. The fertiliser applied is overwhelmingly nitrogen-based. When it floods, a plume dumps on the reef.

Papale gets emotional talking about the changes on his property. He and Rita won a Premier’s Sustainability Award in 2013 and have hosted student groups to show what better practice can achieve.

While his experience has been positive, he has been affronted by the extent to which cane farmers have copped the blame for the reef’s woes.

“I think the industry I’m in is doing a lot of the heavy lifting and bearing the brunt of bad media unfairly,” Papale says.

“Do I think there are issues going on with the environment and the reef? Absolutely, beyond doubt. But good stories coming out of agriculture regarding the environment don’t get a lot of mileage – I don’t think they fit the story the green industry want to tell.”

His stance on the benefits of better environmental practice is not universally shared. Some farmers have been openly aggressive towards other farmers taking steps to reduce pollution. There is deep scepticism about regulations introduced in the Queensland Parliament six years ago, but only now being enforced.

Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles agrees more funding is needed to improve water quality, and says his government is in the process of working out how it can most effectively be spent.Its answer has been two pilot projects – one in the Burdekin and the other in the wet tropics – to see new techniques to limit run-off can work.

“Then I believe it will be an easier task to convince the Commonwealth to put more funds in,” says Miles.

Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg says a reef ministerial forum is considering an investment framework that will identify funding priorities and strategies to boost the money available. “The reef’s challenges can only be addressed through cooperation between all sectors, and scientifically based adaptive management.”

Jon Brodie is pessimistic, but believes water quality is fixable within a decade if the will exists.

He says it will require funding, the use of largely ignored federal legislation that demands better care of the marine park, and the government possibly buying some farms – those that are not economically viable – to improve land use.

“If we did all of those things, we could do it.”

What’s the fix?

  • More government investment on the scale of what has been committed to the Murray-Darling Basin, recognising that 70,000 tourism jobs depend on the health of the reef.
  • Strengthening laws to limit tree-clearing in reef catchments to prevent erosion and sediment run-off.
  • Hard decisions about whether all farms are economically and environmentally viable.
  • Everyone thinking about what they throw and flush away. Much of it ends up in marine ecosystems.

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