You know there’s an election around the corner in Queensland when politicians get emotional and angry about the Great Barrier Reef. The Labor Government has been in power in Queensland for the past 10 years and the previous Premier, Peter Beattie, told us if it hadn’t been for his policies we wouldn’t have a reef. But on Premier Bligh’s watch things must have slipped as she is intent on saving it all over again.
There’s nothing wrong with expecting farmers to use ‘best practice’ in the management of their county, to minimise erosion and nutrient loss, that’s simply good farming and you’d be hard pressed to find a farmer who didn’t agree with that. However to promote the notion that there are significant numbers of farmers who aren’t concerned about the environment and are doing the wrong thing is handling the truth recklessly, even if it wasn’t a fact that they can’t afford to waste fertiliser, chemicals or soil.
According to Townsville’s Dr Walter Starck (a coral reef specialist with more than 40 years of self funded Great Barrier Reef research behind him) there is no evidence the reef is in danger of anything. He told the North Queensland Register that in the 1990s the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority commissioned the “Williams Report” that reviewed all the research on water quality and it concluded the reef was in ‘pristine condition’ and since then farming practices have improved. “The Great Barrier Reef is under water, remote and mostly inaccessible, so politicians can claim anything they like, but they’ve never been able to produce any evidence of agriculture damaging the reef, it’s all theoretical,” he said. The precautionary theory reigns – ‘there may not be a problem at the moment but if we don’t do something the reef will die,’ its called ‘political cheap shots’ the greatest publicity for the least cost.
Dr Starck points out the nutrient and sediment levels in water coming out of rainforests contain much higher levels of soil and nitrates than from farming land, so farmers should be being paid for their water purification activities.
That was shown last year when water from the Proserpine Dam used to irrigate sugarcane in the Kelsey Creek area contained more nutrients than the water leaving the cane blocks. The cane and its trash blanket were acting as a filter.
Dr Starck said the time of the year the readings are taken can markedly skew the figures. For instance, water sampled from streams at the end of the dry season, when they are not flowing, can contain quite high nutrient levels, however once the wet season breaks the dilution rate is so great that at the river mouth they are barely detectable.
One of the reasons the scare campaign about the reef needing to be saved is able to be promulgated is because of the technological advances in detecting things like nitrates or herbicides. Traces down to parts per billion can now be found but to kill a weed with diuron for instance, you need to spray 1.8kg of active ingredient over each hectare. By the time any of it got into a creek it would be at such a low concentration it wouldn’t be able to kill a fern, let alone by the time it got into the ocean.
On October 8, Premier Anna Bligh released the 2007 Water Quality Report for the Great Barrier Reef. She pointed out the Reef area covers 348,000 square kilometres (34.8 million hectares) and said: “Over the last 150 years the catchments of the Great Barrier Reef have been extensively developed for agriculture, grazing, tourism, mining and urban settlement, which has led to a significant increase in the quantity of sediments, nutrients and pesticides being pumped into the Reef.” Maybe a better choice of words would have been – finding their way into the GBR lagoon, rather than ‘pumped into the reef.” But her speech writers obviously wanted her to get the greatest bang for her buck and considered “pumped” would shock people into supporting her with votes so she could be there to SAVE the REEF.
Premier Bligh said the 2007 Water Quality Report for the Great Barrier Reef clearly showed the situation was still not good enough and river monitoring in priority catchments show an estimated:
* 6.6 million tonnes of sediment discharged in the reef lagoon – four times higher than estimated pre-European settlement levels;
* 16,600 tonnes of nitrogen – five times higher than estimated pre-European settlement levels; and
* 4180 tonnes of phosphorous – four times higher than estimated pre-European settlement levels.
We’ll assume those figures apply to the amount reaching the ocean each year and provided they are not exaggerated, they are alarming – until you work out what that means on a per hectare basis:
* 6.6 million tonnes of sediment over 34.8 million hectares equals 19kg of soil/ha – you could carry more than that with a bucket in each hand.
* 16,600 tonnes of nitrogen is 460 grams/N/hectare; and
* 4180 tonnes of phosphate is 120 grams/P/ha or 19 handfuls of 12pc phosphate fertiliser over each 10,000 square metres of water surface area – imagine how diluted that would be within the water column.
According to Professor Starck if it wasn’t for the sediment and nutrients being washed into the reef lagoon each wet season, the sea grass and marine plants would be a lot less healthy than they are.
Obviously the Premier has either been duped by the Green movement, is scrambling for their preferences or she didn’t bother to do her sums, as she immediately discussed the matter with the Prime Minister and met with Environment Minister Peter Garrett and said: “We have agreed to update the Plan and give it more grunt.”
That resulted in last weeks joint Commonwealth/State Reef Water Quality Summit at Parliament House where she brought together “the best minds from environmental and scientific fields to study the latest data and discuss what urgent action we need to take to prevent the demise of the Reef, which will help determine funding priorities and action areas for our Government.”
Unusually for a Labor Government, primary producer organisations were invited to the talk fest but they came away disappointed.
Canegrowers reaction being: “Today’s reef summit bought to the fore a State Government which was out of step with the Federal Government, industry, research agencies and stakeholder groups involved in managing the health of the iconic Great Barrier Reef. The State Government has promised another high level committee and the imposition of a regulatory framework, but did not make any commitment to resources,” said CEO Ian Ballantyne. “The farming community has worn the Government’s wrath for the failure of the 10 year Reef Plan – a plan that did not include industry from its inception and one that provided good intentions but no resources or implementation.
The Queensland Farmers Federation: “Premier Anna Bligh’s plan to impose new laws on farmers in the State’s Reef catchments threatens to undermine the Federal Government’s $200 million Reef Rescue Plan to accelerate uptake of best farming practice and will likely result in worse water quality outcomes on the Reef,” said chief executive John Cherry. “The Premier’s plan to outlaw so-called ‘bad’ practice would create an environment of acrimony and uncertainty which will make it very difficult to get farmers to engage with the voluntary best practice programs set to be ramped up with Reef Rescue Plan.
Growcom was in two minds: the organisation welcomed the “funding to tackle Reef issues” particularly the Federal Government announcement of an initial allocation of $23 million to natural resource management (NRM) and industry groups under the Reef Rescue Plan. However Growcom chief advocate Mark Panitz added “The Premier has largely singled out farmers as responsible for damage to the Great Barrier Reef in what we believe is a smokescreen for the Queensland Government’s own lack of action and commitment to funding real solutions under the Reef water quality plan launched in 2003.
“The government is now calling for regulation despite there being no scientific justification for such a position. Even in the Government’s own recently released scientific consensus statement, a close reading reveals an emphasis on improving information for growers and incentives to change practice rather than regulation.'”
So where from here? Premier Bligh is obviously wanting to create an image of herself as the Captain at the Helm, in total control of the ship, to appeal to unthinking and uninformed voters.
Meanwhile to achieve positive outcomes, primary industry organisations have linked with the Federal Government and regional natural resource management (NRM) groups to develop a new Reef Rescue program.
It will have clear actions and targets to increase the use of good practice activities in reef catchments. Like the Rural Water Use Efficiency program which was delivered under contractual arrangements with the Department of Natural Resources and Water that achieved significant advances over recent years.
Mr Panitz saying “A partnership with the Queensland Government on reef and water quality could significantly add to the Reef Rescue program and would be much more productive than divisive statements in the media and a sledge hammer regulatory approach without consultation.”
It is now up to the Premier to decide whether to use the whip or the carrot to achieve her aims. Either way there will be more taxpayers’ money available to primary producers to fund a proportion of the cost of on-farm improvement.
Mackay, North Queensland
This post is a longer version of an article first published in The North Queensland Register and is republished here with permission.
Enjoyingthe blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef off Cairns in April 2006. Photograph taken by Jennifer Marohasy.