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Laws to improve Great Barrier Reef water quality passed in Qld

19 September, 2019

The Queensland Parliament has passed laws to increase protection of the Great Barrier Reef from water quality impacts upstream.

Our Reef is in peril and water quality is known to be one of its biggest killers, second only to climate change.

These laws aim to improve agricultural and urban development practices so excessive fertiliser and sediment do not unnecessarily impact our Reef’s chances of survival into the future.

To their credit, the Government and relevant departments have worked hard to ensure best practice science and extensive consultation support the policies presented in this new proposed framework. Any claims to the contrary are not based in fact and ignore the significant work that has gone into developing this policy package. Underpinning this framework are years of significant consultation between the Government and all relevant sectors, including the agricultural and conservation sectors, and key documents including the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan, the 2017 Science Consensus Statement for the Reef and peer-reviewed papers.

The environmental impacts of our agricultural sector have been comparatively unregulated for too long. It's an anomaly in our environment and development laws that agricultural activities on land remain substantially under-regulated and one that is creating unsustainable impacts on our Reef. To date, no permit has been needed to undertake cropping or grazing. This means these activities are not assessed for their environmental impacts, or appropriateness in a particular environment or soil type, prior to commencement. Further, few to no offsets have been required for water quality impacts from any industry. At a time when our Reef is at such significant risk, this unsustainable practice cannot continue.

Although no one wants their activities regulated, we live in a country managed by laws that help make our society harmonious and our environmental, social and economic impacts sustainable.

The data reflects the voluntary uptake of water quality improvement measures by the agricultural sector have, so far, been insufficient. The 2019 Communique and the Final Report of the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce both found: ‘Land management practices are not changing fast enough and the Taskforce reiterated its support, as per its original Report, for the staged introduction of regulations as part of a broad approach’.

These new laws are a step forward, but the reform package has been weakened substantially due to significant lobbying by the agricultural sector who are averse to having their sector regulated. Due to bending to this advocacy, the government will no longer be able to obtain data that assists in determining how much nutrient is flowing unnecessarily to the Reef. Further, the requirements that were to be introduced for agriculturalists to obtain an environmental authority prior to cropping have been significantly watered down. This means most farmers will not be subject to this pre-assessment of suitability of their activity on a site. Finally, the minimum standards, standards imposed on agricultural activities to reduce their impacts, which have already been recognised as insufficient in leading to the improvements needed to truly improve Reef water quality, will now not be reviewed for five years. This is a disappointing result for the Reef.

At very least, EDO Qld implores the Queensland Government to ensure these new laws are enforced. Without enforcement, much like our existing Reef regulations, they will do little to reduce the impacts to water quality from irresponsible operators and will become fundamentally ineffective.

EDO Qld congratulates the Government on its efforts and progress to date. We will continue our work for stronger laws, and to ensure these laws in place are enforced. We will also work to ensure the implementation of stronger laws for the rest of Queensland’s catchments outside of the Reef that also deserve improved water quality.

Environmental Defenders Office Queensland (EDO Qld) gives a strong legal voice to the environment when needed most.

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