The governance of the Reef is shared between the Australian and Queensland governments. Whilst the Australian Government has jurisdictional responsibilities for the Reef, its powers do not extend to land management practices adjacent to the Reef. Legislative responsibility regarding farming practices is the primary responsibility of the Queensland Government. This jurisdictional limitation prevents the committee from making recommendations relevant to one of the primary discussions of this inquiry; the Queensland Government's regulatory framework aimed at agricultural industries operating within the Reef's catchment regions.
Governance arrangements and planning targets are specified under the Reef Planning Framework. Two key plans are the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (the Reef 2050 Plan) and the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan (WQIP) 2017–2022.
Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan
The key step taken by the Australian and Queensland governments to support the long-term health of the Reef was the implementation of the Reef 2050 Plan in June 2015. This plan is a shared blueprint and overarching framework on the management of the Reef, having been recommended and endorsed by the United Nation's World Heritage Committee. It was updated in 2018 due to the 2016–17 coral bleaching events and the impact from Cyclone Debbie.
The Reef 2050 Plan was informed by the Outlook Report for 2014 and a two-year strategic assessment with input from scientists, communities, Traditional Owners, industry and non-government organisations. The ongoing success of the Plan is reliant upon the ongoing co-operation and productive partnerships between all of these stakeholders.
The Reef 2050 Plan establishes actions designed to address threats to the Reef's health and support its resilience to the impacts of climate change. Under the Plan, there are seven overarching themes—ecosystem health, biodiversity, heritage, water quality, community benefits, economic benefits and governance.
Oversight of the Reef 2020 Plan is delegated to the Great Barrier Reef Ministerial Forum, and is supported by an Independent Expert Panel that provides independent scientific advice and an advisory committee that provides industry and community perspectives. This panel is chaired by former Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb.
According to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE), the Reef 2050 Plan is supported by the best available science that:
…includes programs funded by the Australian and Queensland governments, science and research undertaken by academic and research institutions, and work funded by non-government organisations. The Plan recognises that the effects of climate change are the most serious and increasing threat to the Reef. The Plan also states that the impacts of increasing ocean temperatures and ocean acidification are being amplified by the accumulation of impacts caused by land-based run-off from catchments adjacent to the Reef.
Reef Water Quality Improvement Plan (WQIP) 2017–2022
Under this framework sits a number of key documents and output plans. The most important within the context of this inquiry is the Reef 2050 WQIP. This plan aims to reduce polluted run-off entering the Reef and its catchment regions from the activities of agriculture, industry and urban environments. For the agriculture sector, these primary pollutants are nutrients, sediments and pesticides, all of which have been shown to have an adverse impact on the health of the Reef's ecosystem. To achieve this goal, the Reef 2050 WQIP establishes water quality targets and land management measures to address water quality issues within the Reef and its catchment regions. The plan also aims to support innovation and stewardship of the land, restore the Reef's catchments and to continually improve the science and knowledge about water quality and the Reef.
The Reef 2050 WQIP commenced in 2017 and is in place until 2022. It guides industry, the Australian and Queensland governments and the communities to work together to improve the water quality flowing from the Reef's catchment regions into the Reef. The original plan was released in 2003, and progressively updated in 2009, 2013 and again in 2017.
The primary purpose of the Reef 2050 WQIP is to 'identify management and monitoring requirements for all land-based pollution', including agricultural activities, urban waterways and industrial activities, 'to improve the quality of the water flowing from catchments adjacent to the Reef'. The Department of Environment and Science (DES) noted that although the Reef 2050 WQIP 'addresses all land-based sources of water pollution from urban, industrial and public lands; while recognising the majority of pollution comes from agricultural activities'.
The Reef 2050 WQIP is informed by a combination of monitoring, modelling and peer-reviewed science. One key body of literature that informed the Reef 2050 WQIP was the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement — Land use impacts on the Great Barrier Reef water quality and ecosystem condition (Scientific Consensus Statement, discussed further in Chapter 3). This statement concluded that the greatest risks to the water quality entering the Reef are from:
nutrients that act as an additional stress factor on many of the Reef's coral species and promotes COTS outbreaks that devastate' mid-shelf and offshore coral reefs and promote macroalgal growth in the Reef';
fine sediments that reduce the light needed for seagrass ecosystems and inshore reefs; and
pesticides that can be toxic to both freshwater ecosystems and some inshore and coastal habitats of the Reef.
In order to improve the Reef's water quality, the Reef 2050 WQIP sets water quality targets across the 35 catchments that flow into the Reef, delineated by six management regions (as presented in Figure 2.1). The current water quality targets for 2025 are:
a 60 per cent reduction in anthropogenic end-of-catchment dissolved inorganic nitrogen loads;
a 25 per cent reduction in anthropogenic end-of-catchment fine sediment loads;
a 20 per cent reduction in anthropogenic end-of-catchment particulate nutrient loads (dissolved nitrogen, particulate phosphorous and particulate nitrogen); and
to protect at least 99 per cent of aquatic species at the end-of-catchment.
The DAWE explained in its submission that each target had been prioritised by the pollutant risk of each river catchment to local reef habitats, and that 'targets and catchment prioritisation in the Reef 2050 WQIP are a significant improvement on previous water quality protection plans, because they enabled actions and investments to be better targeted'. Regional water quality targets vary due to an 'unprecedented level of scientific understanding into what is required from the catchments to support Reef health', as demonstrated in Figure 2.1 and Figure 2.2.
Figure 2.1: Regional water quality targets (by catchment) for dissolved inorganic nitrogen fine sediment and particulate nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen)
Source: Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017–2022, p. 16.
A more detailed breakdown of individual river systems and specific water quality targets within catchment regions are also detailed within the Reef 2050 WQIP, as shown in Figure 2.2. These targets are classified under priority thresholds scaled between very high and minimal or not assessed.
Figure 2.2: End-of-catchment anthropogenic water quality targets for the Reef catchments by 2025 and management priorities
Source: Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017–2022, pp. 18–19.
On-ground actions detailed in the Reef 2050 WQIP include: the application of minimum practice standards across industries and land uses; the promotion of a culture of innovation and stewardship within industries and communities that go beyond minimum practice standards; and the restoration of catchments through improvements and repairs to vegetation, streambanks, gullies waterways and wetlands. Minimum practice standards are inclusive of the agricultural sector, urban and industries lands, public lands, vegetation management and plastic pollution. The on-ground activities relevant to the agricultural sector, including consideration of minimum practice standards, and the investments made by governments, industries and non-government sector to meet water quality targets, are discussed in chapters 5, 6 and 7.
Reef report cards
In order to track the progress of the Reef 2050 WQIP, the Australian and Queensland governments release annual Reef water quality report cards (Reef Report Cards). These Reef Report Cards have been in place since 2009 (first published in August 2011) and measure progress towards the targets, objectives and long-term outcomes set out in the Reef 2050 WQIP. These Reef Report Cards measure the level of success of actions taken to improve water quality and whether further action to improve water quality is required.
The Reef Report Cards are informed by the Paddock to the Reef program and in the future, the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program (IMR program). The Paddock to the Reef program's scientific methods and results are reviewed by the Reef Water Quality Independent Science Panel (ISP), the Paddock to Reef program coordinator and advisory group, and other peer and external reviews. Additional lines of evidence include industry surveys, land management practice data, satellite imagery, validated modelling, on-the-ground assessment and field surveys. The DAWE added that '[s]ignificant work goes into validating the data and analysing and reviewing it for each update'.
Eight report cards have been released since 2009, with the first providing baseline data for future report cards. These reports cards have all indicated a need for faster progress towards land management and water quality targets.
On 30 August 2019, the most recent report card for 2017 and 2018 was released. Evidence included in this report card was drawn from industry best management practice and extension programs, and involved contributions from 55 science and technical experts. The 12-month time lag between reporting dates and the release of the report cards is due to the validation, analysis, scientific review and reporting of results. The 2017–18 report card assessed results and action reported up to June 2018.
The findings from 2017 and 2018 found some improvements such as:
sediment and particulate nutrient targets for Cape York were met, with a reduction of 1.8 per cent, bringing the total to 9.8 per cent (almost double the five per cent target for the region);
the largest improvement, up 3.2 per cent to 19.6 per cent for best practice nutrient management for sugarcane was recorded, with modelling indicating a subsequent improvement of 1.2 per cent to 26.7 per cent for annual average load of dissolved inorganic nitrogen flowing from the Burdekin region; and
the slowing down of natural wetland loss across the Reef's catchments, with less than 0.1 per cent loss (or 556 hectares) between 2013 and 2017.
Despite this success, the report card identified a range of moderate to very poor results for water quality targets, catchment management targets and land management targets (discussed in Chapter 5) in 2017–18 across the entire Reef catchment regions:
a 0.3 per cent reduction of dissolved inorganic nitrogen, with overall progress of 21.2 per cent towards the 60 per cent target;
a 0.5 per cent reduction of sediment levels, with overall progress of 14.4 per cent towards the 25 per cent target;
a 0.5 per cent reduction of particulate nitrogen levels, with overall progress of 13 per cent towards the 20 per cent target;
a 0.6 per cent reduction of particulate phosphorus levels, with overall progress 16.2 per cent towards the 20 per cent target; and
a 97 per cent result for baseline protection of aquatic species protected at the end-of-catchments, two per cent short of the 99 per cent target.
Overall, the 2017 and 2018 report card found the inshore marine condition to be poor, 'with coral rated moderate and seagrass and water quality in poor condition'. The Cape York, Wet Tropics and Burdekin regions were in moderate condition overall and the Mackay Whitsunday, Fitzroy and Burnett Mary regions were in poor condition. The DES recognised that many 'landholders have improved their land management practices, the results reflect the scale of change still required to meet the water quality targets and the timelag between projects completion and reporting timeframes'.
Key Commonwealth legislation relevant to the committee's inquiry is detailed below.
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 (Marine Park Act) established the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, as well as the GBRMPA, which is the primary Commonwealth authority responsible for the management of the Great Barrier Reef Region (the Region). The Marine Park Act's objective is to 'provide for the long term protection and conservation of the environment, biodiversity and heritage values of the Region'.
Related to the Marine Park Act are the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Environment Management Charge-Excise) Act 1993 and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Environment Management Charge-General) Act 1999. In addition, there is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 2019, which came into effect on 1 April 2019; however, according to the GRBMPA these regulations do not result in any substantive change to the rules applicable to the Marine Park.
Finally, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003 is a planning instrument for the Marine Park and guides its conservation and management.
The legislation also demands that conservation and management of the Reef be done so with the adoption of a precautionary principle, specifically that the 'lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing a measure to prevent degradation of the environment where that are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage'.
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) provides for the DAWE's regulatory responsibility for the Reef because both the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area are 'of national environmental significance'. The EPBC Act specifies that 'a person must not take an action that has, will have or is likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance'. This provision encompasses actions that are taken outside of the Reef that have a significant impact on the Reef's environment and/or its World Heritage values. DAWE submitted that new, expanded, or intensified activities, such as land clearing may constitute a significant impact under the EPBC Act. Routine farming practices and land management are exempt under the Act 'if they are a lawful continuation of historical practices'.
DAWE supports compliance with the EPBC Act through a focus on education by 'helping land managers understand their obligations', which includes assisting agricultural peak bodies with their efforts to inform farmers to consider both national and state environmental laws.
Queensland's legislative instruments predominately govern and guide the conduct of agricultural practices that impact on water quality in the Reef's catchment regions. These laws also promote good farm management practices and prevent soil runoff.
Key Queensland legislation relevant to the committee's inquiry is detailed below.
Environmental Protection Act 1994
The Environmental Protection Act 1994 (EP Act) is the principal legislation that governs Queensland's environmental legal system. The EP Act establishes requirements for activities that contaminate the environment (known as environmentally relevant activities (ERAs)). ERAs are typically applied to the mining sector, sewage treatment plants and aquaculture enterprises. Agricultural ERAs have been in place since 2010 and aim to reduce water quality pollution impacting on the Reef. Prior to the introduction of 2019 Reef Regulations package (discussed below), these agricultural ERAs applied to sugarcane production and large cattle grazing operations in the Wet Tropics, Burdekin and Mackay Whitsunday regions.
Environmental Protection (Great Barrier Reef Protection Measures) and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2019
On 26 September 2019, the Queensland Parliament passed the Environmental Protection (Great Barrier Reef Protection Measures) and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2019 (GBR Act). The GBR Act, which was part of a package of regulatory amendments (the Reef regulations package), intends to strengthen Reef protection measures (agricultural ERAs) and to improve the quality of the water moving through the Reef's catchment regions and into the Reef itself. Consequently, the Reef regulations package seeks to support efforts to meet targets established under the Reef 2050 WQIP.
The Reef regulations package commenced on 1 December 2019, and according to the DES, complemented existing efforts to improve the Reef's water quality, such as the industry-led best management practice (BMP) programs.
The Reef regulations package established:
a set of reduced nutrient and sediment containment loads for the Reef's catchment waters;
measures to achieve a 'no net decline' of standards for Reef water quality from any new development from ERAs (including industrial activities);
a minimum set of agricultural standards that target nutrient and sediment pollution from key agricultural industries that may affect water quality in the Reef's catchment areas;
an alternative pathway for producers to meet regulatory requirements through accreditation against recognised BMP programs (or similar); and
a requirement for advisors to farmers on how to undertake an agricultural ERA (including fertilising crops or managing erosion risks) to 'ensure that advice is not false or misleading'.
Specific measures include:
From 1 December 2019, records must be kept by commercial cattle graziers, sugarcane and banana growers in all catchment regions (excluding Cape York). These records will be used to ensure agricultural activities undertaken on a property are in accordance with the minimum practice agricultural standards.
These records include general records such as names, property location and chemicals/fertiliser/mill mud applied to a property. These records must be supported by primary documents such as soil or leaf tests, fertiliser contracts or invoices. Record requirements differ depending on the industry, and must be made within three days of an activity and kept for a period of six years.
Minimum practice agricultural standards
Minimum practice agricultural standards apply to all producers across all catchment areas (excluding Cape York). These standards differ depending on the industry. For example, graziers' standards seek to retain and improve ground cover and land conditions to minimise soil loss, and the sugarcane and banana industry standards focus on reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment run-off.
These standards will be applied to catchment regions over a three-year period and 'will remain substantially unchanged for the next five years'.
Farm nitrogen and phosphorous budget (sugarcane only)
Sugarcane farmers under the Reef regulations package are subject to a nitrogen and phosphorus budget. This budget restricts the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus used each harvest season and must be supported by records, such as a record of nitrogen and phosphorus amounts used following a harvest period, actual and historic yield data and farm maps.
Budgets will be applied to the Wet Tropics, Burdekin and Mackay Whitsunday regions from 2021 and the Fitzroy and Burnett Mary regions from 2022.
New or expanded cropping and horticulture activities
As of 1 June 2021, an environment authority (permit) will be required for all new or expanding cropping and horticultural activities in all catchment regions that are more than five hectares and do not meet the cropping history test. This regulation applies to all crop types, including grains, horticulture, sugarcane and banana production. Hydroponic, forestry and non-commercial crops are excluded. No activity or work can take place without the permit.
A permit is issued on the basis of producers meeting standard farm design requirements, which vary depending on the size of the farm. As of January 2020, initial drafts of proposed farm designed standards were being consulted and refined.
New, expanded or intensified industrial development
All regulated industrial land use activities within the Reef catchment regions must meet new discharge standards to ensure there is no increase in the amount of nutrients and/or sediment pollutants entering catchments from 1 December 2020. The regulation of these industries already applies under the EP Act.
Summary of views concerning the Reef regulations package
The introduction and subsequent passage of the Reef regulations package has been a contentious issue in the state of Queensland. Federal and state government representatives, various scientific bodies, individuals, education institutions and environmentalists have supported the Queensland Government's decision to implement a regulated framework to improve water quality in the Reef. Some of these advocates have refrained from commenting on the specifics of the regulations, but emphasised their support for the underlying scientific process and rationale for greater protection through regulation.
Alternatively, many representatives from the agricultural sector, whether it be peak bodies, farming groups or individual farmers, as well as a number of scientists and non-government organisations have argued against a regulated approach. Further, some of these stakeholders have questioned the underlying rationale for greater protection to the Reef, and more broadly have challenged the scientific processes in place that inform public policy. For this very reason, they have called for the establishment of an independent body to review Reef science that informs public policy. This argument was supported by a number of submitters.
A core debate concerning the Reef regulations package is the sufficiency of efforts across the agricultural sector through its voluntary, industry-led BMP programs. The banana and horticulture industry questioned the rationale for their inclusion under a regulated framework. Agriculture representatives throughout this inquiry emphasised the efforts made by the industry, at a personal expense, to improve and implement BMP to support the health of the Reef.
Whilst acknowledging those efforts, supporters for regulation pointed out that the voluntary model had not been sufficiently adopted by industry, and would result in Australia not meeting its water quality targets for the Reef.
In addition to the debate concerning BMP programs, various submitters provided numerous examples of innovative approaches made, often in partnerships across government, non-government and agricultural sectors to improve water quality, farming practices and general environmental outcomes in the Reef's catchment regions.
These matters, including the Queensland Government's decision to implement the Reef regulations package, the agricultural sector's response to its implementation and debate concerning the BMP programs is considered in more detail in Chapter 5. The discussions and debate concerning the scientific basis for greater protection of the Reef, as well as the broader debate concerning the scientific process as a whole are addressed in chapters 3 and 4.