Integrating research gives the grounds for healthy catchments

Australia’s coastal catchments are management battlegrounds. It is an extremely complex task to balance the often-competing demands of development, industry, maintenance of ecosystem services, livelihoods and lifestyle so that river-mouth water-quality targets are met, and it is therefore rare that it is successfully achieved.

Two very different kinds of TERN infrastructure are being deployed to help stakeholders working on such issues in some of the most topical and contested catchments in the country – those flowing into the lagoon of the Great Barrier Reef.

The appropriately named Dave Waters, based in Toowoomba, is a senior hydrologist with the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines. He leads the team of catchment modellers that generates estimates of the pollutant loads that are exported from the 420,000 km2 of land that drain to the Reef lagoon via the region’s catchments. The estimates are one of five lines of evidence required for the Annual Reef Report Card of the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan.

‘The Reef Plan is a large, high-profile, multi-agency investment on the part of both federal and Queensland governments,’ Dave says, ‘and the catchment modelling team’s work helps gauge the extent to which this investment is actually helping to improve catchment water quality over time.

‘The catchment models we use to make predictions are the best available, but of course the models are only as good as the data you put into them. That’s why we’re using the digital elevation model and slope mapping products generated by TERN’s Soils facility – because they’re the best available.’

These products are part of a suite of national-scale, 30 m resolution landscape surfaces that are freely available for public download through TERN’s Data Discovery Portal. They are not only useful for hydrologists like Dave and his team – they could be used to help improve the accuracy of maps and reduce uncertainty in model output for environmental scientists, crop modellers, natural resource managers, and GIS and mapping specialists everywhere in Australia.

So what do the catchment modelling results indicate? Is the Reef Plan facilitating improving water quality in Great Barrier Reef catchments?

‘The third Annual Reef Report Card, which was informed by the new soils data products, was released by the Federal Government in July 2013,’ Dave says.

‘It is really encouraging: the modelling indicates that the government investment in improved land-management practices in the catchments has achieved a 5%–15% reduction in anthropogenic pollutant loads to the Reef.’


TERN’s infrastructure is helping coastal managers to tackle the complex challenge of balancing the needs of development, industry, maintenance of ecosystem services, livelihoods and lifestyle.


In a very different kind of analysis, conducted with the assistance of another TERN facility, researchers agree that the Reef Plan is beginning to deliver positive outcomes for catchment and Reef health. In a case study recently published in the open-access journal Environmental Research Letters, a working group convened through TERN’s ACEAS facility investigated whether a new risk-analysis method could identify aspects of governance in the region that were improving – or impairing – the effectiveness of catchment management. Associate Professor Allan Dale, of James Cook University’s Cairns Institute, is the lead author of the study.

‘While we now have a reasonably good understanding of how these catchments work in terms of ecosystem science, it’s becoming clear that insights from social science are also needed to achieve better catchment management,’ Allan says.

‘Our robust governance systems analysis has highlighted key opportunities for improvement in the ways we humans are trying to respond to the problem.’

Near the top of the list for reform are the big disconnections between regional strategic planning and local land-use planning. Improvements in these areas could result in better guides for major project developments, such as port expansions along the Queensland coastline, and help developers and land managers avoid cumulative impacts on catchments, coasts and the Reef.

‘This is particularly pertinent politically now, with the proposed devolution of EPBC Act powers to the States,’ Allan says.

‘If managed well, it could result in more-connected and better planning decisions. If managed poorly, however, we could end up with even bigger problems.’

The working group also identified a number of areas that have had demonstrably positive influences on the health of the Reef.

‘The benefits of commercial fisheries management, marine park management, water resource planning and scientific research, plus a few others, have all contributed to overall better Reef governance. However, the progress that’s been made in these areas needs to be recognised and continued into the future,’ Allan says.

He noted that the ACEAS working group’s diversity and integrative capacity was fundamental to its success.

‘In addition to this case study, we’ve built vital links between existing programs funded through other government initiatives, such as the NERP, and researchers and managers across four catchments: the Wet Tropics of north Queensland, the Gilbert in north-western Queensland, the Daly in the Northern Territory, and the Fitzroy in the Kimberley in Western Australia,’ he says.

‘Bringing ecosystem and social scientists together with the folks who are actually out there trying to manage issues on the ground is exactly what’s needed if we’re to make progress with complicated problems like integrated catchment management.’



Published in TERN e-Newsletter September 2013

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