Coastal runoff containing pollutants like pesticide, nitrogen and sediment are heavily suspected to be major cumulative health impacts on the Great Barrier Reef.
As a result, the practices of sugarcane farmers along the Queensland coast have come under heavy focus from science and the media.
This has led to widespread frustration throughout the cane industry, particularly from farmers that feel their efforts in following the SmartCane Best Management Practice (BMP) program have gone unrecognised.
Another grower gripe is that much previous water quality research methodology has centred on modelling impacts from samples taken at an end-of-catchment stage (i.e., at the river mouth or further out to sea), with results unable to differentiate between famers who have reduced their runoff impacts and those who have not. This has led many farmers to withdraw from the conversation with scientists and policymakers, setting back efforts to reduce runoff impacts on Reef Water Quality.
However, a project underway at the Tropical Water Quality Hub aims to break this deadlock and get farmers back involved in the water quality monitoring process.
Project 2.1.7: Engaging with farmers and demonstrating water quality outcomes to create confidence in on-farm decision-making (or “Project 25” for short) is a water quality monitoring project personally launched by the then Minister of the Environment, Greg Hunt in September 2015 that aims to change this dynamic and get growers involved in the process.
The project focuses on using new technology to carry out detailed sub-catchment-scale monitoring of water quality in the Russell-Mulgrave river catchment south of Cairns.
Project 25 will finally allow scientists to form a detailed picture of water quality impacts throughout the catchment based on real-world measurement. This includes sampling at the boundary between native rainforest (where river water is untouched by human activity) and at key points through the river’s course along the coastal plain, including before and after major urban infrastructure such as the Gordonvale sewage facility.
All of this is designed to find out exactly what’s going into the water and exactly where it’s coming from.
The key feature of Project 25 is that cane growers have been from the very beginning, with Tropical Water Quality Hub leaders meeting with growers and industry representatives in Gordonvale earlier in 2016.
Growers such as Barry Stubbs from Miriwinni have been key part of the planning process, identifying the best sampling sites and guiding researchers around his property to get to those sites.
Barry said accurate measurement of water quality was vital to the conservation process.
“We’re starting from scratch with this one,” he said.
“We must have accurate measurement because we don’t know whether the problem’s ours or someone else’s – and that’s one of the reasons farmers haven’t come on board to date because they don’t believe that what they’re getting accused of is actually their problem.
“[Project 25] will get to the basis of it, find out if there’s a problem and, if so, who’s causing it.”
Project leader Dr Aaron Davis emphasised the importance of engagement with the agricultural industry.
“We’re hoping that getting a lot of involvement from canegrowers like Barry Stubbs and other local representatives, we will be able to get some ownership from the industry in this kind of water quality monitoring process.”