Water planning in north Queensland

Project start date: 18/07/2022
Project end date: 30/04/2023
NESP funding: $299,996 (GST-exclusive)

This project is examining existing risk-assessment frameworks and data on environmental and cultural values in the western Cape York Peninsula and south-east Gulf of Carpentaria region. It is developing a pathway to improving community engagement and identifying knowledge gaps to guide hub research into improving outcomes for environmental and cultural values.

To ensure biodiversity is protected, individual developments in northern Australia are currently assessed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and other state planning legislation. However, there is a need to take a broader regional approach to assessing risks posed by the cumulative impacts of multiple developments.

The Cape York Peninsula and southern Gulf of Carpentaria region in Queensland is area of particular interest for future development. This includes proposals for mining, dams and other infrastructure for irrigated agriculture. Each of these can impact water resources, biodiversity and culturally significant locations and values.


Map of the catchments of the south-eastern Gulf of Carpentaria

Map showing the south-eastern Gulf of Carpentaria region with major rivers and catchments. Image: Resilient Landscapes Hub.

Although the predicted impacts from individual developments may appear to be relatively minor, there is a risk that the ‘tyranny of small decisions’ could culminate in unexpected consequences for water quality, biodiversity and cultural values. This issue therefore provides a potential case study for an integrated, regional approach to identifying risks from development to environmental and cultural values.

The first phase of the project is focusing on compiling information that can inform or be used in a future risk-assessment process. This includes collating tools, previous research outputs and a broad range of stakeholder perspectives so that the risk-assessment process is applicable across the study region and robust in a variety of situations.

The second phase of this project will work with a broader range of stakeholders to assess and refine the information collected in the first phase. Researchers will then assess the information in the context of decadal patterns in water flows, possible future trends, and how these patterns might impact ecosystem productivity, health and cultural values over the long term.

This project is providing information to improve outcomes for environmental and cultural values from the decision-making processes relevant to developments in the context of the EPBC Act and other risk-assessment schemes. The project is also contributing to the North Queensland Assessments contract project led by Professor Allan Dale (James Cook University) and linking with the Marine and Coastal Hub’s project 1.32.

Links between regional-planning projects.

Key research areas

To address this challenge, this project aims to develop better outcomes for biodiversity and the environment by:

  • establishing a project steering committee involving the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW), Department of Environment and Science, Queensland (DES Qld), First Nations people and hub researchers
  • collating existing information on current and proposed developments in the study area relevant to water resources, including those that have triggered existing risk assessments
  • gathering existing spatial information on biodiversity values, endangered species, vulnerable ecosystems and threats to these in the relevant catchments
  • developing a regional integrated risk-assessment approach
  • collaborating with First Nations people from the region so that they can lead a process to identify how interests, values and knowledge can be incorporated into the risk-assessment process
  • using a whole-of-catchment approach focusing on freshwater systems (rivers, wetlands), associated riparian areas and downstream estuaries
  • assessing the collated information in the context of long-term water patterns and ecosystem responses, the likely future trends of these patterns, and how water developments could affect ecological health and cultural values in the long term
  • determining if and where there are high-value cultural and ecological sites for fish, other marine species, migratory birds and biodiversity
  • building on the above to engage with a broader range of stakeholders to assess the collated information and consider a regionally integrated risk-assessment approach to planning in north Queensland.

The area of focus is the western Cape York and south-east Gulf of Carpentaria region but the results will be more broadly applicable across northern Australia.

  • Gulf of Carpentaria river floodplain. Photo: Michael Douglas.
  • Mitchell River in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Photo: Stephen Faggotter.