land management to protect the Great Barrier Reef

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                                       eNviroNmeNtal respoNsibility

                                                                                  This article appeared in the February 2010 edition of the Kondinin Group’s monthly magazine Farming Ahead. The Kondinin Group holds
                                                                                  the copyright on the article. Reproduction of this text in whole or part by any other publication or for any other purpose is not
                                                                                  permitted without permission of the Farming Ahead editor. For more information contact Kondinin Group on 1800 677 761.

                                          land management to protect
   Photo: cSiro Land and water

                                          the Great Barrier Reef
                                   Fiona         Frederieke            Jill
                                 Henderson          Kroon           Griffiths
                                 FOR CSIRO WATeR FOR A HeAlTHy COuNTRy FlAGSHIp        cSiro’s water for a Healthy country flagship recently released a report about
                                                                                       their water quality research in the Great Barrier reef. the report provides
                                                                                       food for thought for farmers, pastoralists and other land managers in the
                                                                                       423,000 square kilometre Great Barrier reef catchment.

                                                                                       australia’s World Heritage-listed Great                           governments to develop the Reef Water
                                                                                       Barrier Reef (GBR) stretches more than                            Quality Protection Plan (Reef Plan) in
                                                                                       2000 kilometres along the coast of northern                       2003. The goal of Reef Plan is to “halt and
                                                                                       Queensland. The GBR catchment covers                              reverse the decline in water quality entering
          Photo: cSiro

                                                                                       423,000 square kilometres and contains 30                         the Reef within 10 years”. To help achieve
                                                                                       major rivers and hundreds of small streams.                       that goal, Reef Plan has two objectives:
                                                                                         Since European settlement, the GBR                              reduce the load of pollutants from diffuse
                                                                                       catchment has undergone significant                               sources in the water entering the Reef;
      Cattle grazing: Implementing management
      practices that increase vegetation cover is helping                              changes. Savannah, woodlands and forest                           and, rehabilitate and conserve areas of the
      to decrease loss of sediment from grazing lands in                               have been cleared or thinned, and large                           Reef catchment that have a role in removing
      the Great Barrier Reef catchment.                                                areas of wetlands have been lost, giving way                      water-borne pollutants.
      INSET: new approach: CSIRO has developed                                         to grazing and cropping, as well as urban
      a fertiliser application approach that has
      environmental and financial benefits by reducing
                                                                                       development. Consequently, there have                             to help protect the reef the
                                                                                       been significant increases in sediment,
      the excess nitrogen that ends up in run-off waters.
                                                                                       nutrient and pesticide loads reaching the
                                                                                                                                                         Australian Government has
                                                                                       GBR. These pollutants negatively impact                           invested $200 million over
                                                                                       reef ecosystems.                                                  five years, which includes
                                                                                       Reef values                                                       funds to implement reef Plan.
                                                                                          The need to protect the GBR is beyond
                   At a glance                                                         doubt. The World Heritage-listed area                               The Queensland Government has also
                                                                                       supports an amazing diversity of marine life,                     contributed $50 million over five years for
                  Water quality in the Great Barrier                                   including 1500 species of fish, 359 types of                      actions to improve water quality.
                  Reef has declined as a result                                        hard coral, one third of the world’s soft corals,
                  of land-use changes in the                                           six of the world’s seven species of threatened                    pollutants
                  catchment.                                                           marine turtles and more than 30 species of                          CSIRO research is helping land managers
                                                                                       marine mammals. There are also thousands                          work towards decreasing the pollution
                  The main pollutants affecting the                                                                                                      of run-off water by improving our
                                                                                       of species of molluscs, sponges, worms,
                  Reef are sediment, nutrients                                         crustaceans, starfish and sea urchins, and                        understanding of pollutants, including
                  and pesticides.                                                      hundreds of bird species.                                         where they come from, what happens to
                  Research is helping determine                                           The Reef also adds significantly to the                        them in the GBR marine environment, and
                                                                                       Australian economy, contributing an                               how their levels can be reduced.
                  how land can best be managed
                  to limit pollution of the Great                                      estimated $6.9 billion per year and providing                       The pollutants of particular concern in
                  Barrier Reef waters while ensuring                                   employment for about 66,000 people.                               the GBR lagoon are suspended sediment,
                  agricultural productivity                                                                                                              nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus),
                                                                                       Reef plan                                                         pesticides    and     herbicides.  These
                  and sustainability.
                                                                                         The GBR lagoon’s declining water quality                        pollutants harm the Reef ecosystems. They
                                                                                       led the Australian and Queensland                                 mainly come from diffuse agricultural

30 Farming Ahead February 2010 No. 217

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                      cLimAte AnD SUStAinABiLity
                      eNviroNmeNtal respoNsibility

                                                                   actions that target hillslope erosion are more   is the major land use on the coastal
                                                                   important for reducing particulate nutrient      floodplain. The proximity of this land to
                                                                   loads than would be thought from the             the ocean, and the frequent high rainfalls
                               N                                   amount of hillslope soil loss.                   in the area, means that sugarcane
                           Coral Sea                                                                                production has a significant impact on the
                                                                   land management practices                        GBR lagoon. High concentrations of
                                                                      Most pollutants causing water quality         pollutants have been detected in waterways
                                                                   decline in the GBR lagoon come from              that drain land being used for sugarcane
                Cooktown                                           agricultural land uses, such as grazing and      production.
                                       Great Barrier Reef Marine   sugarcane. As such, there is great potential        To reduce the impact the sugarcane
                     Cairns            Park and World Heritage     for changes in agricultural land management      industry has on the Reef, CSIRO scientists
                                       Area boundary               practices to significantly reduce pollutant      have developed a new method for applying
                                                                   loads and improve water quality. Such            fertiliser. The method aims to replace the
                                                                   changes could include changes in the ways        amount of nitrogen that was taken out of
                     Townsville                                    in which soils are prepared, crops are treated   the paddock soil by the previous crop
                                                                   and cattle are managed.                          without applying excess fertiliser. By
                                                                                                                    putting back only what was taken out, the
Great Barrier Reef                Mackay                           cSiro research is providing                      approach aims to achieve a stable balance
                                                                                                                    of nitrogen in the system, maintaining
catchment area                                                     scientific assessment of                         yield while minimising runoff of excess
                                                                   on-farm management                               nitrogen.
                                                                   actions and guidance for                            In trials the yield remained the same,
                                                                                                                    while the reduction in fertiliser resulted in
  Queensland                                                       developing new actions that                      significant financial savings and up to an 80
      Photo: cSiro

                                                                   will decrease the loss of                        per cent reduction in the amount of nitrogen
                                                                                                                    in paddock runoff.
                                                                   sediment and nutrients.
                                                                                                                    Making changes happen
                                                                     Implementing these actions will help              By understanding the sources and
                                                                   land managers increase sustainability and        movement of pollutants, CSIRO research
       Great catchment: The Great Barrier Reef                     improve water quality.                           is helping to inform the design of
       catchment covers 423,000km2 and features
       30 major rivers and hundreds of small streams.
                                                                     CSIRO scientists have been working             management practices to improve water
                                                                   with government agencies, regional               quality in the GBR. In turn, analysis of the
                                                                   Natural Resource Management (NRM)                efficiency and cost-effectiveness of these
                                                                   bodies, local councils, industry and land        practices is helping to ensure the
       sources, such as grazing, sugarcane                         holders to identify and test the                 productivity    and      sustainability    of
       and horticulture.                                           environmental, social and economic costs         agricultural land uses is maintained.
                                                                   and benefits of implementing these                  Through this work, CSIRO hopes to
       Sediment                                                    management actions.                              make the difficult task of selecting and
          The main source of sediment in GBR                         Grazing is the major agricultural industry     prioritising actions for water quality
       waterways is erosion on grazing lands,                      in northern Queensland. It supports              improvement easier and scientifically
       which also causes land degradation.                         economic activities and urban centres            defensible.
       Scientists have been investigating the                      throughout 90 per cent of the GBR                   Improving water quality in the GBR
       various types of erosion in the catchment                   catchment. It adds more than $3 billion to       relies on continued contributions and
       and establishing how each contributes to                    the national economy annually and employs        commitments from many different groups
       sediment loads. This information will help                  nearly 9000 people. However, grazing is also     and individuals, ranging from federal and
       identify land management changes that will                  the source of more than 80% of end-of-           state governments through to individual
       most effectively reduce sediment loads.                     catchment sediment and particulate nutrient      land managers.
          In the Burdekin catchment, for example,                  (nutrient bound to sediment) loads.                 By working together to develop, prioritise
       scientists used field monitoring and aerial                   Research undertaken in a Burdekin River        and       implement       improved      land
       photographs to study where sediment came                    sub-catchment showed, in that area at least,     management practices, we are giving the
       from and how it travelled through the                       sediment control requires increased              Great Barrier Reef the best chance of long-
       system. They discovered that the primary                    vegetation cover, particularly of perennial      term survival.
       source of fine suspended sediment was                       grass species, and improved pasture
       gully erosion. This indicates that prioritising             condition and soil health. Management            aCKnoWLEDGEMEnt this article is adapted
       management actions that target this type of                 practices that help deliver these                from Henderson, F. and Kroon, F. (2009)
       erosion will lead to the greatest reduction in              requirements should therefore be made a          overview of CSIRo Water Quality Research
       sediment loads.                                             priority. They may include appropriate           in the Great Barrier Reef, 2003–2008. CSIRo:
                                                                   stocking rates, wet season spelling to           Water for a Healthy Country national Research
       Nutrients                                                   improve pasture condition, forage budgeting      Flagship. Copies of the report are available
          The nutrients that cause the most concern                to ensure cover levels are adequate from         from CSIRo or can be downloaded at
       in the GBR are nitrogen and phosphorus.                     year to year, and preventing selective 
       The main sources of dissolved inorganic                     overgrazing of preferred areas in the            overview.html.
       nutrients are fertilisers used on agricultural              landscape. A practical information pack
       land and effluents from point sources, such                 outlining the findings from this research
       as sewage treatment plants. High nutrient                   and the associated Best Management
       levels can lead to algal blooms, which can                  Practices was produced by CSIRO and the           CSIRO research
       harm reef ecosystems.                                       Queensland Department of Employment,
                                                                   Economic Development and Innovation               ContaCt Fiona Henderson,
          Research on nutrient sources from                                                                          CSIRo Water for a Healthy
       grazing land shows that the surface soil from               and distributed to about 1200 graziers in
                                                                                                                     Country Flagship
       hillslope erosion contains more nutrients                   the Burdekin region.
                                                                                                                         (07) 3214 2653
       than the subsoil from bank and gully erosion.                 While grazing dominates inland areas of   
       This suggests that prioritising management                  the GBR catchment, sugarcane production

  32 Farming Ahead February 2010 No. 217

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