Sunday 17 August 2008

H2O + EV – WC2 = WQIP?

Syd Walker ponders the meaning of life up the hill and the drama of all things H2O

Last night, meaningless quasi-algebraic formulae raced through my mind as I nodded off to sleep.

Earlier in the week, I had attended a meeting in Kuranda, the purpose of which was to explain the forthcoming Barron / Trinity Inlet Water Quality Improvement Plan to interested members of the community such as myself.

I have no bone to pick with the staff who took the trouble to visit us in the evening hours, make a presentation and answer questions.

They tried hard to explain their project and clarify the alleged benefits of this Water Quality Improvement Program (WQIP) process. They introduced the audience to a new swag of acronyms. Did you know ‘EV’ means ‘environmental value’? Neither did I – but now I do. They struggled to explain the scope of the project and its value to ‘stakeholders’.

But unfortunately for them, as every door-to-door salesman well knows, shoddy goods provoke customer resistance.

Kuranda environmentalists are a suspicious lot. We’ve seen governments, plans and programs come and go – and not much change in the region’s environmental management. We’re weren’t born yesterday – in some cases the margin being quite considerable. Many of us carry well-tuned crap detectors, which we keep switched on at such occasions.

My crap detector bleeped furiously throughout most of the meeting. I asked a question or two – but the answers just made it bleep louder. I left with the view that the Barron / Trinity Inlet Water Quality Improvement Plan is essentially an exercise in pretence.

It works like this. Governments pretend to be doing something important. Scientists pretend to study important things. The public pretends to have been consulted. Polluters pretend to be bothered. Importantly, everyone pretends we’re all ‘making progress’. Meanwhile, the river dies.

Actually, that’s going too far. This river isn’t dying. The Barron is not the Murray-Darling. It gets flushed out once a year when FNQ’s wet season arrives. And so, on an annual basis, the river is re-born – like the legendary phoenix!

I’ve coined my own acronym for the Barron River. I call it a WC. Some say that WC stands for Water Catchment. But in my book, it’s short for ‘Water Closet’. The Barron has a curious design with a large bowl at the top, followed by a long winding channel. The whole system is vigorously flushed, at least once a year. Where does it all go? Down into the Great Barrier Reef, of course. The Barron’s septic tank is the Coral Sea.

And there’s the rub – and the entire reason for WQIPs. It’s well known that the reef is in poor shape. It is a World Heritage site – an ecosystem of unparalleled magnificence. But large areas of the reef ecosystem are sick.

In recent years, grim-faced scientists have started making the same kind of doom-laden predictions about the Reef as their equivalents 20 years ago made about the Murray-Darling. Everyone agrees that the crisis is urgent! The same cliches are recycled. It might be our "Last Chance to Take Action!"

But real action often costs real money (state of the art sewerage systems, sophisticated monitoring etc). Even more alarming, real action can have an inconvenient tendency to upset real people (e.g. wealthy farming interests who currently externalize the costs of their unsustainable use of poisons by dumping them, free of charge, into the Barron WC).

All too often, politicians don’t like upsetting powerful stakeholders. They much prefer pretence – especially with ever-reliable cover from our lazy, ‘ask-no-hard-questions’ mass media. So instead of action, we have a WQIP.

Cynics might call it a ‘Water Quality Improvement Pretence’.

The Barron – Trinity Inlet WQIP, we were told at the meeting, has been poorly-funded. Consequently, it will be a desktop job in which existing data is reviewed. Some work has been done modeling the catchment. The three key factors in the model, if I recall correctly, are Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Sediment Load.

“What about Pesticides?” asked an awkward soul at the back of the room. I intended to pursue the same line of questioning myself, but felt momentary sympathy for the hapless folk at the front whose task it was to present the Great Pretence to the meeting. What a job!

The co-ordinator, a charming woman whose name is Fiona Barron - no, I’m not making it up - explained patiently that pesticides are beyond the scope of this WQIP. The lack of pesticide data will be identified as a gap in the data. There are proposals for further work to look into pesticides, proposals currently seeking funds.

I never really got the chance at the meeting, so I’ll vent my spleen a little in this article.

I'd like to make a few points, so please bear with me.

Studies carried out for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority have already shown that the Barron is a significant source of pesticide pollutants. See GBRMPA’s overview of water quality issues. It’s hardly surprising. Take a trip to Mareeba and check out large agricultural suppliers. The range of poisons on sale is staggering.

Fiona Barron estimates that more than 450 pesticides (including fungicides and herbicides) may be used in the catchment. This reflects the complexity of the catchment’s agriculture. We don’t just grow one or two crops. Our agriculture is much more complex and sports a plethora of monocultures. In each case, different poisons are used to ‘solve’ ‘pest problems’.

Organic agriculture – farming practice that doesn’t employ these toxins – is minimal in the Barron Catchment. There’s no special support for organic agriculture, nor any official recognition that organic practice does not impose an equivalent toxic load on the river. But then again, there’s no real data on pesticides in the river…

Farmers who poison their land, in time, poison the reef. They may also, en route, poison people who drink the river water on its way to sea (eg. Kuranda residents who drink the town water, visiting tourists) and/or people who consume fish caught in the Barron (such as numerous Aboriginal folk in the Myola Valley). No-one knows whether these risks are significant or not. There’s no data (although the Aboriginals do seem to die young.)

Now, part of the problem – and it’s a problem especially associated with the Barron - is the sheer complexity of pesticide use. I understand that to monitor these chemicals, each one must be separately assayed. With hundreds of poisons in use, that’s extremely expensive… and in any case, who knows how to interpret the results of such tests? What are the combined synergistic effects of this ever-changing chemical cocktail? It might take a millennium before we adeuately understand the impacts and potential risks of this complex brew.

In the face of such complexity, it is still possible to take worthwhile action. But a real sense of direction – heading towards genuine sustainability - is needed, along with the guts to stand up to powerful vested interests. Neither of these were much in evidence under Beattie and Howard. Let’s hope for more in this latest political era.

What might a genuine Water Quality Improvement Plan for the Barron entail – a plan designed to generate results fast, rather than moodle around for another few years?

First, we do need much of the data being assembled in the current study. But we need to go further – without delay – and obtain data on pesticide levels and other variables (such as heavy metals) that until now there’s been no enthusiasm to monitor. We need comprehensive baseline studies, including tests on aquatic biota as well as the water itself, at numerous different locations and times in the yearly cycle.

Second, we already know enough to know that pesticides are likely to be dangerous in large quantities and complex combinations. We therefore need an energetic, systematic program to reduce pesticide use - without delay. This should extend beyond ‘integrated pest management’ and include commitment to promoting organic practice. At the very least, let’s level the playing field for all growers! Organic growers in the catchment do not use the Barron as a toxic drain. Most ‘mainstream’ agriculturalists do. Why should the latter be allowed to use the river as a WC, free of charge? It’s the antithesis of the ‘polluter pays’ principle -and hands them a quite unfair competitive advantage.

Third, users of pesticides should be required to register and record all use. This must be public information. Without good, hard data about what’s going into the catchments, we don’t even know what to test for and when.

Fourth, we need a long-term plan – with real and monitored targets – to reduce the overall toxic load we collectively impose on the river. The ultimate objective should be a sustainable, pollution-free river.

This will doubtless require some new infrastructure such as state-of-the-art town sewerage works. Important riparian revegetation work is already underway, thanks to community groups like Kuranda Envirocare and the Barron River Catchment Management Association.

But a real plan also requires real behavioural change – and the agricultural sector cannot keep its free pass extended indefinitely. No more ‘pollution credits!’

Which brings me to my fifth point. The onus of proof should be reversed. At present, farmers and other polluters can – in effect – pour poisons in large quantities into the river and down onto the reef. Absent a shocking, concentrated, point-source chemical release, it’s almost impossible to attribute specific damage to any single polluter. The underlying assumption is that the farmers have a ‘right’ to pollute at no cost to themselves - as long as they don’t trigger a blatant, self-evident pollution event.

I think the burden should be reversed. There is no automatic right to pollute that comes with land title. Farmers should be required to prove their industrial practices are safe – not the other way round. If they can’t do that, use of toxic chemicals should be discontinued.

I am not anti-farming. I am all for farming. It’s very hard work to grow food and obtain useful produce from the land. Done well, agriculture is truly skilled work – part science, part art. I believe it should be appropriately remunerated.

Industrial agricultural seeks to mass-produce food – just like any other industrial commodity. To do so, it employs a series of short cuts. Monoculture simplifies production and marketing. Labour saving technology keeps input costs low. Industrial agricultural practice often – although not invariably - entails broad scale application of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

I’m not suggesting that the entire industrialized agricultural sector should grind to a stand-still next month. A transition is obviously required.

But the direction of transition should be clear. We need some guiding principles. One of these is that those whose activities are likely to be injurious to human and/or environmental health, should bear responsibility for demonstrating the safety of those practices. If they can’t do that, the practices in question should be modified and/or phased out, the faster the better.

A single farmer is unlikely to be able to fund or carry out the research to establish the sustainability of their practices. But monoculturalists come in industry sectors. Cane farmers have industry associations. So do other growers. These associations should do the necessary work. If it’s not affordable, that tells us something important. Other practices should be favoured.

There are a few ideas for a real Water Quality Improvement Plan. I’ve focused on the issue of pesticides – perhaps excessively so. Obviously, there are other important issues – not least of which is the complex multi-purpose de,amds imposed on the heavily engineered Barron catchment, which includes Tinaroo Dam. Some of these issues are being worked through in the current WQIP.

I believe the community is ready for a real water quality program that tackles, among other things, the issue of pesticides.

Unfortunately, most of our politicians and bureaucrats are so used to playing ‘Let’s Pretend’ with water quality that they uncritically capitulate to aggressive moneyed interests, without even putting up a struggle. In doing so, they lag behind community standards and allow the public interest to suffer.

Many factors threaten the Reef. Climate change is probably one of them. That’s a global issue.

But other factors are clearly local in origin. We can control them, from within this region. Indeed, no one else can do it. Only us.

It’s time we get real – and get on with it.

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