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What's really harming the Great Barrier Reef?

By Dorean Erhart

Much of the noise about the decline of the Reef would have us believe that ports and dredging are the culprits.  Yes, ports ship coal and coal, when burnt, releases CO2, which contributes to climate change – which is in fact the biggest threat to the survival of the Reef - but the ports themselves and the dredging associated with them are not the worst things we have to worry about.

 

 

The key drivers of threats, as ranked in the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014 are:

  1. Climate Change – sea temperature increases, increased cyclone intensity, sea level rises, ocean acidification;
  2. Coastal Development – modified coastal habitats, artificial barriers to flow, acid sulphate soils and increasing light and noise pollution; and
  3. Land based runoff – increased nutrients (stimulating Crown of Thorns Starfish outbreaks), sediments, pesticides and other pollutants and marine debris.

 

The big three are followed by fishing and ports and to a lesser extent, recreation, shipping and tourism. 

 

However, at the end of the day it’s the issue of dollars to address the ‘big three’ and our failure to resolve it that will kill the Reef.

 

The councils within the Reef’s catchment are collectively investing around $230m this financial year in protecting and managing the values of the Reef through coastal and waterway protection and rehabilitation, land use planning initiatives, stormwater management, sewerage treatment upgrades and community education and awareness.

 

This is greater than the total current investment by the Australian and Queensland governments of $205m.

 

However, despite this impressive figure, the Outlook Report has found that the financing, staffing and achievement of outcomes in relation to coastal development and land based runoff (the number 2 & 3 drivers of threats to the Reef) are ‘poor’ and have ‘deteriorated’. 

 

The reasons for the rating partly relate to the high costs and difficulties associated with the practical implementation of some policies and regulations, partly to local government capabilities, but mostly, to the financial limitations of heavily squeezed councils.  An injection of vital funds, is the only way local governments will be able to deliver the standards of outcomes that are needed to ‘save the Reef’ from the threats associated with coastal development and land based runoff.

 

During the development of the Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan, the LGAQ successfully argued that local governments are an important partner in the conservation of the Reef.  This resulted in a commitment in the Plan to access to funds for ecosystem health initiatives and urban water quality activities through the Reef Trust investment strategy and the State government’s water quality improvement investment.

 

The Plan also commits to the delivery of better information and guidance about values, cumulative impacts and regional priorities to support local government decision making.

 

While this is good news for reef councils and will deliver much needed support, will it be enough to save the Reef?

 

None of us knows for certain how much time we have to collectively get our act together and reverse the decline of the Reef.  The LGAQ commented in its submission on the draft Plan that the outlook for the Reef signals a need for a major departure from business as usual – sooner rather than later. 

 

Conversely, the Plan takes a softly, softly approach to future investment.  An investment baseline is being developed, identifying the full quantum of investment by all partners, followed by a review to determine the efficacy of the current investment programs and a prioritisation process to redistribute funds where necessary.  By the end of 2015 the government will identify mechanisms for and approaches to innovate and diversify avenues for harnessing investment – code for trying to attract greater external and international investment in the Reef.

 

Yes, there is a need to remove duplication and refocus priorities to maximise outcomes from existing funding but there is also an obvious need for an escalation of activities, which will require more money.

 

Queensland’s Reef councils are already punching above their weight and there is a strong case to argue for proportionality in State and particularly Federal investment.

 

At a recent meeting, Minister Miles’ confirmed the Queensland government’s commitment of an additional $100m for water quality improvement and the establishment of a high level Minister’s Reef Taskforce to inform the government how to maximise the value of this additional funding.  In the recent budget, the  

Australian government has also committed an additional $100m over three years to water quality improvement projects.

 

However, Terrain Natural Resource Management Group based in Cairns, has estimated that meeting the Plan’s targets for land based runoff and ecosystem repair alone will require $700-$800 million a year for more than 5 years.  The proposed investment is around 15% of that.

 

As it is, the current investment in the Great Barrier Reef is the highest of any natural area in the world, but economically, the argument for an even higher level of investment stacks up.  The Reef provides around $700 million in visitor taxes and fees to the Australian government and delivers $5.2 billion a year to the broader economy from tourism alone.   The total value of the Reef to the Australian economy has been estimated at $49 billion per annum.

 

Next month we will find out whether the UNESCO World Heritage Committee thinks this approach is enough or whether our failure to resolve the funding issue will put the Great Barrier Reef “in danger”.

GOING INTO BAT FOR DAY LABOUR

The LGAQ and several councils hit by Tropical Cyclone Marcia last week are redoubling efforts to convince the Federal Government to ensure councils are able to claim back the costs of using their own staff for recovery and restoration work following natural disasters.

The destruction and dislocation caused by TC Marcia has forced councils to get their workers out into the field rapidly to assess impacts on council assets.

However, the continued prohibition on using council “day labour” under natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements has led to rising fear among councils affected as to how much their communities will have to spend to get back on their feet.

North Burnett Mayor Don Waugh said: “At the moment Council is needing to put staff in the field to access assets, gather information on community requirements and begin the recovery process.” 

 “If we do this it won’t be funded by NDRAA”.

“Our people know the local conditions, understand our assets and know the best and most efficient to address the community need.”

Cr Waugh said the Day labour Value for Money trial that North Burnett was involved in following the  2013 floods found that recovery and reconstruction work performed by the Council’s own day labour was 31 percent more efficient than similar work by external contractors.

“This clearly demonstrates the value for money proposition of using day labour, local people and local government plant,’’ he said.

He said the other matter that Canberra should focus on in the wake of TC Marcia was the so-called “betterment” of public infrastructure to withstand future natural disasters..

“The North Burnett has some assets that were destroyed in 2010 – and rebuilt, destroyed in 2013 – and rebuilt and have again been destroyed in the weekend cyclone,’’ he said.

“During the 2013 event North Burnett worked with the Queensland Government to implement two significant infrastructure projects under the betterment program.  These assets, the Mundubbera – Gayndah road and the Gayndah Water Supply have easily withstood this cyclone.”

 

New call for flood mitigation funds

The Federal Government should give greater focus to funding projects which mitigate the impacts of natural disasters, according to the Actuaries Institute.

In its pre-Budget submission, the Institute also says the Government should include cost estimates of future natural disasters in the Budget’s statement of risks.

The submission backs the Productivity Commission’s call in its recent report on the future of natural disaster funding for more attention to be paid to disaster mitigation.  The LGAQ has also long advocated for more money to be spent on projects that minimise the damage caused by disasters such as floods and cyclones.

“Funds allocated now to appropriate mitigation projects will ultimately reduce the government expenditure for rebuilding key public infrastructure and public assets,’’ the Institute says. 

VALUE OF ADVISORY GROUPS

The responses of the major parties to the LGAQ’s 10 Point Election Policy Plan was the major focus of attention for a key local government reference and advisory group meeting in Brisbane this week.

The Regional and Economic Development Advisory Group (REDAG) discussed the future of the Queensland Plan as well as strategies for encouraging investment in tourism attraction and telecommunications.

Chaired by Fraser Coast Mayor Gerard O’Connell, the REDAG group is one of 12 advisory groups representing 51 councils across Queensland, all of which help contribute to the LGAQ’s policy direction.

The REDAG group meeting followed a meeting last week of the Water and Sewerage Advisory Group, chaired by Mackay Regional Councillor Frank Gilbert, which discussed water security, pricing and the future of the Queensland Water Regional Alliance program.

In coming weeks, the LGAQ’s Roads and Transport Advisory Group and Resource Communities Advisory Group, will also meet to discuss key policy proposals to present to the incoming government.

Advocacy and representation is a core focus of the LGAQ so it is vital the Association engages directly with councils to ensure policy proposals are well grounded; of relevance to councils; and ultimately address their needs.

Never is this more important than when shaping and seeking to influence a newly elected State Government – a situation the Association currently finds itself in.

Importantly, the meetings gave all participants an opportunity to provide direct feedback to the LGAQ on current issues for councils and suggestions for targeting key policy proposals with a new State Government.

FASTER MOBILE NETWORK SPEEDS

The first of January not only marked the start of a new year, but also the birth of new telecommunication networks with both Telstra and Optus switching on their new 700mhz mobile phone networks aimed at improving communication options for many areas of Queensland.

The 700mhz frequency allows faster network speeds and larger geographic footprints, which potentially could provide significant benefits for coastal and regional councils and the communities they serve.

Importantly, the frequency also has the capability to punch through walls, thus allowing better in-building coverage for homes, offices, lifts and underground carparks.

Download speeds on the new network will be up to 100Mbs.

Both carriers are rolling out the network with Telstra announcing that the services would be initially switched on to 600 towns and suburbs throughout the country while Optus announced it would initially roll out 270 sites.

Telstra has announced Brisbane, regional centres and towns such as Home Hill, Tieri, Gympie, Gladstone, Mt Isa and Rockhampton will be amongst the first in Queensland to receive the new services.

Most new handsets are compatible including the iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and Sony Xperia Z3.

LGAQ innovation Executive Lou Boyle said improving network speeds was important as it underpinned new business models for councils  

 

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