The Cart before the Horse

Summary of DES meeting on Reef Regulation, by Jim Willmott for PRA Members – 2/6/21

An update on reef regulations followed by a water quality science session was held in Kingaroy on Tuesday the 2nd of June. I was keen to hear if the public servants from the Department of Environment and Science (DES) had listened to feedback collected from an earlier consultative meeting held in February at Kingaroy.

Unlike the February reef consultation meeting which was organised by the Burnett Inland Economic Development Organisation and had over 200 people in attendance, these meetings were controlled by Departmental staff with attendance of around 35 participants for each session. One would think DES would see the value of community led consultation over Government organised sessions if it was all about engaging as many people as possible.

The reef regulation session ran through how the Department had listened and made changes to the regulations and associated guidelines for commercial cropping and horticulture. This included improvements to substantiate previous cropping history making it easier to circumvent the need for landowners to apply for an environmental authority (permit). Other minor concessions included more clarity on definitions for natural waterways and defining banks of waterways and setbacks.

In the end these are very minor tweaks to the existing regulations designed to quiet the previous concern and frustration expressed by the community, however the real intent of the legislation remains exactly the same as before. These changes were touted as “ground breaking” by our peak agricultural representative bodies and widely promoted by the State Government as listening then acting on feedback from “vigorous and extensive consultation.”

Other key issues raised in this session included:

  1. The requirement to still obtain a permit ( if you are currently not undertaking commercial cropping) to sell hay/fodder/grain even if you have surplus or seasonal conditions that create an opportunity to sell produce off farm.
  2. Timeframes for processing permits are to long and decrease the landowner’s ability to opportunity crop outside of a commercial operation.
  3. Stating it is only a one-off payment for permits which can transfer to new owners however, DES could not answer if a new permit would be required if the minimum standards are increased to meet water quality targets after the 5-year reprieve put forward by the State Government.
  4. The 13 Reef Compliance Officers will be based in Mackay and will not be located in each region. Concern that these officers will not be familiar with the different circumstances that occur across each of the GBR catchments including socio economic issues.
  5. The need for DES to clearly articulate the legislative and reporting requirements that Government Departments and State-owned corporations, local government and urban landowners are required to meet as part of their reef protection responsibilities that align with those obligations being forced on farming communities.
  6. Why a regulatory approach? Increase regulatory burden only adds to the mental health issues this region is already experiencing. The Burnett Catchment already has the highest community suicide rate in the nation. This impact on the community’s mental health was not taken into consideration in the regulatory impact statement and in the roll out of the reef regulations.

The second science session included presentations by officers from DES and DAFF covering the Reef Modelling and Reporting Program and the Reef Catchment Load Program. Key issues raised by participants from these presentations included:

  1. The 2017/18 and 2019 Reef Report Cards provide a score for the riparian extent for woody vegetation that exists within riparian areas within all reef catchments, some 3.61 million ha in total. No ground truthing of the satellite data is undertaken to determine what percentage of this mapped vegetation consists of exotic weeds as opposed to native vegetation.
  2. Many of these weed species (Rubbervine, Cats Claw) are promoted by Biosecurity Queensland as destroying native riparian vegetation and increasing streambank erosion. This is particular concerning when the DES presentation stated the principal driver of sedimentation in the Burnett/Mary is stream bank erosion.
  3. The destruction of riparian vegetation in commercial harvesting situations occurring in State owned plantations demonstrates inconsistent rules for farmers as opposed to multinational corporations.
  4. Only 2 monitoring sites exist to analyse sedimentation loading in the whole of the Burnett Catchment. How can total human induced sedimentation be apportioned to farming with such limited information? Currently human induced sediment loaded is calculated through the use of models.
  5. Extensive gaps in water monitoring occurs in the Burnett Catchment due to the limited funds provided to DAFF to undertake more extensive sampling.
  6. The presentation on water quality was informative however there was an admission by the DAFF scientist that a lack of funding to obtain more factual data through increasing the number of monitoring sites is preventing them from having a clearer picture.
  7. It was suggested by the DAFF scientist that the community may need to undertake further sampling to assist in gathering factual data for comparison to modelled data as DAFF do not have the resources.
  8. No data exists to compare natural sedimentation to human induced sedimentation loading so therefore it is modelled. The problem was (as stated by DAFF scientist) finding areas such as National Parks (NP) that do not have off site flow into them.  A farmer suggested the Bunya Mountains NP could be utlised. The scientist was unaware of this area and agreed it could be a good site to calculate natural sedimentation loading.


The Government scientists presented no evidence to suggest or convince participants that they are responsible for any perceived impact within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The over reliance of models to substitute gaps in factual data has meant farming communities have been accused without hard evidence and must now prove they are innocent of the charges laid against them by the Queensland Government. Participants questioned why the reef regulations had been developed and rolled out before key deficiencies in data was obtained and analysed.  More than one farmer said it appears the Queensland Government had got the cart before the horse.