Cleaning up runoff onto the Great Barrier Reef: how art and science are inspiring farmers to help

Sarah Hamylton, University of Wollongong and Lucas Ihlein, University of Wollongong

The most recent report card on the Great Barrier Reef’s water quality highlighted major changes that need to be made to meet targets by 2018. Sediment and pollutant runoff from land use have increased 2-3 fold since 1850, largely driven by agricultural land clearing and grazing, while fertiliser used in sugar cane farming contributes to nitrogen runoff.

Runoff increases coral’s sensitivity to bleaching and disease, shifts the balance between coral and algae, leads to a build-up of pollutants in marine species that are long-lived or high in the food web, and increases the chances of crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks.

Improving water quality will likely increase the health of reef organisms, and help reefs to bounce back from disturbances.

Government investment plans need to account properly for the total estimated value of the Great Barrier Reef and past progress in reducing runoff. An estimated A$500 million per year is needed to improve management action.

So what’s the best way to meet these targets? You won’t be surprised to find that scientists are working on the answer. But innovative projects fusing art and science are also appearing in north Queensland.

The problem of collective action

Like many environmental issues, runoff on the Great Barrier Reef is a classic example of a collective action problem. Collective action is at the heart of this issue in two ways.

First, the alongshore transport of sediment and runoff pollutants by currents means that the effects of managing runoff along one section of coastline may be felt elsewhere. The condition of the reef adjacent to a particular river mouth may not, therefore, necessarily reflect the land management within that river’s catchment.

Second, the health of the reef is dependent on other factors, such as bleaching driven by increased sea surface temperatures related to climate change. These are caused by many geographically remote activities (for instance, someone burning coal in London).

Collective action problems can be understood through US academic Garret Hardin’s famous “tragedy of the commons” theory. This theory states that self-interested individuals acting rationally may not behave in the best interests of the whole group.

Hardin used the example of a group of herdsmen allowing their cattle to graze a pasture that is running out of fodder. For an individual herdsman, the cost of removing cattle exceeds the benefit of leaving some pasture for the future, unless other herdsmen also agree to remove cattle.

Similarly, it takes an exceptional individual to reduce their runoff impacts, in light of the agricultural benefits to be gained from activities that increase runoff volume and decrease its quality (such as land clearing and use of fertilizers). This is particularly the case when others are not acting to abate their own activities.

Many farmers say that the Reef 2050 target to reduce runoff by 80% by 2025 is not economically viable. But without acting now, our metaphorical common (the inshore Great Barrier Reef) will continue to degrade.

Best environmental practice

Agriculture is a social and cultural activity, just as much as it is a process of environmental engineering, and the push to transform farming practices needs to recognise this. Top down incentive schemes do have some impact, but could there be a better way?

For instance, for sugar cane growers, the Smartcane Best Management Practice (BMP) Guidelines are an attempt by the industry to shift farming practices towards compliance with government directives to reduce run-off impacts on the reef.

The Smartcane BMP guidelines aim to improve farming practices through seven principles:

  1. Soil health and plant nutrition management

  2. Pest, disease and weed management

  3. Drainage and irrigation management

  4. Crop production and harvest management

  5. Natural systems management

  6. Farm business management

  7. Workplace health and safety management

As with many corporate social responsibility initiatives, growers who volunteer for Smartcane BMP are required to assess their current practices and set benchmarks for improvement in order to receive accreditation that indicates good environmental practice. There are clear marketing and, in many cases, cost-cutting benefits that motivate farmers to participate.

This has driven some examples of good practice within the farming community. However, as the 2015 report card shows, “only 23% of sugarcane land was managed using best management practice systems”, which is inadequate for achieving the Reef 2050 goal of an 80% reduction in dissolved nitrogen loads from agricultural runoff by 2025.

Motivating farmers

One project which engages with this problem is Sugar vs the Reef? by artists Lucas Ihlein, Kim Williams and Ian Milliss. This project is based on the idea that there is a greater chance of influencing farming practices if the desire to improve environmental performance comes from within the farming community. Innovation is celebrated from below by staging public collaborative events to generate dialogue about agriculture’s complex social and environmental interactions.

Innovative Mackay farmers Simon Mattsson and Allan Maclean in a dual crop of sugar cane and sunflowers. The sunflowers shade out weeds, break the sugarcane monocrop by diversifying soil biology, and attract a lot of attention, triggering public discussions about the crucial role of soil health in reducing runoff to the Great Barrier Reef.
Photo by Lucas Ihlein

For example, over the next two years, the project will coordinate a collaboration between Mackay Botanical Gardens, sugar cane farmers and community members to plant a dual crop of sunflowers and sugar cane as a highly visible work of “land art”.

This crop – whose cycle of planting, growth and harvesting will exceed the minimum standards of BMP – will stretch over four hectares near the centre of Mackay. Over two years, the project will engage sugarcane farmers, artists, high school students, members of the Australian South Sea Islander community, the Greater Whitsunday Food Network, soil and reef scientists, as well as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

While it is easy to point the finger at agricultural practices as a major cause of poor water quality in the inner waters of the Great Barrier Reef, change will be slow until the complex social factors that shape modern farming are recognised. This requires deeper engagement with the varied cultures of farming.

The Conversation

Sarah Hamylton, Senior Lecturer, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong and Lucas Ihlein, ARC DECRA Research Fellow, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Four environmental reasons why fast-tracking the Carmichael coal mine is a bad idea

April Reside, The University of Queensland; Bonnie Mappin, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Sarah Chapman, The University of Queensland, and Stephen Kearney, The University of Queensland

Pressure is mounting for Adani’s Carmichael coal mine to proceed in inland Queensland. Recently the state government quietly gave the project “critical infrastructure” status to prioritise its development.

Providing this level of government status to a private enterprise is unusual – the last time it happened was in the early 2000s, and it is usually reserved for projects associated with national security, public education and health.

In response to delays and finance issues, Adani has also reportedly scaled back its initial proposal to increase the mine’s viability. There are also growing political calls to weaken the ability of environmental groups to challenge infrastructure projects.

Others have commented on the mine’s issues around employment, finance, and indigenous and rural communities. But as ecologists, there are four good reasons why we believe the mine should not go ahead.

Climate change

To meet the obligations under the Paris climate agreement to limit warming to well below 2℃, it is widely accepted that 90% of Australia’s coal will need to stay in the ground.

The proposed extraction of 2.3 billion tonnes of coal from the Carmichael mine flies in the face of global efforts to stop climate change. The emissions from the coal from this one mine would exceed 0.5% of the entire global carbon budget – the total amount of carbon than can be emitted without exceeding 2℃ warming.

Put another way, the 4.7 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the mine will be equivalent to nine times Australia’s overall emissions in 2014.

Yet these emissions have been given little consideration in the mine’s approval process. Adani’s Environmental Impact Statement makes little reference to the mine’s “downstream” emissions, and Australia’s former environment minister Greg Hunt, in his reasons for approving the mine, said the emissions would be “managed and mitigated through national and international emissions control frameworks”, including in those countries that import the coal.

Following an appeal challenging Hunt’s assertion that these emissions would have no directly quantifiable impact on the Great Barrier Reef, the Federal Court found that the minister was entitled to find that the burning of the coal will have no relevant impact on the reef.

The Great Barrier Reef

The shipping of coal from the Carmichael mine is contingent upon redeveloping the shipping port at Abbot Point, which requires dredging the seabed.

Following public opposition to dumping dredge spoil at sea, the most recently approved proposal is to dredge 1.1 million cubic metres of the seabed and dump the spoil on land next to the Caley Valley Wetlands.

The wetlands are important habitat for at least 22 migratory shore birds listed under the national environmental legislation, so the current plan is still contentious.

The current plan to dump the dredge spoil on land still won’t save the reef because the actual dredging process removes the seabed, along with the seagrass and animals that survive there.

Dredging also releases fine sediments, reducing water quality while smothering surrounding seagrass beds and coral reefs, with some models predicting the spread of fine sediments up to 200km from where the activity took place, within 90 days.

Corals exposed to dredge material are twice as prone to suffer disease. Improving water quality is a key factor for increasing the resilience of coral reefs to major bleaching events.


The Carmichael Mine as currently proposed would extract 12 billion litres of water each year. Removing this water to access the coal seam will reduce water pressure in the aquifer (rock that stores water underground), with knock-on effects. The mine is situated close to the Great Artesian Basin, a key resource for agriculture across inland Australia

For instance, this drawdown could reduce water reaching the Mellaluka and Doongmabulla Springs Complexes, which have exceedingly high conservation value. These springs are some of the largest examples remaining and provide habitat for many species of specialised plants that are only known from spring-fed wetlands.

If the springs go dry, even temporarily, endemic species will not survive and will become extinct at the site.

Removing groundwater is expected to increase the duration of zero- or low-flow periods in the Carmichael River system. The communities and ecosystems in the region are already highly reliant on groundwater, due to variable surface waters. This could also affect the acidity and salinity of soils.

Clearing the land for the mine itself – an area equivalent to Queensland’s Moreton Island – will likely reduce local rainfall considerably.

Due to the high uncertainty surrounding groundwater, the independent scientific committee recommended improvements in groundwater modelling and monitoring before proceeding with the project. The high degree of uncertainty and inadequate treatment of groundwater impacts in the Environmental Impact Statement were the subject of legal proceedings in the Land Court in 2015.

Threatened species

The Carmichael mine site is home to the largest known population of the endangered southern Black-throated finch (Poephila cincta cincta), which has lost 80% of its former habitat.

The intact areas of continuous habitat in this region – such as that at the mine site – have so far remained in good condition and relatively free of the invasive weed species that are contributing to the finch’s decline in other parts of its range.

The Black-throated Finch Recovery Team highlighted their concern over the Carmichael development with state and federal agencies.

Conservationists have expressed concerns over the mine’s impact on the black-throated finch.
Eric Vanderduys, Author provided

Adani has proposed to offset the loss of finch habitat resulting from the mine by protecting alternative, nearby habitat. But losing the best remaining habitat means the most viable population will be compromised. Experts have warned that offseting the loss of habitat from mine development will not avoid serious detrimental impacts on the finch.

Keeping this habitat intact, continuous and unfragmented will be key to maintaining its suitability for the finch. The only way to avoid severely impacting the finch is to avoid destroying its high-quality habitat – which would mean not digging the mine in these areas.

A brighter future

Giving the mine “critical infrastructure” status allows special dispensations to ignore normal approval processes. And this decision sends a signal to the wider community that this type of short-term thinking is front and centre in the state government’s mind.

Given the clear environmental impacts this mine will have, not just for the region but for the whole planet, we question the effectiveness of Australia’s current environmental laws that have allowed it to be approved. We believe it is time to place the entire social and environmental costs and benefits of this mine on the public table, and ask the question of the politicians who are meant to make decisions in our best interest: is the short-term profit of selling some coal worth it?

This article was written with the help of Claire Stewart and Courtney Jackson, students in the Masters of Conservation Science program and members of the Green Fire Science Lab at the University of Queensland.

The Conversation

April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Bonnie Mappin, PhD Candidate, Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Associate professor, The University of Queensland; Sarah Chapman, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland, and Stephen Kearney, PhD Candidate , The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.