SEQ’s much loved waterways in decline

The 2021 Report Card for South East Queensland (SEQ) released today indicates the region’s waterways are no longer holding the line.

As the population in SEQ has grown over the past two decades, significant investments have been made into our catchments and point source pollution such as sewage treatment plants, which has improved water quality in our river estuaries and Moreton Bay.

However, the trends in the data are now showing clear early warning signs that we are struggling to keep up with the escalating population growth to the region, which brings growing levels of pollution to our waterways from land-use changes for new housing and industry and development, and degraded catchments. More investment and action is now needed into activities such as restoring streambank vegetation and managing urban run-off.

CEO of peak environmental group for South East Queensland Healthy Land and Water, Julie McLellan, says given it takes years and sometimes decades for actions on the ground to result in a rebound in the environment, the Report Card is doing what it was designed to do and giving us the forewarning we need so we can act now – before it’s too late.

“We risk loving SEQ to death, without improved planning and increased investment,” she says.

“With only a decade before the eyes of the world are on SEQ for a promised green Olympic and Paralympic Games, the data presents an urgent call to action to address the declining trends, particularly given that our region is predicted to grow by a further 800,000 people by 2032.

“The good news is that with 21 years of data, we know what to do. Taking well planned action can deliver results – as we’ve clearly seen by the successes of the past 20 years investment in catchment health.”

Ms McLellan says while overall grades in 2021 have only changed marginally, the devil is in the detail.

On one hand some parts of the bay are recording the best water quality in years and there is a pleasing return of seagrass to Moreton Bay, which is an internationally significant achievement.

On the other hand, there is a concerning trend of increasing nutrients levels in parts of the bay and estuaries. “This is an early sign that the pressure from nutrient inputs from discharge of treated wastewater, from catchment soil erosion and stormwater runoff from dense urban areas may be creeping back up as more people move into SEQ,” she says.

Ms McLellan says the main reason we’ve been able to hold the line for so long has been the significant continued investment in wastewater treatment plants since the early 2000’s. This investment was sparked by poor results in the Bramble and Deception Bays which received an F and D respectively at the time, due to pollutants and sediment causing algal blooms, poor water quality, and seagrass loss. McLellan says targeted investment in innovative sewage treatment solutions has undeniably resulted in turning around the health of the bay.

However, she says, it’s no longer enough and there need for a ramping up of targeted investment in number of other key areas, such as streambank restoration and managing urban run-off.

“With mounting population and climate pressures, including the need to build the region’s resilience to flood, fire and drought, we have just received a clear message that more needs to be done,” she says.

“The only way to get ahead of this, is by ramping up investment into the activities which have proven to have the best bang for buck.”

She points to the innovative use of erosion and sediment controls, that stop pollutants running off development and construction sites and into local creeks and rivers through stormwater during small and large rainfall events. Less than 1% of land area across South East Queensland is under construction at any given time, and construction contributes 40% of the sediment pollution that enters Moreton Bay. Forecasts of pollutant increases in developing catchments of SEQ suggest that without action we face increased sediment loads by 20-60% over the next 10 years.

On top of urban pressures, rural western catchments with sparse vegetation cover and little to no stream bank vegetation have low resilience to flood, fire and drought, and as a result of the ongoing drought 2021 saw some of the poorest freshwater condition since 2007. The Upper Brisbane catchment, a major source of drinking water feeding into Wivenhoe Dam, scored an F this year for the first time since 2007, at the end of the Millennium drought. This brings potential increases in the costs of water supply into the future.

Ms McLellan says we know that addressing the historical loss of tree and ground cover, significantly protects/buffers against future pressures across the region

She says the 21-year story is a reminder of the large-scale investment required to bring back and protect stream bank vegetation, increase ground cover and to restore resilience across the region, particularly in the western catchments.

“If we could find the investment to restore stream bank vegetation to just 6000 km of stream length across SEQ, we would have the potential to reduce sediment loads to the coastal areas by as much as 50%,” she explains.

“Similarly, finding investment to channel into our wetlands which reduce the impacts of floods, absorb pollutants and improve water quality would also yield results for the region. Some parts of SEQ have lost more than 80% of their freshwater wetlands. Land purchase for vegetation and wetland restoration and protection purposes is also critical to ensure ecosystem services are being maintained during current population and associated development pressures.”

Another strong message coming from the data is that we are seeing that Moreton Bay is retaining its resilience despite past pressures. Water quality in western Moreton Bay in 2021 is the best on record. The seagrass continues to expand growing thicker and deeper. A little further offshore, the Central Bay did even better in 2021, receiving an A for the first time in the history of the program. Moreton Bay appears resilient to times of poorer water quality if given enough time to recover.

“The great thing about our 21 year dataset is that we can derive these longer term trends and it gives us a unique window into how our waterways and ecosystems respond to both threatening processes and also positive investments,” says Ms McLellan.

The data also tells us that the SEQ community is deeply connected to nature and we place a high value on our waterways. The creeks, rivers, lakes, bays and beaches of SEQ continue to provide significant value to residents during another year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year 84% of residents said they used their local waterways for some form of rest and recreation, including walking, cycling, swimming, picnics and fishing.

It bodes well for the region that South East Queenslanders place a high value on local waterways. While COVID fears kept some people away, others reported using waterways more than ever describing the outdoors as ‘the only freedom we had’. In a recent survey and workshops held across the region, South East Queenslanders have also demanded that more action be taken to improve our waterways and catchments.

Ms McLellan says the region is known for innovative green solutions, such as Brisbane’s five green bridges at an estimated $550 million. “If a similarly proactive investment of $550 million into the health of the region was prioritised, we could restore the catchment and protect the water supply of 3.7 million residents.”

Ms McLellan stated that at the 21-year mark, it’s important to take the time to both celebrate our successes and to plan for the future.

“There can be no doubt that our beautiful region is under pressure, and its timely to celebrate the extraordinary amount of work by so many people – as individuals and in broad ranging partnerships – which has protected the region,”

Much work has been done by willing landholders and proactive industry and government, but a significant ramp up of effort is required.

“Our community has told us that we must plan and take concerted action to ramp up efforts to protect and enhance our region if we are going to retain our enviable reputation as a great place to live, work and visit, and to have our region truly green by 2032.”



Media contacts

Suzi Moore | Team Leader Marketing and Communications | 0427 641 239 |


Different regions face different pressures and priorities:

Northern Catchments: Impacted by development pressures and historic land-use, the priority is to protect existing values and undertake active restoration and protection of wetlands and floodplains.

Central Catchments: Impacted by an increasing population, the priority is stormwater management and naturalising urban waterways where possible, as well as continuing to manage increasing demands on wastewater treatment plants.

Western Catchments: Impacted by historic loss of vegetation and riparian cover, the priority is to protect, manage and restore catchment vegetation and wetlands.

Southern Catchments: Impacted by an increasing population and development, the priority is to manage land-use change and increase erosion and sediment controls and compliance for new development, construction sites and private lands.

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