Our scientists are working hard to understand and find innovative ways to improve the quality of water reaching the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (the Reef).

The challenge

An icon under threat

Valued at $56 billion, the Great Barrier Reef is a global icon and an important Australian economic, social and environmental asset. It hosts a complex and delicately balanced ecosystem under multiple threats from human activities both locally on the reef, regionally along its coastline and globally through climate change.

Hardy Reef in the Whitsundays..  ©CSIRO, Rebecca Bartley

The Great Barrier Reef is under threat from a range of pressures with a major one being deteriorating water quality due to pollution from adjacent land use.

Rising water temperatures, increasing ocean acidification, Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS), fishing, and coastal development are also impacting the Great Barrier Reef.

CSIRO has a long legacy working on the Reef and we continue to collaborate with a wide range of partners to find novel ways to preserve, protect and improve this international treasure.

Our response

Improving land management

Many areas of the Reef still show resilience, which presents a window of opportunity to act now, while there is still enough diversity to preserve and restore.

The Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan provides the framework that can guide policy responses, but it needs to be supported by a harnessing of Australia's world-class research capability across multiple organisations, so that we can capitalise on the Reef's resilience and ability to recover.

Preserving the Reef's ecological function by 2030 is not just about its coral reefs, but of all its ecosystems.

Between 2008 and 2017, the Australian and Queensland governments spent an estimated $600 million on improving land management with the aim of enhancing the quality of water reaching the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (the Reef). About half of the investment was allocated to reducing river loads of fine sediment and nutrients through improved land management.

We continue to work with rangeland ecologists and the grazing industry to develop practical and effective land management solutions for the Reef.

With our partners, we have defined the system of erosion and sediment transport processes connecting agricultural land with receiving water bodies. We have assisted the Australian Government to be more targeted in their programs to reduce sediment and nutrient delivery.

This research supports the current Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, through the draft Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017-2022.

[Music plays and an image appears of bushland and the camera pans over the bushland and the CSIRO logo appears in the centre of the screen]

[Image changes to show a school of fish swimming and text appears: Water Quality and the Great Barrier Reef]

[Images move through to show a tortoise swimming above the reef, a colourful fish swimming amongst coral, and then a school of fish swimming in and out coral]

Dr Rebecca Bartley: We now know that climate change is the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef but we all need to work together on all of the elements that are impacting on the Reef including water quality.

[Image changes to show Dr Rebecca Bartley talking to the camera and text appears: Dr Rebecca Bartley, CSIRO Research Scientist and Group Leader]

We’re working in the Burdiken Catchment. The Burdekin Catchment is one of the largest catchments draining on the east coast of Australia out to the Great Barrier Reef.

[Image continues to show Dr Bartley talking to the camera and then the image changes to show a school of colourful fish swimming above the reef]

It drains just south of Townsville near Aire into the marine system and it’s enormous.

[Camera pans over an aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef]

It’s 130,000 square kilometres or the same size as England.

[Images move through to show Dr Bartley talking to the camera, Brett Abbott standing in bushland collecting samples, and then the camera pans over an aerial view of bushland]

CSIRO is focussed on understanding what some of the remediation strategies are where we can actually improve land management and reduce the amount of sediment and nutrients getting out to the Reef.

[Image changes to show Dr Bartley talking to the camera then camera pans over a catchment area amongst bushland]

So, with James Cook University we’re collaboratively linking the research between solutions in the catchment and responses in the marine system.

[Image changes to show Dr Steve Lewis talking to the camera and text appears: Dr Steve Lewis, Research Scientist, TropWATER, James Cook University]

Dr Steve Lewis: We saw the floodwaters from the Burdekin River move a long way offshore in this year’s floods.

[Image shows Dr Lewis talking to the camera and then the image changes to show an aerial view of bushland and the camera pans over the bushland]

That impinged over coral reefs and also influenced sea grass meadows within the Great Barrier Reef.

[Camera pans over an aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef and then images move through of Aaron Hawdon labelling sample bottles, holding them up, and then putting them in a locked cabinet]

During these floods we were able to take a lot of samples of the sediments in the water where we were able to do some detailed experiments on those sediments to characterise them and trace them back to a source within the Burdekin Catchment.

[Image shows Aaron putting the samples in a locked cabinet and setting a pin code while out in bushland area and then the image changes to show Dr Lewis talking to the camera]

Our project really aims to characterise the sediment that causes the most harm in the Great Barrier Reef to both coral reefs and seagrass meadows. So, we can understand where that sediment is coming from in the catchment.

[Image changes to show Aaron talking to the camera then the image changes to show Brett surveying a bushland area and text appears: Aaron Hawdon, Senior Instrumentation Specialist, CSIRO Townsville]

Aaron Hawdon: We’re using laser scanning and other survey methods to measure the change in the shape of the gullies and when we look at this over time we’re actually able to investigate where the erosion is coming from.

[Image changes to show Brett surveying a bushland area and then the image changes to show Aaron talking to the camera]

We’ll also have a suite of sensors set up inside the gullies that measure how much water flows through as well as how much sediment is actually in that water.

[Image changes to show Aaron taking samples out from the locked cabinet in a bushland area and camera zooms in on the sample bottle being turned in Aaron’s hands]

So, today we’re collecting samples from our auto sampler from a gully that we’ll later take back to the lab for analysis.

[Camera zooms out on Aaron looking at the sample bottle and then turning and talking to the camera]

So, we’ll actually find out exactly how much sediment is in this water as well as how many nutrients are in there which we can then use to determine whether our treatments are working.

[Image changes to show Brett collecting data on soil and vegetation conditions while standing holding his Smartphone in a bushland area]

Brett Abbott: On the hill slopes above the gullies we measure soil surface condition and vegetation components.

[Image changes to show Brett kneeling down in long grass while talking to the camera and then the image changes to show Brett standing looking at his phone in a bushland area and text appears: Brett Abbott, Rangeland Ecologist, CSIRO Townsville]

Data we collect here is taken back to the lab and analysed against the water quality data to look at changes over time due to the landscape management.

[Image changes to show Dr Bartley talking to the camera while seated next to Dr Lewis and then the image changes and the camera pans over an aerial view of a Landcruiser moving through bushland]

Dr Rebecca Bartley: We’ve set up a very strong team of people who have expertise in collecting real time data to support decision making about where investment about remediation to improve water quality to the Reef should be placed.

[Images move through to show Aaron typing on a laptop at a testing site, using surveying equipment, and Dr Lewis talking to the camera while Rebecca listens]

Dr Steve Lewis: And it also allows us to observe the processes that are happening in our environment so we can see where the sediment’s coming from for the major tributaries as well as where the sediment and floodwaters are moving into the Great Barrier Reef where we’re able to better target our measurements, better target the investments

[Images move through to show Aaron and Brett inside the car driving through bushland, taking samples, and the car driving through the bushland again]

and it also allows us to engage with industry to be out, physically out in the field taking these samples and engaging with different landholders to show what we’re collecting and where we’ve collected that sample from and the different processes that’s involved to process those samples.

[Images move through to show an aerial view of bushland, Dr Bartley talking to the camera, a school of colourful fish swimming through the reef, divers looking at the fish, and a school of striped fish]

Dr Rebecca Bartley: When we work with people living in the regions, working in the regions, the regional bodies, state government, federal government, and the landholders themselves I think we actually have a chance of making that difference for the Great Barrier Reef into the future.

[Music plays and sponsors’ logos and text appears: CSIRO’s water quality work is conducted in partnership with James Cook University, the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and National Environmental Science Programme (NESP), NQ Dry Tropics and Queensland Government]

[Text appears: Additional footage supplied by Matt Curnock, Josh McJannet, and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation]

[Music plays and the CSIRO logo and text appears: CSIRO Australia's innovation catalyst]

Water Quality and the Great Barrier Reef video

Besides improving water quality and land management practices, there is a range of CSIRO research underway to address all of the impacts on the Great Barrier Reef. View the extent of our Great Barrier Reef research.

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