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North Queensland council trials new technology for catchment health

In a bid to better help protect the Great Barrier Reef lagoon in far north Queensland, one innovative council has embarked on trialling new technologies to help them better understand urban catchment runoff.

Funded by the Federal Government's Smart Cities and Suburbs grant program, and partnering with James Cook University and Itron Australasia, Cairns Regional Council is in the midst of a pilot trial of new sensor technology with the aim of assessing changes in water quality in near-real time.

Presenting at the Australian Water Association NQ Conference on the council’s work in addressing urban catchment runoff, Cairns Regional Council Strategic Policy and Compliance Coordinator Dr Lynne Powell said urban catchment data has been missing from recent efforts.

“We want to know the nutrient loads coming off our urban catchments so that we can have a more quantifiable understanding of the urban contribution of nutrients and sediments in the GBR lagoon,” she said.

“In years gone by, there has been significant effort put into loads coming from agricultural constituents. But in terms of loads coming off urban catchments, there hasn’t been as much work done, except for discharge from sewage treatment plants.”

Powell said collecting this data will also be hugely beneficial for councils negotiating with government, as well as help bolster the community’s understanding of the lagoon and reef as precious amenities.

“From a water service provider’s perspective, we want information we can use in a policy forum with state and federal governments. This will help make sure we have the right infrastructure for managing our catchments,” she said.

“If we don’t monitor our catchments, we can’t measure any successes from improvements.”

The technology being utilised in the pilot program include next-generation sensors, which exceed current practices in terms of speed and accuracy.

“We are using one urban catchment in Cairns as a pilot to test this new technology. At the end of the catchment there will be a gauging station with very sophisticated sensors to measure a range of water quality parameters including nitrate and turbidity levels,” Powell said.

“The station will be connected to the cloud and we will be able to see that data in near-real time as opposed to current methods, which involve staff members physically taking water samples and having them tested at a lab with a two-week wait. The horse has bolted before you even see the data.”

Powell said the hope is to be able to create a platform to share this information with the community to help create a more resilient and water sensitive region.

“We will be developing an online platform with information on the catchment, and tools to engage with the community and share the live data. It will be the first time that this type of information will be publicly available along the reef catchment,” she said.

“By establishing these baseline indicators, Council will be able to measure the efficiency and effectiveness of the environmental programs to be developed and set benchmarks for Australia in terms of better managing other urban and rural catchments along the Great Barrier Reef.”

Register for the Australian Water Association NQ Conference to hear more about Lynne Powell’s experience with managing the pilot program for Cairns Regional Council.