Water quality regulations remain in spotlight

By Michelle McKinlay

In the last edition of the magazine, growers were updated on proposed new Reef Protection regulations, designed to help improve reef water quality outcomes.

At the time, there had been good progress in designing sensible proposals, however there were two main sticking points – a cap on nitrogen and phosphorous application and enforcement of additional standards on land that had not been cropped for three out of the last ten years (with one of those years being in the last five years) – that is, if the land did not have a ‘cropping history’.

These proposed provisions were unacceptable to the industry and so the ABGC Board, staff and growers continued robust discussions and negotiations that have finally delivered a welcomed change in policy.

“The Queensland Government has agreed to remove the cap and offer some flexibility by allowing growers to have a Nutrient Management Plan (NMP),” ABGC Chair Stephen Lowe explained. “A NMP plan will allow growers to apply more than the regulated nutrient rates if it is recommended by an agronomy professional and based on soil and leaf test results,” he said.

The current proposed nitrogen threshold that would trigger the need for a NMP in plant crops is 280kg/ ha/year and ratoon crops is 400kg/ha/year. The proposed threshold rate for phosphorous is 60kg/ ha/year.

“At the time of going to print, discussions with departmental officers about the acceptable concentration level of nitrogen and phosphorous in leaf tests to allow growers to top up nutrients were continuing,” Mr Lowe said. “The ABGC is hopeful that a practical resolution can be found.”

However, the news is not all positive.

The Queensland Government continues to require growers to have a licence and implement additional and expensive farming standards for land that does not have a ‘cropping history’.

“This policy is poorly informed and will restrict economic development,” Mr Lowe said. “The current proposal has a blanket requirement that all ‘greenfield’ farming sites will require the same sediment mitigation measures regardless of the risk level of run off. The measures will apply equally and will not consider the proximity of the farm to waterways, amount of rainfall received, fertilising regime or steepness of blocks.

“Most disturbingly, the new conditions will apply retrospectively, to land (such as grazing land) that was owned prior to the commencement of the regulations, as well as land purchased after the commencement of the regulations.

“For example, if a grower already owns grazing land and plans to plant bananas, cane or other crops on it in the future, they will have to comply with a more complicated and expensive process and negotiate approvals with the government.”

A licence to farm on a ‘greenfield’ site will only be issued if the grower can demonstrate that the new farm will satisfy the additional standards and that there will be no net decline in water quality leaving the farm.

“The ABGC Board believes using legislation to introduce retrospective land use conditions raises serious ethical questions. This message has been communicated to the Queensland Environment and Agricultural Ministers, and the Premier,” Mr Lowe said.

“It has been a whole-of-industry effort to get this far but there is still some way to go. The ABGC Board will continue to negotiate with the Queensland Government about the proposals. Growers will continue to be consulted and are encouraged to provide feedback – they can raise concerns with ABGC Directors, staff or their parliamentary representative.”

Further information about the proposals including thresholds, ranges and NMPs can be found on the ABGC website. It is expected that the draft regulations will be debated and then become law in late August or September 2019.