Immediate benefits to end-users from Tropical Water Quality Hub investments in one of Australia’s premier sugarcane and tourism regions

Industries and businesses of many kinds in the Burdekin and Mackay-Whitsunday region are benefiting from the Australian Government’s investment in the National Environmental Science Programme’s Tropical Water Quality Hub (NESP TWQ).

Many NESP TWQ projects are helping the region’s $600m million PA sugar industry increase productivity while improving efficiency and reducing waste.

Aaron Linton. Image courtesy of CANEGROWERS

Aaron Linton is a third-generation cane grower from Leichhardt Downs in the Burdekin River Irrigation Area, near Home Hill. In partnership with NESP TWQ researchers, he is trialling an innovative software-driven automated irrigation system on his property that is more efficient than conventional systems. Aaron says the outcomes of the project are vital to protect both the Great Barrier Reef and his bottom line.

“What it’s doing is taking the guesswork out of irrigation, which is a big thing for us considering how high electricity prices are,” Aaron said.

“On top of that if you’re not putting more water downstream than you have to, you’ve got less of your nitrogen getting out to the Reef, so there’s both an environmental and an economic benefit in it for growers. Personally I’d like to see [this new system] get up across the whole industry.”

The Hub has other cane-related projects including ‘Project 25’, which was personally announced by then-Environment Minister Greg Hunt in September 2014 after discussion with growers.

In the past, water quality scientists have sampled water at an ‘end of catchment scale’ (at the river mouth) and measured pollutants like sediment, nitrogen and pesticides, then used modelling to determine their source. This method failed to distinguish between growers that followed environmental best practice and other possible sources of pollutants such as towns and civil infrastructure, leading to a lack of engagement with farmers.

Project 25 is changing this dynamic by getting cane farmers involved in the water quality monitoring process. These sampling sites include where rivers leave native rainforest, leaving canefields and finally at the river mouth. This technique is enabling a much more accurate monitoring of river water content, in turn allowing participating farmers to check if they are wasting valuable fertilizer or pesticides through excess runoff.

Other agriculture-related projects in the region include gully remediation using minesite techniques – erosion from alluvial gullies is a major problem for both the Great Barrier Reef and famers,

destroying valuable grazing land and also acting as a major point source of sediment flowing out to the Reef.

Erosion in the Burdekin

One NESP TWQ project tests the cost and effectiveness of various erosion-mitigation techniques in addition to evaluating their impact on the farmer’s bottom line, with the aim of changing the perception that gully and scald management does not offer a lot to the beef enterprise.

Earlier this year, the project team worked with NQ Dry Tropics and Greening Australia to select suitable Reef Trust gully sites in the Upper Burdekin, Bogie and Don River Basins.

This will provide important data that can be used in predictive modelling at both paddock and catchment scales.

Researchers on the project are testing the effectiveness of erosion-stopping techniques such as fencing, native revegetation and ‘stick sausage’ sediment traps at several farms in the Burdekin region.

In addition to its agricultural enterprises, the Whitsundays region is also home to 578 tourism businesses, 42 of which employ 20 or more people, and the industry generates $600-700 million annually for the region. This economic productivity and income is dependent upon the health of the adjoining Great Barrier Reef, and many NESP TWQ projects are working to boost reef resilience. Their findings will be critical in helping preserve the Great Barrier Reef and the tourism industry that it supports in the Whitsundays.

Whitsundays tour operators have spoken regularly about how important preserving the Reef is to their industry. Alan Grundy from Explore Whitsundays says he is very concerned about water quality on the Reef.

Healthy coral reefs fringing the Whitsunday Islands are the basis of the region’s valuable and growing tourism industry. Image courtesy of Suzanne Long

“From a tourism operator’s perspective, my concern is particularly in relation to the quality of the water and the health of the Great Barrier Reef,’ he said.

“The tourists are coming here to snorkel and look at healthy coral.”

A NESP TWQ project at the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s National Sea Simulator Lab (SeaSim) at Cape Ferguson analyses the effect of sediments, turbidity, nutrients, light, salinity and temperature on selected coral species. The advanced technology available at the SeaSim enables researchers to test these conditions with greater accuracy than ever before, allowing them to fill critical ‘knowledge gaps’ about the effects of water quality on coral health and produce maps of water quality thresholds in the Burdekin region.

Research by Tourism Research Australia shows that tourists (especially Queensland tourists) are very sensitive to the idea of stingers at dive sites. Another Tropical Water Quality Hub tourism-related project is developing an ‘early warning system’ for predicting the appearances of Irukandji jellyfish at popular swimming beaches and dive sites.

Our Hub is also managing research into the reproduction and distribution of the Crown of Thorns Starfish, which the Whitsunday Charter Boat Association have identified as a major potential future threat to the local industry.


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