Environment Report: February 2016

By Pat Pepper

NCWQ Environment Adviser


Update on Great Barrier Reef (GBR): In response to widespread reports of minor bleaching of coral and forecasts by the Bureau of Meteorology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of adverse weather conditions sufficient to cause further bleaching, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has increased in-water field surveys and monitoring. Sea surface temperatures are fluctuating across the 345,000 square kilometres of Marine Park. In some areas the temperature has been exacerbated by lack of cloud cover and has ranged up to 2.5 degrees above the average for summer. Whether further bleaching happens depends on local weather conditions. Hopefully, cloud cover will provide shade and reduce heat absorption by the ocean and alleviate thermal stress on corals. Bleaching occurs when stress causes corals to expel tiny marine algae called zooxanthellae, which live inside their tissue and provide corals with much of their food and colour. http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/media-room/latest-news/corporate/2016/low-level-coral-bleaching-on-the-great-barrier-reef. While past bleaching events have shown coral reefs can recover if the thermal stress does not persist for prolonged periods, the importance of reducing global warming is surely paramount. Ocean-acidity levels will continue to increase as the ocean absorbs anthropogenic carbon-dioxide emissions www.csiro.au/State-of-the-Climate-2014 Researchers at the University of Western Australian have shown that increasing ocean acidification can cause young corals to develop deformed and porous skeletons potentially making it more difficult for them to establish themselves on the reef and survive to adulthood. Foster, T., Falter, J.L., McCulloch, M.T. and Clode P.L. (2016) Ocean acidification causes structural deformities in juvenile coral skeletons. Science Advances  Vol.. 2, no. 2, e1501130DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1501130. This research shows ocean acidification could have serious implication for the long term survival of the GBR.

Project Catalyst (a pioneering partnership between more than 70 innovative Queensland cane growers and major program partners – Reef Catchments, Terrain Natural Resource Management, NQ Dry Tropics, the Australian Government, WWF and The Coca-Cola Foundation) focuses on improving water quality from agricultural catchments flowing into the GBR by supporting and promoting practical solutions to increase water use efficiency, preventing runoff, and reducing application of nutrients and pesticides as well as better management of soils. http://reefcatchments.com.au/land/project-catalyst/. In two recent case studies the run-off of herbicides and fertiliser was halved with a Cairns Farmer making his own bio-fertiliser based on cow manure, and a Mackay farmer inter-planting sugar cane and legumes (mung beans). http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-02-22/innovative-canegrowers-halving-herbicide-fertiliser-run-off/7189486

In the Wet Tropics, bananas only contributed a small portion to the total suspended sediment (TSS) export load compared with sugarcane (29% or 224kt/yr). However, on the basis of a unit area of TSS to export load, bananas (1.8t/ha/yr) were higher than sugarcane (1.2t/ha//yr). Hateley, L.R., Ellis, R., Shaw, M., Waters, D., Carroll, C. (2014) Modelling reductions of pollutant loads due to improved management practices in the Great Barrier Reef catchments – Wet Tropics NRM region, Technical Report, Volume 3, Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines (DNRM), Cairns, Queensland (ISBN: 978-0-7345-0441-8). Officers at DRNM have demonstrated how sediment and nutrient loss can be reduced with grassed inter row areas. http://www.abc.net.au/cm/lb/6737456/data/nutrients-26-sediment-data.pdf. A banana farmer has minimised run-off from his farm on the banks of Liverpool Creek between Innisfail and Tully with two major settling ponds which trap the water from his farm for 3 to 4 weeks before it goes into the river system. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/rivers-of-red-threaten-great-barrier-reefs-future/6723280#transcript While these results are commendable , it is imperative such practices are adopted by the majority of farmers if the water quality reduction targets are to be met by 2020 for pesticides toxic loads (60%), dissolved inorganic nitrogen (50%),particulate phosphorus(20%),particulate nitrogen (20%), sediment (20%).

Climate change threat to microflora: Temperatures in Australia are projected to continue to increase, with more hot days and fewer cool days. Average rainfall in southern Australia is projected to decrease, with a likely increase in drought frequency and severity. In northern Australia rainfall could range from a 20% decrease to 10% increase by 2070 for low emissions; and a 30% decrease to 5% increase by 2070 for high emissions. Ocean-acidity levels will continue to increase as the ocean absorbs anthropogenic carbon-dioxide emissions. While reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions would increase the chance of constraining future global warming, some warming and associated changes are considered unavoidable. www.csiro.au/State-of-the-Climate-2014 Microbes, crucial for fertile soils and plant growth, are vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation. Soil bacterial and fungal diversity and abundance have been shown to reduce as drylands get drier. This is largely because as soils dry out, plant cover and soil organic carbon content both decline, which in turn affects the bacteria and fungi living in the soil. A high level of microbial diversity is linked to higher plant productivity and soil fertility in drylands. Drylands across the world could suffer. If, as estimated there is severe degradation of 10-20% of global drylands this could affect up to 250 million people, mostly in the developing world. That would have a detrimental impact on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, particularly the eradication of poverty and ensuring environmental sustainability. https://theconversation.com/if-the-worlds-soils-keep-drying-out-thats-bad-news-for-microbes-and-people-53937

Wastewater: Phosphorus, nitrogen and energy (necessary ingredients for life) cannot be continuously extracted from non-renewable sources. Since wastewater contains nutrients, carbon, energy and other inorganic and organic resources, there are opportunities to preserve original natural resources, minimize waste generation and maximize value creation from waste products. Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) reported several resource recovery options for Australia in the next 20 years, including further commercialisation of dried biosolids production for fertiliser; renewable energy generation, including from co-digestion of sewage and other wastes; and, the application of new energy-efficient technologies and processes to wastewater treatment, including the production of inorganic fertiliser products. WASTEWATER – AN UNTAPPED RESOURCE? Report of a study by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) October 2015

Update on Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin: A Land Court objection to the granting of a mining lease and environmental authority for the Carmichael coal mine proposed by Adani Mining Pty Ltd was made by the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO Qld), the legal representation for Land Services of Coast and Country Inc. The objection was based on groundwater, climate, ecological and economic impacts. NCWQ Environment Report, May 2015. http://www.edoqld.org.au/carmichael-l-c/ On Tuesday 15 December 2015, the Land Court recommended approval of the Adani Carmichael coal mine to the Queensland Government (QG), subject to extra conditions to protect the black-throated finch. Despite the Land Court President drawing attention to the exceptional ecological significance of the Doongmabulla Springs and the lack of direct investigation or modelling, Adani secured an environmental permit from the QG to build Australia’s largest coal mine. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/02/queensland-gives-adani-environmental-permit-for-carmichael-coalmine On behalf of Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), EDO Qld is seeking an independent judicial review by the Federal Court of the legality of Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s approval of the project. This is based on whether the minister correctly applied the law when considering the impacts of the project on the GBR and the endangered black-throated finch. The case is progressing with a hearing expected 3-4 May 2016. http://www.edoqld.org.au/carmichael-coal-mine-federal-court-challenge/. The black-throated finch has since been declared extinct in NSW so the Adani mine site is now its largest remaining habit. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/25/black-throated-finchs-nsw-demise-raises-stakes-for-adani-mine-site-habitat. Adani still has to obtain significant bank funding to realise its $16.5bn mine, rail and port project, a mining lease from the QG, and reach compensation agreements with a number of remaining stakeholders, including local governments over the project’s use of their roads. Also it must finalise Indigenous land use agreements with traditional owners of the sites for associated works including an airstrip and workers’ accommodation. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/02/queensland-gives-adani-environmental-permit-for-carmichael-coalmine

Biodiversity offsets: While biodiversity offsetting aimed at “no net loss” of diversity is an increasingly popular policy approach, there is concern at the use of an “averted loss” where gains from the offset and the losses from the impact are only required to add up to the decline that would otherwise have occurred. Thus averted loss offsets only achieve a continuing decline of biodiversity. http://theconversation.com/biodiversity-offsets-could-be-locking-in-species-decline-14177 Environmental Impact Statements of mining ventures can include policies aimed to balance biodiversity loss arising from habitat destruction at one location by enhancing and/or protecting similar but separate habitat at another location. However, achieving the intending benefits is fraught with difficulties. For example, if only the vertical structure of a forest impacted by a mine site is considered, the estimate would be quite different from that if plant or bird species diversity was considered also. While companies aiming to have a net positive biodiversity impact are to be commended the methods for offsetting are still evolving and these companies will need to keep up to date and develop better ways of quantifying losses and gains. http://theconversation.com/does-offsetting-work-to-make-up-for-habitat-lost-to-mining-27699

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