Comment: Myopic Cape York Regional Plan a threat to the reef

(Ferguson Reef, Cape York Peninsula © Xanthe Rivett)

The Cape York regional plan poses an unacceptable risk to the Great Barrier Reef.

Today’s release of the draft 2050 Sustainability Plan for the Great Barrier Reef, and last month’s release of Queensland’s Cape York Regional Plan brings an unprecedented threat to the most healthy and intact sections of the Great Barrier Reef. Mining and agricultural expansion combined with the deregulation of water will lock in the decline of the region’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

Earlier this year UNESCO clearly identified the dangers and environmental strains facing the reef to an international audience, yet our State and Federal governments continue to attempt to present a public case that all is under control. Despite this, buried in last year’s Strategic Assessment is the acknowledgment that the threatening processes faced by the reef in its southern areas will escalate on Cape York Peninsula.

Compounding these threats is the fact that our reef health monitoring and reporting system, encompassed in the Australian Government’s Reef Report Card for 2012 and 2013, fails to capture the true health and condition of the reef.

The Normanby River’s 24,353km2 basin is of critical importance to the Cape’s reef ecosystems. Beginning its journey in the rainforest-clad mountains south of Cooktown, the Normanby basin also takes in the rangelands of the Laura sub-catchment before flowing out into Princess Charlotte Bay, one of the most significant turtle and dugong habitats in the Great Barrier Reef.

Yet despite its outstanding natural assets, the Normanby basin does not even rate a mention in the recently released 2014 Outlook Report.

In what is arguably the last outpost of serious agricultural development in Far North Queensland, the Lakeland district is experiencing a dramatic spike in investment and development. Based on the success of existing plantations including banana, combined with the deregulation of water resources, the area under crops and plantations is now rapidly expanding.

A comprehensive study by Griffith University has concluded that we are grossly underestimating the sediment load flowing into the Great Barrier Reef from some sources in the Normanby River (especially from gully, river bank and coastal erosion) while overestimating other sources such as sheet erosion from hill slopes.

In fact, the main culprit for the sediment load flowing from the Normanby River into the Great Barrier Reef is from gully erosion. Approximately 1.15 million tonnes of sediment enter the Normanby system each year from this source, and is largely unaddressed by any management initiatives accounted for in the report card.

The initial field results of the Normanby River research became available online last year with two detailed peer-reviewed papers published recently. The take home message from that research is that our system of modelling reef health is based partly on flawed data from the outset and little opportunity for field validation and reality checking. This is unacceptable for such a universally recognised treasure as the Great Barrier Reef – that is likely to feel its impacts.

In the 2013 Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, Cape York is identified as a low priority for reef management. So while governments look elsewhere and try to fix the wrong problems, they are grossly underestimating the existing problems flowing from the northern borders of the Great Barrier Reef. The link between the land and sea is a no-brainer.

When we neglect our natural eco-systems we imperil more than just those immediate areas. But on Cape York we have had countless policy announcements and legislative processes that have ignored the relationship between catchments and the Great Barrier Reef. The latest of these is the Cape York Regional Plan.

Far from addressing the land management issues identified in their 2012 Cape York policy commitments – it’s business as usual across much of the landscape with little likelihood of meaningful outcomes. Despite Deputy Queensland Premier Jeff declaring Cape York ‘open for business’ we’d be fools to ignore the knock on effects that can imperil other interconnected natural assets including the Great Barrier Reef. The 2050 sustainability plan looks set to miss this opportunity as well.

Andrew Picone is the Northern Australia Project Officer for the Australian Conservation Foundation.