Managing urban run-off to the Reef

Urban areas cover less than one per cent of the Great Barrier Reef catchment.

Yet stormwater run-off from urban and industrial land use and wastewater treatment plant releases contribute up to seven per cent of the dissolved inorganic nitrogen entering the Reef, and close to two per cent of the sediment that flows to the Reef.

These activities can also impact the health of local waterways and the community benefits they provide.

Who manages urban run-off?

Urban run-off is a shared responsibility between state and local governments, the development and construction industry and water service providers. Support is also provided by peak bodies such as the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ), water industry bodies and natural resource management organisations.

Local government is responsible for managing wastewater treatment, as well as erosion control and stormwater management measures in line with Queensland Government legislation.

How is urban run-off to the Reef managed?

As well as providing policy and legislative frameworks to manage pollution impacts associated with urban land use, the Queensland Government has invested $3.5 million through the Queensland Reef Water Quality Program to support industry and councils in the Great Barrier Reef catchment to reduce urban run-off to the Reef.

Urban water related program outcomes include:

Legislation and new discharge standards

Queensland’s State Planning Policy has been updated to provide clearer guidance on how the state’s water quality interests are to be protected.

In addition to the introduction of minimum practice agricultural standards under the Reef protection regulations, all new, expanded or intensified point source activities (including wastewater treatment) are required to meet new discharge standards to ensure there is no increase in nutrients flowing to the Reef.

If this can’t be achieved through design or operating conditions, the Point Source Offsets Policy allows for nutrient offset schemes to provide greater flexibility for councils to help them achieve no net decline in water quality.

Allowances have also been made for land developers to use off-site urban stormwater management solutions in situations where installing suitable stormwater treatment devices within the development footprint are limited.

Better monitoring

The Water Tracking and Electronic Reporting System (WaTERS) captures and assesses data from wastewater treatment plant releases across the state. With more treatment plants now providing data to WaTERS, there is a much better understanding of the levels of nutrients and other contaminants being released within the Reef catchment.

Information is also captured through the Great Barrier Reef Point Source Metadata Collection Project around the number, location and nature of point source activities and facilities including their licence conditions and nutrient emissions across the Reef catchment.

The Stage 2 Great Barrier Reef Point Source Metadata Collection Project report covers general information on point sources and risk, but focusses on Sewage Treatment Plant nutrient load contributions and end of pipe nutrient concentrations.

This information is being used to review licence condition settings, including the range of water quality parameters monitored and the end of pipe nutrient concentration or load conditions that should apply based on treatment plant size and type.

Skills and capacity building

Increasing the capacity and skills of local councils and the construction industry in wastewater treatment, stormwater management and erosion management, including compliance, is critical in reducing urban run-off.

The Queensland Government funds the Erosion and Sediment Control and Urban Stormwater Capacity Building program delivered by Healthy Land and Water – Water by Design and the Queensland Water Regional Alliance Program (QWRAP), an industry-led regional collaboration between 30 councils, LGAQ and qldwater.

Healthy Land and Water provides direct training and resources including a toolkit and mobile app for local government sediment and erosion compliance inspections. They also coordinate Reef Urban Stormwater Management Group forums, which are a vital way of sharing knowledge across councils on ways of achieving urban water stewardship.

QWRAP provides a formal opportunity for councils to partner on managing water and sewerage services in regional Queensland, which helps them overcome barriers relating to inhouse expertise and financial resources.

Bench-marking framework

The Urban Water Stewardship Framework (framework) is supporting councils and the development and construction industry in the Reef catchment to evaluate their urban water management practices and activities.

The framework provides an evidence basis for councils to identify and prioritise areas they need to improve. It is also generating greater dialogue between councils and urban water managers for better water quality outcomes.

The Queensland Government is evaluating the Urban Water Stewardship Framework assessment data collected in the first (2020/21) round across 13 local government areas to better understand where improvements are needed and how to provide better-targeted support to address the influence of climate, topography and population density on the way councils approach urban water management.

A second round of Urban Water Stewardship Framework assessment has commenced and will be completed at the end of the 2022/23 financial year.

The Urban Water Stewardship Framework will inform a new urban water management target for the catchments of the Great Barrier Reef, among several targets considered as part of the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2023–2027 development process.

View the Urban Water Stewardship Framework 2020/21 Round Summary Findings (PDF, 1.2 MB) .

Trialling low-cost wastewater treatment solutions

The Queensland Government has invested $1.15 million over two years in the Cleaner Wastewater Initiative project, which is linked to the Reef Councils Rescue Plan.

The initiative is providing Reef councils with information to make decisions around moving towards alternative, low-cost wastewater management solutions. This includes establishing three demonstration trial projects.

Two of the projects provide examples of different point source offset approaches, which is important as there are few examples outside of south east Queensland.

The third project is a timber plantation reusing treated wastewater, which opens the possibility of investment return through carbon abatement schemes. (Education package details are to come for this project.)

View the Mackay North Water Recycling Facility Nutrient Offsets Education Package (PDF, 4.2 MB) .

View the Bohle River Offsets Roadmap Education Package (PDF, 2.4 MB) .

For more information


Download a printable factsheet (PDF, 569 KB) with this information.