Enhancing and broadening reef regulations

The greatest water quality risks to the Great Barrier Reef are from nutrients, fine sediments and pesticides.

In March 2017, the Queensland Government released the Enhancing regulations to ensure clean water for a healthy Great Barrier Reef and a prosperous Queensland (PDF, 7.55MB) discussion paper for feedback. The paper outlined a number of high level proposals to enhance the existing reef protection regulations to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution across key industries in Great Barrier Reef catchments. Information sessions were also held during the consultation period, which closed in mid-May 2017.

Since the release of the discussion paper, the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement: Land use impacts on Great Barrier Reef water quality and ecosystem condition (PDF, 1.1MB) has confirmed that water quality remains one of the biggest risks to reef health and that current voluntary programs and actions will not meet the water quality targets required to improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef. Stronger action is needed.

Feedback from the discussion paper and the latest science helped refine the regulatory proposals and preparation of a regulatory impact statement (RIS) (PDF, 2MB) which was released for public consultation for a period of 11 weeks in total, closing on 19 February 2018.

The consultation RIS assesses the costs and benefits of the proposals, which are to:

  • set nutrient and sediment pollution load limits for each reef catchment to target responses for managing risks to water quality
  • provide the ability to apply minimum practice standards targeting nutrient and sediment pollution for key industries in reef catchments
  • require fertiliser re-sellers to keep and produce records on request, of nutrient application advice provided to their clients to improve nutrient management outcomes
  • establish a water quality offset framework that can apply across industry sectors as a measure to manage water quality impacts for new, expanded or intensified development in the context of the new catchment pollution load limits.

View the RIS webinar presentation

Feedback on the RIS will help inform whether or not the proposed regulatory changes should move forward to the next stage or be refined further.

For more information, please email

Frequently asked questions

Feedback received on the RIS will help the Queensland Government decide whether the proposed regulatory changes should move ahead to the next stage, which is to prepare an amendment bill to change existing reef protection legislation under the Environmental Protection Act 1994, or whether the regulatory changes need to be further refined.

Where are the Great Barrier Reef catchments?

The Great Barrier Reef stretches more than 2300 kilometres along Queensland’s coastline. It receives run-off from 35 catchments which are spread over six natural resource management regions – Cape York, the Wet Tropics, Burdekin, Mackay Whitsunday, Fitzroy and the Burnett Mary.

Who has the Queensland Government consulted with to develop the proposals?

There has been ongoing consultation with key stakeholders including the agricultural, industrial and urban sectors, conservation groups, other government departments, local governments and natural resource management bodies since August 2016. Broader public consultation was also undertaken through a public discussion paper released in March 2017 in conjunction with 17 information sessions and a webinar.

What was the response to the public discussion paper?

Forty-eight written submissions were received during the public consultation period for the discussion paper with a wide range of views represented. Common themes included ongoing support for Best Management Practice or like programs, targeting any regulations to the worst polluting industries and practices, and that minimum practice standards must be industry relevant and result in measurable on-ground outcomes. A preference for taking a voluntary approach and minimising additional burden on already regulated industries was raised, as well as ensuring water quality offsets don’t result in perverse outcomes, increased burden, or confusion with current offsets frameworks. There was also general support across all stakeholder groups and the general public for robust scientific evidence to support the case for regulation.

Is the Queensland Government looking at other measures?

The regulatory approach is only one of a number of measures being implemented in response to the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce recommendations and the government’s additional $90 million investment in reef water quality. The proposed regulatory approach will be supported by other measures including extension and education activities, incentives and improved water quality monitoring.

What are the existing reef protection regulations?

Reef protection regulations and minimum practice standards already exist for the commercial sugarcane and grazing sectors in the Wet Tropics, Burdekin and Mackay Whitsunday regions. These regulations will be improved for sugarcane and grazing and will be expanded to include bananas, horticulture and grains; representing all key agricultural industries in all reef catchments. There is also an existing compliance and education program to support the adoption of current minimum standards for sugarcane and grazing.

What will the proposed regulations mean for growers who are already BMP accredited?

A number of growers have already been proactive and are accredited as implementing best practice for water quality under industry-led best management practice programs. The Queensland Government wants to reward these producers by formally recognising industry best management practice programs or like programs as an alternative pathway for producers to meet regulation requirements.

Is the Queensland Government looking at non-agricultural sectors and their role in water quality?

Yes, the Queensland Government is looking at other sectors such as urban and industrial activities and the role they play in reef water quality. In contrast to the agricultural sector, many other sectors are already highly regulated in terms of managing pollutant loads. However, these regulatory proposals do not include further regulation of diffuse pollution from urban development and urban development will not be subject to the catchment load limits. The recently amended planning framework, which came into effect on 3 July 2017, already includes new policy to achieve best management practice for erosion, sediment and stormwater management in urban areas, including the prevention of water pollution during the construction phase for urban development.

How do the proposed regulations address pollutant releases from urban development and stormwater discharges?

The proposed enhanced reef regulations will not change the existing regulation for urban activities and stormwater management. Urban development and stormwater management is regulated under the planning framework. The new Planning Act 2017 and planning framework came into effect on3 July 2017. Changes to the State Planning Policy will contribute to reducing nutrient and sediment in the Great Barrier Reef. This includes strengthened construction phase erosion and sediment control requirements and revised post-construction stormwater management design objectives.

How do the proposed regulations address pollutant releases from industrial point source activities?

Industrial point source activities are environmentally relevant activities (ERAs) regulated under the Environmental Protection Act, for which an environmental authority (licence) is required. Examples of these activities include sewage treatment, wastewater treatment, aquaculture and other intensive animal industries such as poultry farming, and some extractive and petroleum activities, such as mining and quarrying. Where these activities release nutrients and sediments to land and waters, they will be required to offset significant residual pollution that cannot be avoided or mitigated under the environmental authority.

What are water quality offsets and why are they proposed?

Water quality offsets are actions that work to counterbalance any potential or proposed increase in nutrients and sediments to waters, with at least an equivalent reduction elsewhere either on or offsite. The purpose of water quality offsets is to ensure new development activities do not compromise progress towards meeting the water quality targets. An offset could be through a financial settlement; a management action (for example, revegetation work, hillslope reshaping, pasture renovation, better road surfacing and drainage or improvements stormwater systems on farms or in urban areas) determined by the operator; a combination of these actions; or through recognition that the offset has been provided under another offsets regulatory framework.

How do the proposed regulations relate to the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan and the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement?

The Australian and Queensland governments released a draft Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan on 30 August 2017 for public consultation until 10 October 2017. This plan is based on the best available science brought together by the recently updated Scientific Consensus Statement, which was also released. The draft plan is nested within and aligns with the Great Barrier Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan. For the first time water quality targets will be set at the river basin scale, which take into consideration all sources of water pollution, including urban and industrial sources. The proposed reef regulations will use the river basin scale targets in the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan as the basis for the proposed catchment load limits that will be set in the Environmental Protection (Water) Policy. This policy guides decision-making in relation to water quality outcomes. The inclusion of catchment load limits in legislation provides a direct link to the consideration of the water quality targets in regulatory decision-making.

When would the revised reef regulations commence?

It’s proposed that any regulatory change for agriculture and relevant industrial activities in reef catchments will be staged with timing set in legislation, to give certainty and time to transition practices and adopt new standards, where necessary.

What happens next?

Feedback received on the RIS will help the Queensland Government decide whether the proposed regulatory changes should move ahead to the next stage, which is to prepare an amendment bill to change existing reef protection legislation under the Environmental Protection Act 1994, or whether the regulatory changes need to be further refined.