The potential for developing northern Australia has emerged in recent years as a leading political and social issue, especially in relation to utilisation of water and aquatic resources. Through 27 years operating in northern Australia and with such a large and diverse group of scientists, TropWATER is very well-placed to make a major contribution to various aspects of the northern development agenda. We have worked extensively in both intensively developed and almost undeveloped catchments. Through our conduct of long-term monitoring for various government agencies and mining companies, we possess some of the largest water quality and aquatic ecology datasets in the region, some now stretching to 20 years of annual monitoring.
TropWATER has a long history working on management of aquatic resources in the major irrigation districts of northern Australia – e.g. Burdekin, Mareeba-Dimbulah, Wet Tropics, Mackay district. In established irrigation areas, TropWATER have many projects covering the management of freshwater and coastal aquatic habitats. Here, major issues have developed in regard to water quality, aquatic weed invasion, loss of seasonal flow in streams and reductions in biodiversity. Recently, we have studied the impacts of the Burdekin Falls Dam on downstream water quality and have also been working on restoring wetlands and fish passage in the Burdekin floodplain, as well as establishment of artificial wetlands as fish habitat and for water quality polishing, within heavily developed catchments. All of the lessons learned here will be invaluable in planning for new developments to minimise environmental impacts.
TropWATER’s Catchment to Reef Research Group have many projects aimed at reducing agricultural runoff to marine receiving environments, predominantly the GBR. These projects are conducted jointly with many government, research and industry partners, and include working on the ground with farmers in direct trials to reduce losses of sediment, nutrients and pesticides. Our work in this area has influenced state and federal government policy and achieved considerable success in reducing losses of these key contaminants. The application of these on-farm management methods will be crucial in any new irrigation development in the north.
TropWATER are also working on science to underpin the development of new irrigation projects in currently underdeveloped locations. We were partners in the Commonwealth-funded North Australia Water Futures Assessment (NAWFA) and we have recently partnered with CSIRO in the delivery of the $6 million Flinders Gilbert Agricultural Resource Assessment (FGARA), a comprehensive examination of the feasibility of irrigation development in those two northern catchments. We are conducting additional studies underpinning potential irrigation development in the Gilbert catchment.
In addition to biophysical studies of development, our work also covers socio-economic issues. Natalie Stoeckl and colleagues have investigated the different impacts of ‘development’ on Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the Daly River catchment, in northern Australia; a region experiencing relatively rapid agricultural development. The analysis builds upon the work of several inter-related but independent projects conducted over 6 years (2006-2011). This work integrates economic, hydrological, ecological and socio-cultural information providing new empirical insights about the potential impact of different types of development on water resources, aquatic habitats and on both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
Photo credits: Jason Shaffer, Ross Johnston, Agnes Le Port