Addressing water quality improvement targets impacting the Great Barrier Reef through activities such as improved farming practices, reduced fertiliser use and uptake of new technology and land management practices.
#Improving the quality of water entering our Reef.
Budget: $200.6 million
Declining water quality associated with run-off from the adjacent catchments is a major cause of the current poor state of many of the coastal and marine ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef (more on this here).
Almost half of the Reef Trust Partnership funding is allocated to contributing to efforts aimed at addressing water quality issues. Improving water quality is expected to play an important role in improving ecosystem resilience.
The Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan identifies priority catchments and targets for reducing pollution from catchments flowing to the Reef. Funding under the Reef Trust Partnership aims to deliver measurable progress towards those targets.
#End of Partnership Outcomes
The Reef Trust Partnership’s Water Quality component will result in:
Enduring reduction in long-term end-of-catchment pollutant loads
Innovations for system change in water quality improvement made available
Maintenance of water quality from less disturbed catchments
Increase in Traditional Owner-led water quality improvement projects
Transparency and accountability are key guiding principles for the Foundation in delivering the Reef Trust Partnership.
A series of interactive dashboards has been developed as part of our Monitoring and Evaluation Plan. The dashboards are updated every six months to demonstrate progress towards meeting End-of-Partnership Outcomes. The following dashboard provides a snapshot of key progress areas that deliver the Water Quality Component’s End of Partnership Outcomes.
Find out more about the RTP progress dashboards in these Frequently Asked Questions.
Our five-year plan for the Water Quality component includes the following six Partnership Activities:
Budget: $19.2* million
Significant on-ground resources are required to deliver activities to make progress towards water quality targets. The first funding released under the Reef Trust Partnership Water Quality Component was via a round of water quality grants, focused on projects that would maintain or build on-ground delivery capacity throughout the Reef catchments.
Budget: $138.1* million
Ten regional water quality programs are underway to directly reduce dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN), sediment and pesticide loads from priority Reef catchments. The program are focusing on proven, on-ground measures for improving water quality including catchment restoration and improved land management practices. These 10 programs are expected to result in 456 fewer tonnes of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN), 250 fewer kilograms of pesticides and 462 fewer kilotonnes of sediment entering the Reef every year from 2024.
Budget: $10 million
This funding aims to maintain and/or improve the quality of water entering the Reef from less-disturbed catchments. $8.5 million has been allocated to the Eastern Cape York Water Quality Program, which will enhance knowledge of water quality and related ecosystem health in the region and reduce pollutants flowing from the Cape to the Reef. Other investment is being made into better understanding the role of wetlands in reducing nutrients entering the Reef. This will be used to assist the prioritisation of wetland restoration.
Budget: $10 million
There is a need for a transformational change in how water quality improvement activities are designed, funded and implemented. We are supporting activities aimed at making this change a reality.
Traditional Owner-led water quality activities
Budget: $20 million
Direct investment in Traditional Owner Country-based planning and management for improved water quality outcomes.
Budget: $3.3* million
Technical expertise is required to guide program design and implementation, to
ensure the quality of on- ground actions, to manage project data, and to validate outcomes. There are also opportunities to leverage project activities to maximise scientific learning and to support capacity building on the ground.
* Prior to the release of the Annual Work Plan 2021-2022, costs associated with technical advisory work (including the investment pathways consultancy undertaken by Alluvium Consulting) have been embedded within the relevant Partnership Activities. For ease of administration and to improve transparency, these costs are now shown separately. The Technical Advisory budget consists primarily of a re-allocation of 2% of the budget for the regional programs, noting these funds will continue to be used to support those programs.
Under the overarching Partnership Activities in our Annual Work plan sits a suite of Projects.
Projects include both our impact-driven, largely on-ground actions being delivered by our more than 200 partners, as well as a small number of enabling and supporting activities that together, will achieve the End of Partnership Outcomes.
Below is a summary of the on-ground projects funded so far under the Water Quality component.
Qld Cane Growers Organisation Ltd
Region: Wet Tropics, Mackay, Burdekin and Southern Reef catchment regions
This behaviour change program uses co-design principals to elicit improved practises through accreditation in the SmartCane Best Management Program and other forms of commitment towards improved practices. This phase of the project will build on the existing program in the Wet Tropics and initiate new programs in Mackay, Burdekin and Southern Regions.
Sugar Research Australia
Region: Mossman, Mulgrave-Russell, Johnstone, Murray, Herbert and Haughton catchments
Work on farms with small cane grower groups to address nitrogen and pesticides. The program breaks down the barriers between scientists and growers, maximises peer-to-peer learning opportunities and improves understanding of the drivers of water quality impacts.
Queensland Farmers' Federation
Region: Very high, high and moderate priority Reef catchments as outlined in the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan (from Burdekin to the Burnett Mary)
This project will increase the delivery capacity related to agronomic extension by training early career extension officers (agricultural experts) in practices relevant to addressing sediment, nitrogen and pesticide runoff. The project will involve a 12-month placement of up to eight early career extension officers.
Mary River Catchment Coordinating Committee
Region: Mary River catchment
Addresses sediment discharge to the Great Barrier Reef lagoon through gully restoration on grazing land. The project will also work with graziers to increase awareness and actively manage lands that are susceptible to erosion through the adoption of best land management practices.
Region: Lower Burdekin
This project aims to reduce the amount of sediment discharging to the Great Barrier Reef lagoon by approximately 3,200 tonnes per annum through remediation of alluvial gullies by using established techniques. In addition, the project will aim to pilot the Reef Credit system and investigate how Reef Credits could be used to fund gully remediation works and ongoing maintenance requirements.
Farmacist Pty Ltd
Region: Haughton, Pioneer and O’Connell Rivers and Plane Creek catchment areas
This project reduces the run-off of pesticides into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon through the adoption of improved sugarcane farming practices. The project will directly engage over 70 growers, managing over 12,000 hectares of land, in the catchments of Haughton, Pioneer, O’Connell Rivers and Plane Creek identified as high-priority in the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan.
Region: Barrata Creek System (Burdekin River Irrigation Area)
Farmer (cane) led project which raises awareness and drives practice change through improved fertiliser application, modifying pesticide type and quantity and improving irrigation efficiency.
Catchment Solutions Pty Ltd
Region: Wet Tropics, Burdekin and Mackay/Whitsunday regions
Supports a network of cane farmers in the Reef catchments to improve farming practices to reduce nutrient run-off to the Reef. This is achieved by focusing on soil testing, nutrient management plans and implementation of controlled traffic management systems (reducing soil compaction by confining heavy machinery to permanent traffic lanes).
Resource Consulting Services Australia
Region: Very high, high and moderate-priority Reef catchments as outlined in the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan
Project Pioneer promotes the adoption of regenerative grazing operations to increase ground cover in grazing lands and reduce sediment in run-off to the Great Barrier Reef. In addition to the improved water quality entering the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, other environmental outcomes include reduction in carbon loss from soils, increased biodiversity on-farm, particularly soil and aquatic life, and increased landscape resilience to the effects of climate change.
Queensland Farmers' Federation
Region: Very high, high and moderate-priority Reef catchments as outlined in the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan (Wet Tropics, Burdekin, Mackay/Whitsundays, Fitzroy and Burnett Mary)
Supports cane farmers and graziers by using one-to-one agricultural experts (extension officers) to move 462 land holders, covering 209,750 hectares, towards best practice to reduce sediment, nitrogen and pesticides.
NQ Dry Tropics
This project will produce dedicated and specific education, training, capacity-building and incentives that will take 12 grazing landholders on a progressive journey towards techniques that proactively manage stock grazing pressure and minimise the potential for declining land condition leading to reduced sediment run-off. The project will also result in a further 50 landholders using increased knowledge and skills to apply management changes to improve the quality of water discharged from their property.
Ten regional water quality programs investing $138.1 million across more than a dozen Reef catchments are detailed below, from north to south.
$6.2 million is being invested to address dissolved inorganic nitrogen in this Wet Tropics catchment. Reef and Rainforest Research Centre (RRRC) have been appointed as Program Manager and CANEGROWERS Cairns as Partnership Coordinator, with project proposals for this program currently being assessed.
$11.6 million is being invested to address dissolved inorganic nitrogen in this Wet Tropics catchment.
Terrain NRM has been appointed as both Program Manager and Partnership Coordinator, and proposals for projects under this program are currently being assessed.
The $3.45 million Upper Herbert Water Quality Program aims to improve water quality on the Reef by preventing 4,082 tonnes of fine sediments leaving the catchment each year.
Improved water quality will be achieved via a combination of gully remediation, streambank remediation and improving grazing management practices.
The program is employing a range of measures, including installation of pile-fields, infill and reshaping/battering of streambanks, revegetation and hillslope or sheet erosion grazing management practice change. The project will focus on land condition improvement, an enhanced understanding of soil and grassland systems and rotational grazing methodologies.
The Herbert River is one of the highest priorities under the Reef 2050 plan for reducing runoff of dissolved inorganic nitrogen. Responding to this challenge, the $16.2 million Lower Herbert Water Quality program is aiming to prevent 140 tonnes of dissolved inorganic nitrogen from entering the Reef's waters every year.
The Lower Herbert Water Quality Program is working with sugarcane farmers to increase understanding of farm management practices that improve productivity, profitability and sustainability of their farms.
The program draws on a series of established and trusted local delivery providers to support sugarcane farmers to better manage nutrient and pesticide inputs to best suite their crop and business requirements and to reduce nutrient and pesticide losses as runoff.
This $20.4 million Lower Burdekin program is supporting a series of projects focused on substantially reducing dissolved organic nitrogen and pesticide run-off, via a range of activities aimed at improving farming practices, as well as through the construction of wetlands.
The program aims to prevent 48 tonnes of dissolved inorganic nitrogen and 35kg of pesticides from entering the Reef's waters every year. Program delivery will be managed locally by NQ Dry Tropics, which has been appointed Program Manager and Partnership Coordinator.
Projects will support growers in maximising profitability by delivering precision agriculture data and extension programs, customised farm pesticide management plans, end-of-field water quality monitoring and nitrogen and irrigation use efficiencies. Constructed wetlands will be integrated with irrigation scheme infrastructure and cane production systems to further reduce dissolved inorganic nitrogen run-off, enhance wetland ecosystem function and improve agricultural production outcomes.
The $5.5 million Upper and East Burdekin program aims to reduce long-term annual run-off of fine sediment by 49,000 tonnes per year by supporting landholders to adopt grazing practices that maintain and encourage improvement of end-of-dry-season ground cover.
The program will support one-on-one extension, peer-to-peer programs and targeted on-ground works in high-priority areas. This will include delivering property management plans that pinpoint highly erosive landscape features and grazing management practices, identify action plans to address degraded landscapes and establish monitoring sites to assess progress. Producer groups will be established to deliver shared local ideas, develop project efficiencies and implement strategies for intervening in water quality issues at a sub-catchment level. A competitive incentive program will be used to support landholders to adopt practice changes that demonstrate large-scale water quality outcomes.
The Burdekin River Basin is the highest priority under the Reef 2050 plan for reducing fine sediment to Reef. Within the basin, the Bowen, Broken and Bogie catchments are the dominant source of fine sediment and particulate nitrogen.
The $25.9 million Bowen Broken Bogie (BBB) program aims to prevent 330,000 tonnes of fine sediment entering the Reef lagoon every year.
The $22.7 million Mackay Whitsunday program aims to improve the quality of water flowing from the Pioneer and Plane Creek catchments. The program is aiming to stop at least 26 tonnes of dissolved inorganic nitrogen and 215 kilograms of pesticides from entering the Reef’s waters every year.
The program is focused on working with landholders in the cane industry to improve nutrient management, pesticide management and irrigation practices, while also improving productivity and profitability. Growers will receive agronomic and technical support, as well as limited financial incentives, to address barriers to change. The program aims to establish enduring economic drivers to maintain best practice that will lead to ongoing water quality improvement.
Fitzroy Basin Association
The $19.6 million Fitzroy program aims to stop 50,000 tonnes of fine sediment from the Fitzroy River basin entering the Reef’s waters every year.
The program is supporting a series of projects focused on improving landscape function through remediation of degraded land, including gullies and streambanks and improving land management, particularly of grazing and cropping lands. The program will run until June 2024.
Fitzroy Basin Association has been appointed as Partnership Coordinator and will lead coordination between the on-ground projects, as well as engagement with landholders and other stakeholders in the region.
The $9.4 million Mary River program is being implemented by a consortium led by the Burnett Mary Regional Group, which includes the Mary River Catchment Coordinating Committee and Alluvium Consulting Australia. The program also involves a number of other organisations, including local Landcare groups, councils, SEQwater and the Butchulla Land & Sea Rangers.
The program will involve large-scale restoration of eroding riverine areas, revegetation work, community engagement activities and Traditional Owner involvement. These activities will deliver directly against the targets identified in the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan. Other benefits from the program will include building on existing on-ground projects, improving grazing practices, comprehensive monitoring and evaluation and communications and promotion.
#Innovation and system change
$10 million is funding 20 projects across four priority areas: technology transformation, sharing and management of industry and landholder-owned data, broad and local-scale planning of future interventions and innovative financing and funding initiatives.
Testing a world-first insurance product – prototype nitrogen (N) insurance – to help farmers manage the risk of reduced yields from reduced fertiliser application. If successful, it will overcome a significant barrier to the adoption of reduced nitrogen rates.
The project is working with farmers and industry in the Wet Tropics to build knowledge, understanding and trust in the N insurance product and evaluate its commercial viability. The potential for such insurance to drive water quality improvement is huge – it could result in a 30 kg/ha reduction in nitrogen applied to half of the cane area in GBR catchments. This would see a reduction of dissolved inorganic nitrogen discharge of up to 1,000 tonnes per year and substantial improvements in water quality.
Natural Capital Economics
This project aims to develop a comprehensive understanding of the socio-economic benefits and costs of broad-scale, targeted land use redefinition that improves outcomes for our Reef, economic viability of agriculture and social resilience for communities. It is also assessing how such a redefinition process could work in conjunction with other initiatives and emerging environmental product markets to "crowd in" co-investment from a broader suite of sources.
This innovative project illustrates how biophysical, social and economic data can inform a more strategic, evidence-based approach to managing the catchments surrounding the Reef.
Australian farms have traditionally been passed on to the next family members, with family farms forming the cornerstone of the farming community and economy. However, the ability to retain and attract next-generation farmers is getting harder.
Working together with Herbert Cane Productivity Services, Cultivate farms will help eliminate the biggest barrier to farm ownership for next generations – access to capital and land – by matching aspiring (next-generation) farmers with those looking to retire from the land. The transition will also be linked to improved management practises, which will result in improved water quality outcomes for our Reef.
NQ NRM Alliance
The Reef Credit Scheme is a world-first market-based mechanism that will improve water quality flowing to the Great Barrier Reef. Landowners generate and sell Reef Credits that result from audited agricultural and land improvement activities improving the quality of water flowing to our Reef. The Reef Credit is a tradable, verified unit of pollution reduction that can be sold to a range of buyers such as government, corporate and philanthropic entities.
This project will transition the existing Reef Credit Scheme architecture from its current start-up phase to a fully independent governance structure administering the Scheme. The scheme will be managed by Eco-Markets Australia Limited, which will be Australia’s first non-government environmental markets administrator.
Agersens Pty Ltd
In a world-first, Agersens is showing how virtual fencing technology can protect our Reef from the tonnes of sediment run-off caused by eroding gullies and streambanks affecting the quality of its water.
The meandering nature of waterways and the impact of floods and fires makes installing and maintaining conventional fencing costly. eShepherd is a new agricultural technology that allows farmers to establish virtual fences in challenging terrain typically unsuitable for traditional fencing. This technology is being trialled in the Burdekin catchment to control and move cattle from selected locations to demonstrate the viability and cost-effectiveness of the virtual fencing approach.
Collaborating with the University of Southern Queensland to address a gap in knowledge on the effects of regenerative grazing practices on land, soil and run-off to help improve landscape condition and water quality. Grazing represents up to 80% of the land use draining to the Reef so if the positive benefits can be quantified, this approach could be used to accelerate landscape recovery and improve run-off and water quality for a healthy Reef.
Partnering with Fugro to fill a major gap in understanding of the source of fine sediment erosion that is degrading Queensland rivers and the Reef. This project will provide unprecedented access to 620 terabytes of privately-held data collected for powerline asset management, equivalent to 71 years of continuous Netflix streaming.
Novel techniques in data handling will repurpose this big dataset for landscape analyses to measure and monitor riverbank and gully erosion. Unlocking this information will provide a technological breakthrough to significantly improve our ability to identify, quantify and prioritise erosion sites for Reef-wide water quality management.
Significant funding has been spent in recent years on pile field groynes as part of streambank restoration projects that aim to reduce sediment running off the Reef. Timber pile field groynes are a biodegradable engineering approach used to stabilise streambanks and aid native riparian vegetation establishment.
This project is exploring improvements to the design of pile field groynes based on empirical data and advanced three-dimensional hydrodynamic modelling approaches, which will result in more cost-effective sediment reduction programs that improve the health of our Reef.
Erosion control projects can achieve larger reductions in sediment running off to the Reef by targeting the most actively eroding sites. This project will provide greater information for agencies and landholders to engage in erosion control, allowing for better targeted and more cost-effective water quality improvement projects in the future.
CSIRO will combine multi-resolution and computationally efficient approaches to map and assess the erosion hazard of individual gully and stream bank features across large LiDAR terrain datasets.
Department of Environment and Science
Supporting the Queensland Herbarium to deliver a wetland capture app that will provide a service that verifies the types of wetlands in landscapes and provides a curated package of wetland and weed species management information tailored to those wetlands.
This will provide landholders with information to support wetland management planning to conserve or enhance wetland biodiversity and productivity. Compiling this information will contribute to more effective system repair planning and management at local, regional and state scales that will improve the quality of water flowing to our Reef.
Jaragun Pty Ltd
Partnering with the Qld Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy to use state-of-the-art electromagnetic induction (EMI) technology, combined with conventional soil surveys, to develop detailed soil maps required by the sugarcane industry to implement precision nutrient management for a reduction in pollutants running off into the Reef, while improving farm productivity.
This project will provide a repeatable methodology with the mapping products immediately available to support industry implementation of Six Easy Steps across the Wet Tropics – a Great Barrier Reef hotspot for dissolved inorganic nitrogen run-off.
James Cook University
Over-irrigating not only increases the costs associated to water and electricity, but also increases pollutant run-off threatening the health of our Reef. Together we are accelerating improved irrigation practices and driving new ways to finance water quality improvements by developing a tool that allows growers to readily identify the implications of different irrigation approaches for farm economics, as well as linkages to opportunities for green finance.
The INCENTIV8 tool is initially being trialled in the Burdekin irrigation district and serves as a boundary object to navigate conversations, converge thinking from different stakeholders and bridge the gap between better irrigation management and sustainable finance.
Current practices in determining nutrient requirements for banana plantations are based on maximising production, but do not account for changes in soils or growing conditions which can lead to pollutants running off into our Reef’s waters. This project is delivering plantation yield variation maps to growers which allows them to best match the inputs of nutrients and water to the yield potential of their crops. This approach has shown a reduction of fertiliser use by more than 25% in other tropical crops, resulting in an improvement in the quality of our Reef’s waters.
Australian Seaweed Institute
Collaborating with Central Queensland University to develop a transformational technology for seaweed which will help protect our Reef.
Through a network of seaweed biofilters between the coast and the Reef, nitrogen and carbon dioxide would be captured by the seaweed and then harvested for use in products such as biofertiliser. This circular economy innovation is anticipated to provide a significant opportunity for new jobs and economic development in regional Queensland, while improving water quality.
Joint Sugar Research Australia and CSIRO
Working with Wet Tropics sugarcane growers to test the effectiveness of Enhanced Efficiency Fertilisers (EEFs), as they closely match the nitrogen requirements of growing crops by releasing nitrogen over time. On-farm evaluation and modelled "virtual experiments", coupled with data mining and machine learning, will identify where and when nitrogen losses are reduced by using EEFs.
The ability to better match nutrient supply with crop uptake will see a reduction in nitrogen running off farms into the Reef’s waters, while maintaining productivity and potentially improving profitability.
Developing a cost-effective, low-maintenance nitrate sensor to monitor dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN). A major source of DIN is fertiliser from farms in the Reef catchments so it is important to collect nitrate data at farm level to enable changes in upstream farming management practices, in order to reduce the amount of DIN running off into the Reef’s waters.
This sensor makes use of an innovative UV-C source which is dramatically cheaper and smaller than the lamps and optics it replaces and tackles challenges with calibration drift.
James Cook University
Together we will lower herbicide run-off into the Reef and reduce costs for farmers, by creating new smart weed detection and spraying systems that will reduce herbicide usage on sugarcane farms by at least 80%. Partnering with AutoWeed and Sugar Research Australia, the technology will initially be trialled in the Burdekin and uses deep learning to detect and spray weeds without hitting crops, supporting a healthy Reef.
Trialling a new multi-species crops concept in sugarcane that is cost-effective and can benefit soil health and improve water quality from better crop uptake of applied nutrients and reduced water run-off that carries pollutants to our Reef’s waters.
This farmer-driven project is being undertaken in the Mackay-Whitsundays region and will modify existing equipment cost-effectively to simultaneously plant different seed sizes, while undertaking existing paddock operations. This practical, affordable equipment will increase adoption of multi-species cropping and will improve water quality run-off.
It has long been known that the sediment running off land into the Reef’s waters also contains nutrient pollutants, but the relationship is unclear. As a result, the selection and design of gully restoration projects are typically focused only on reducing the amount of sediment run-off.
This innovative approach is investigating if large-scale gully remediation projects that reduce significant amounts of sediment run-off are also reducing nutrient pollution, therefore enabling the greatest cuts to Reef pollution from any investment.
The Nature Conservancy
Underpinned by a long history of successful impact investment, Kilter Rural and The Nature Conservancy Australia are developing a detailed business case for establishing a globally significant impact investment fund – “The Farmland to Reef Regeneration Fund” for the Great Barrier Reef.
The ultimate goal will be to establish a fund with market capitalization of $1 billion dollars, with a view to investing in agriculture in the Reef catchments to both produce a return on investment, as well as achieve significant water quality improvements on those properties.
#Reports and Publications
Effective and Efficient Pathways for Investment in Improved Water Quality in the Great Barrier Reef - Final Report
This Investment Pathways Project provides a key input into a broader decision-making process associated with the development of the five-year Investment Strategy (and Annual Work Plan) for the Water Quality Component of the Reef Trust Partnership. Specifically, this project aimed to develop a quantitative assessment of the most cost-effective catchment management actions (built to collectively form a scenario or investment pathway) in 46 reporting basins within the Great Barrier Reef catchments, and a data visualisation tool to support the comparison of the investment scenarios.
Social factors influencing practice change in sugarcane landholders - Final report
Not all landholders are the same and within the cane growing sector different farmer community profiles exist. GBRF commissioned Mosaic Insights to conduct social science research to build a deeper understanding of the social context of sugarcane landholders in Reef regions, and identify how different social factors might enable or inhibit practice change. The findings are relevant not only to RTP but broadly to any water quality improvement program. This project builds on previous work using a mixed method approach with quantitative survey data and qualitative interview data.
This report was independently reviewed. For more detail please contact GBRF water quality team members.
A framework to inform practice change strategies in the Mackay Whitsunday and Lower Burdekin sugarcane regions - Final report
This report describes the key behaviour influences that impact the adoption of water quality improvement practices among sugar cane growers and the factors that influence grower participation in projects funded by the RTP. With this gained understanding, it builds a framework to support practice change strategies for improved water quality, which are relevant not only to RTP but more broadly.
This report was independently reviewed. For more detail please contact GBRF water quality team members.
#Technical Advisory Group
The Foundation has established a panel of technical experts to support the work on water quality improvement. The panel includes expertise in water and catchment science, agriculture, environmental engineering, economics and behavioural science. We welcome expressions of interest from suitably-qualified experts for inclusion on the panel.