Reef Water Quality: Accelerating Progress


24 FEB 2023

Government investment in reef water quality programs over the past 15 years has been significant but as a recent report to UNESCO reinforces, even though we are making progress, it is still not fast enough.

The millions of dollars invested and the hard work of the agriculture industry, thousands of farmers, traditional owners, scientists, government, NRM organisations and many others working together towards targets has shown that we can make progress.

However, we still need to do more. We have learnt a lot about what works and what doesn’t, and our approach has evolved over time. So what needs to change to shift our current trajectory and accelerate progress?

Many of the solutions already exist, we just need to commit to them long-term. We also need to change our mindset – to ‘how’ we deliver programs rather than ‘what’ we deliver. For example, we need to commit to:

Long-term investment, not stop-start funding cycles  

Maintaining momentum on the ground is very challenging with short stop-start funding programs. The gaps between funding cycles creates a lack of continuity, loss of capacity and loss of trust from farmers.

The recent nine-year funding program commitments by the Australian Government are a welcome step in the right direction from the usual three to four-year programs. However, to achieve the Reef 2050 targets, we need a 25-year coordinated investment program (as occurs in significant infrastructure programs) across the Queensland and Australian governments with bi-partisan support.

Sticking to what works, AND innovation  

We all want to save the Great Barrier Reef and its tempting to focus on finding a magical ‘quick fix’ solution. However, the Reef is the size of Italy or Japan and there’s a 5-10 year time lag between changes made on the land and noticeable improvements in water quality, so it’s going to take time (decades). Innovation is important but we also need to keep consistently doing what we know is working while developing new ideas.

Collaboration, not competition 

The Great Barrier Reef Scientific Taskforce in 2015 highlighted that a lack of coordination and collaboration between programs and delivery providers was undermining progress. We need to continue to build trust, coordination and integration across funding bodies, partners, and projects to maximise our impact. However, the exact opposite is currently occurring as recent government funded programs have focused on competitive tendering for smaller packages of work, which drives organisations to protect their IP and competitive advantage, rather than share it for the public good. Alternative forms of procuring services and outcomes are needed to increase collaboration, as this is by far the better way to ensure effective planning, design and delivery of programs with value for money outcomes.

Place-based solutions, not one-size-fits-all

The traditional top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to repairing the environment doesn’t work. Ecosystems need a ‘whole of system’ approach that is tailored to local contexts. They need to be ‘place-based’. Not only is this more effective, it also enables us to plan for multiple outcomes and benefits for local communities. Place-based approaches which are designed collaboratively with industry, and coupled with certainty of investment over time, will enable us to meet our targets faster and more cost effectively.

Enabling farmers to be a part of the solution

Building strong relationships with farmers, who are essential to these programs and are the stewards of many of our landscapes, is critical. We’ve learnt that one of the best ways to build trust and ‘buy-in’ is to involve landholders in the design and implementation of programs and to provide them with locally relevant and practical water quality monitoring data, which they can use to make management decisions to improve business outcomes for their properties as well as environmental outcomes. Where we can show the evidence of what’s happening in their waterways and soils, they are helping to find solutions. First Nations people also have an important role to play, particularly around healing country and land restoration.

Bridging the funding gap

A study by Alluvium in 2016 concluded that we needed to invest $8.2 billion in the Great Barrier Reef by 2025 to make a significant impact towards the targets. To put this into context, the economic value of the reef is estimated to be $6.4 billion per year, pretty good for an asset we got for free. The Queensland and Australian Governments have committed significant investment ($1.68 billion between 2014-2030), but it is still only a fraction of what is needed to address reef water quality challenges. The Reef is in need of a major refurbishment, rather than a lick of paint.

It’s clear that we need to develop other investment sources besides governments. The Reef Credit Scheme was designed for this purpose, and is still an emerging solution, so we need to stay alert to other innovative options that could help bridge the investment gap.

All of these ‘solutions’ are principles that require us to think differently and have long-term investment plans to provide confidence and certainty for investment. As Einstein said: ‘We can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result’. However, constantly chasing the next silver bullet is also not the answer. Solving reef water quality will not happen overnight and we have a narrowing window of opportunity to accelerate progress, but if we commit to what we know works, with equal focus on refining what we do and supporting innovation, we will get there more quickly.


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