Question and answer session on the new Great Barrier Reef Protection Amendment Bill


I thought this was well worth posting – a comprehensive ‘who, how, what and why’ answer session by the government that neatly answers most common concerns over the new reef protection amendment.

Question – Who and where will the Great Barrier Reef Protection Amendment Bill 2009 affect? When will regulation and Bill commence and come into effect?

Question: Who will the Great Barrier Reef Protection Amendment Bill 2009 affect?


•    Around 4,500 farmers are likely to be affected.

•    Around 1,000 farmers will initially be required to prepare Environmental Risk Management Plans (ERMPs).

•    The level of regulatory impact on individual farmers can vary considerably depending on the hazards, problems, and management practices on each property.

•    ERMPs will be required for cattle graziers with a property greater than 2,000 hectares in the Burdekin Dry Tropics and sugarcane farmers with properties greater than 70 hectares in the Wet Tropics catchment.

Question: Where does the Great Barrier Reef Protection Amendment Bill 2009 and regulations apply?


•    All cattle grazing of more than 100 ‘standard cattle units’ and all sugarcane farming in the Wet Tropics, Burdekin Dry Tropics, and Mackay Whitsunday catchments.

Question: When will the new regime come into effect?
•    The initially targeted high risk farmers who must prepare and implement an Environmental Risk Management Plan will have nine months in total from 1 January 2010 to submit their ERMP which will be implemented over a number of years depending on their circumstances.
•    If further ‘hot spots’ are identified, farmers and graziers in these areas will be required to submit a Plan within three months of being notified.
•    Farmers will be notified by the Department of Environment and Resource Management either directly, by media advertising or by the Department’s other communications channels.

Question – How will the new regulations improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef?

•    The major threats to the health of the Reef are ocean acidification and coral bleaching due to climate change and reduced water quality due to agricultural pollution.
•    The new threat from climate change means it is now even more critical to reduce the existing damage from land runoff of nutrients, sediments, and pesticides to improve the Reef’s water quality and its resilience to the new impacts of climate change.
•    Reducing all of the threats is essential to a healthy Reef, however regulating agricultural runoff is the most immediate and efficient response to halt the decline of the Reef’s health.
•    Therefore, the new regulation focuses on catchment-scale reduction of water pollution from agriculture to increase the health of the Great Barrier Reef by improving the water quality in our waterways generally.

Question – How do we know that agricultural activities are impacting on the Great Barrier Reef?

•    There is substantial and credible scientific evidence that indicates the Reef’s health is suffering long-term decline from the nutrient, pesticide and sediment runoff from broad-scale agriculture in adjacent river catchments.

•    In 2008, the Scientific Consensus Statement on Water Quality in the Great Barrier Reef was released by 13 leading scientists after reviewing 500 technical papers.

•    It confirmed the presence of sediment, nutrients and pesticides in the Reef—up to 60 km offshore—in amounts that will cause it harm. In catchment waterways these contaminants were found at levels proportional to the land under agriculture—there were more contaminants where there was more agriculture.

•    Also in 2006 the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s annual marine monitoring report found high concentrations of the agricultural pesticide, diuron, at many river mouth sites.

•    Peer reviewed science in 2006 by leading Reef scientists documented the marked decline in the richness of coral for 400 kilometres south of Cooktown—right next to the catchments dominated by these industries.

•    We know that new science, recently or about to be published, reiterates the growing problem of pesticides and herbicides in freshwater and marine environments.  A paper published this year by Robert Packett and others indicates serious atrazine contamination in the Reef catchment.

Question – What do farmers need to do under the new regime?


The bill applies to cattle and sugarcane production located in the priority catchments of the Burdekin Dry Tropics, Mackay-Whitsunday and the Wet Tropics.

Cattle grazing and sugarcane growing will now be designated agricultural environmentally relevant activities under the Environmental Protection Act.

What farmers will be required to do under the bill:

•    Record and report as required on such things as use of fertiliser, weed poisons and farming management practices.

•    If applying fertiliser, they must calculate the optimum amount for application using a soil test and other information and not apply more than the optimum amount, so as to prevent over-fertilisation and reduce run-off.

•    Some specified high risk Farmers will need to prepare and implement an ERMP to entrench the adoption of best management practices and continuous improvement.

•    They will need to be aware of the change to the restrictions on the use of key damaging pesticides in the Chemical Usage (Agricultural and Veterinary) Control Regulation 1999.
Great Barrier Reef Protection Amendment Bill 2009

Question – How are you choosing who needs to prepare and keep Environmental Risk Management Plans?


1.    Cattle graziers in the Burdekin Dry Tropics catchment with a property greater than 2000 hectares.


•    This will capture most large-scale and extensive cattle grazing properties that contribute the majority of sediment runoff to the Reef.

•    This property threshold will also ensure that coastal pasture and dairy operations that are considered lower priority contributors to runoff do not initially fall under the requirement.

2.    Sugarcane farmers in the Wet Tropics catchment with property greater than 70 hectares.


•    The average size of sugarcane farms in the Wet Tropics is 60 to 70 hectares which will capture a large proportion of the catchment with proportionately fewer producers, hence allowing the most pollution reduction for the least cost.

•    The Australian Centre for Tropical Freshwater Research report for the State of Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef Protection Package states that: ‘The Wet Tropics generates large amounts of harmful nutrient and pesticide runoff from sugarcane that is directly harming the Great Barrier Reef.  Seventy-eight percent of all nitrogen pollution from human activities comes directly from sugarcane in the Wet Tropics.’

Question – How will you make sure farmers are doing the right thing? How will you know they are not keeping wrong records?


•    Farmers’ records, management plans, and chemical and fertiliser use will be audited on risk targeted basis and compliance enforced if necessary.

•    Online advice, tools and forms will be provided free to farmers to help them keep records and improve management practices. This will be supported by ‘how to’ guidance that explains why the information is being collected and what form the records should take.

•    Farmers without access to the internet will be provided with local access to online reporting systems and regional staff.  There will also be training courses available.
•    To save farmers work, the required records will as far as possible align with current automated record keeping systems such as AgDat.  Industry organisations will be invited to help design the tools to ensure the maximum practicality and benefit to farmers and the Reef.

•    There will also be regional reviews where the Department will write to farmers and request their records. This will be risk-based focussing on catchments where poor performance is hindering achievement of Reef Plan targets.

Question – How did the government identify which agricultural chemical to control?

•    Key agricultural chemical products to be restricted are: diuron, atrazine, ametryn, hexazinone and tebuthiuron
•    The herbicide residues most commonly found in Reef’s surface waters are diuron, atrazine, ametryn, hexazinone. They come from areas of sugarcane cultivation.
•    Residues of tebuthiuron come from the use of ‘grassland’ on grazing lands for woody weed control.
•    Strong scientific evidence shows the presence of pesticides in the Great Barrier Reef, which have been detected at harmful concentrations up to 60kilometres offshore during the wet season.
•    A recent report noted that river water plumes entering the Reef contain a profile of diuron, atrazine, and hexazinone residues.  Contrary to general belief, these pesticides were not removed by natural physical or biological progress like mixing or dilution with seawater.
•    The study found that exposure to high diuron concentration for four days will hinder the coral’s ability to produce energy, causing bleaching.

Question – Will there be a cost burden on farmers?

•    The level of regulatory impact on property owners will vary considerably depending on the level of risk to the Reef of the activity and what current management practices are in place.
•    It is expected that the cost of the regulatory measures are likely, in many instances, to be offset by cost savings from increased productivity and reduced input costs.  Those whose risks are greatest will usually have most to gain by reducing the loss of fertiliser and pesticides, which are increasingly expensive.
•    Many farmers are already doing the right things by keeping a management plan, applying the correct level of fertiliser, using pesticides responsibly and taking measures to minimise Reef run-off.  These farmers will not be greatly affected.
•    For example, a cattle grazing operation implementing a land management agreement under the Delbessie arrangement for leasehold land is likely to be able to satisfy relevant requirements for sediment management on grazing lands without significant additional work.
•    Those who have a plan to implement management practices equivalent to an ERMP will not have to duplicate their effort.
•    The cost of record keeping, preparing plans and reporting under the legislation will vary according to the level of risk of the activity.  Low risk activities will only incur small costs and take very little time.
•    Property owners classified ‘low risk’ will not be required to have an ERMP.
•    For a medium level risk activity an ERMP may cost around $3,500 to prepare.
•    Grazing property owners with an ERMP may need to fence erosion hazard areas, provide off-stream watering points and manage vegetation cover to reduce sediment loss. These measures will vary greatly in cost, but may average around $5,000 a year over three years.  There are major economic benefits in applying these improved management practices.
•    However, ERMPs will be flexible to allow for the spread of investment in new practices over a reasonably long period.
•    There is evidence that optimal application of fertiliser possibly using precision farming equipment (possibly costing about $30,000) might save about $3,000 per year in reduced fertiliser costs for each farmer.  Farmers can use contractors to apply fertiliser or share costs of equipment between a number of farmers.
•    A worst case scenario relates to property owners who perform poorly and:
o    have done no training relating to the use of atrazine, ametryn, hexazinone, diuron, and tebuthiuron handling and application
o    have no property plans relating to environmental management
o    use the atrazine, ametryn, hexazinone, diuron, and tebuthiuron across all areas of their operation
o    do not do any soil testing
o    have not implemented practices that minimise environmental impact
o    do not access any subsidy or grants for training or implementation.
•    The upfront cost to such an operator would be approximately $6,000, consisting of: training ($500); soil testing ($320) and preparation of an ERMP ($5,000 assuming a specialist is employed.  For a simple low risk activity, the farmer should be able to prepare the ERMP without paying for assistance, utilising online and other support provided free by the government).
•    The implementation cost would vary depending on the property and costs would need to be traded off against the benefits in productivity and profits as a result of lower input costs and increased yield.

Question – Will the new laws affect food quality?

•    The new laws will not affect food quality.

•    The new laws encourage adoption of better management practices that improve water quality.  It does not require farmers to change practices with respect to production of food that would impact on quality.

•    Food crops will take up the nutrients they need from the soil. Fertiliser that is excess to the crop’s requirements will run off properties to the Reef.

•    The use of atrazine, ametryn, hexazinone, diuron, and tebuthiuron will be restricted in waterways and drainage lines and within certain distances from waterways.  As these are herbicides, there will be no impact on the quality of food.
•     A concern may be around the security of the food generated for local and export markets. The new laws may have some implementation costs for farmers but these costs should be weighed against the benefits in productivity and profits as a result of lower input costs or increased yield. Therefore there should be no impact on security of food supply.

Question – How will we know if Reef run-off has been reduced in four years and the legislation’s objectives have been achieved?

•    There will be a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation program to effectively measure the legislation’s progress towards its targets.
•    Program monitoring and evaluation will focus on identifying what effect the regulation has on the level of land practice change and pollution reduction.
•    This data will be modelled to estimate the likely improvement of the quality of water entering the Reef.
•    Monitoring and evaluation will be done collaboratively between Queensland and Australian Government departments, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and regional groups.
•    Development and design of the monitoring and evaluation program is underway in conjunction with statistical experts. The program will be thoroughly peer reviewed.

Question – What else are Governments doing to protect the Reef?


•    Since the commencement of Reef Plan in 2003, the Queensland Government has invested about $125 million on natural resource management in Reef catchments, including reef water quality related projects.
•    This is an investment in the health of the entire catchment that is ultimately essential to a healthy reef ecosystem.
•    Earlier this year, the Queensland Government introduced a moratorium on the clearing all native re-growth vegetation within 50 metres of identified watercourses in the Wet Tropics, Burdekin and Mackay/Whitsunday.
•    The Delbessie land management agreement between rural leaseholders and the Government commenced in 2008 offering extended leases to landholders in Reef catchments who improve the condition of their land.
•    Water Quality Improvement Plans are being completed by regional natural resource management groups to identify regional targets for water quality improvement and the management actions needed to reach those targets in specified timeframes.
•    Under the Reef Plan, nutrient management zones were identified to focus water quality investments on the critical ‘hot spots’.
•    The Australian Government’s out a $200 million Reef Rescue Plan which is supporting farmers, regional groups and industry groups to help make management practice change to protect the Reef.
How the programs fit together

•    The Australian Government’s Reef Rescue program will deliver an immediate improvement in management practices. This will be locked in for the long term by the Queensland Government’s regulatory package through its extension support services and regulatory measures.

•    The key issue is the need to significantly reduce pollutant loads of up to 90,000 tonnes year of nutrient mainly from cane farming and up to 66 million tonnes of sediment mainly from cattle grazing.

•    The targets announced as part of the Reef Protection Package by the Queensland Government in 2009 aim is to reduce nutrient and pesticides by 50 percent in four years.

•    Achieving Reef Plan targets will require the permanent adoption of management practices, compatible with Reef health, by farmers of about 80 per cent of cane land and over half of cattle grazing land.  It is likely that less than 10 per cent of this land is currently managed at the necessary standard.

•    While it will be impossible to determine the individual contribution to water quality improvement from any program, the outcome will be better, faster and more permanent with both programs operating together in harmony.

•    This is because Reef Rescue grants mainly help farmers to purchase equipment while the regulation ensures equipment is used to achieve the required outcome and continues to be used and replaced when it depreciates. It locks in the benefits of Reef Rescue for the long term and prevents the waste of the Reef Rescue investment.

•    Furthermore, the regulation is performance based so it drives innovation and continuous improvement, further reducing the call on Commonwealth resources for future Reef protection.

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