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Reducing Urban Impacts on the Great Barrier Reef


Cairns Regional Council

The Saltwater Creek catchment, Cairns, Queensland

Project stage



Start date: 17 November 2017
End date: 05 June 2019

Project value

Australian Government funding:


  • James Cook University
  • Wet Tropics Healthy Waterways Partnership
  • Itron Australasia

Focus area

  • Natural environmental data and measurement (air quality
  • dust
  • noise
  • waterways)

Project type

  • Environmental monitoring

Technology type

  • Internet of Things
  • Environmental sensors
  • IT systems (interoperability)
  • Online portal

Project link

Project summary

This project will install a connected network of environmental sensors in urban waterways to obtain real-time water quality data on discharges entering the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This will benefit the Park by facilitating automated and targeted evidence based management of water quality.

The challenge

Cairns Regional Council is committed to ensuring that water run-off from river catchments in the region does not negatively impact the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. There is currently very little data regarding water quality discharge from the urban environment. If we don’t monitor, we can’t manage.


This project - delivered through the Smart Catchments: Saltwater Creek pilot study - aims to use near real-time urban stormwater quality information to inform operational decisions by Council while at the same time engaging with the community to encourage the sharing of this data to change community behaviour to improve urban stormwater quality.

The study will deliver functional tools, and data in real-time, that will monitor urban run-off that includes high nutrient, sediment and chemical loads. This will assist Council make more informed decisions in relation to urban catchment water management along the Great Barrier Reef.

The study will work with school students, educators and stakeholders in the catchment to develop engaging online tools for individuals and schools to understand the data that is generated by the project’s smart technology. Through this it is hoped communities will be encouraged to care for and assist in nurturing their local creek and river catchments, particularly those impacting on the Great Barrier Reef.


As a result of this project, Cairns Regional Council will be able to obtain a calibrated flood and stomwater quality model. This is important because it allows for the impacts or benefits of catchment improvements to be modelled allowing for the best use of rate-payers money.  Council will also receive real-time alerts if there are significant changes in water quality, giving greater capacity to respond to potential incidents. 

The project will provide ongoing information on the loads of nitrogen and suspended solids being discharged to the Great Barrier Reef.  This information is important for informing the Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan. 

The community will have access to data from the Saltwater Creek gauging station. This is going to be of particular value to the region’s schools. Consistent feedback from the education community relates to the need for local information for school education. Supporting tools, including online educational games and handouts/fact sheets, will be in line with the Australian Curriculum and primarily aimed at Year 5 and Year 7 students.  The data from the gauging station will however be able to be used by a range of ages for maths, science and geography. 

The project is very scalable. The methodology for catchment monitoring can be applied to any catchment, as can the public display of data. The online tools being developed for schools and the supporting resources for teachers could be modified to suit other urban and agricultural catchments. The water quality gauging station constructed for the Saltwater Creek pilot study, mirrors gauging stations that are located at the end of major agricultural catchments.

Lessons learned

Lessons learned to date during project delivery have included:

  • The sensor technology used for this project has been very challenging and the Partnership with James Cook University has been critical for challenges to be overcome.  Environmental sensors are being pushed to the limits of their operating range at the major monitoring site.  The experience gained with installing the sensors will be of significant benefit to other Great Barrier Reef estuarine catchments.  All procedures developed as part of establishing the water quality gauging station and sensors will be available on the project web site following the completion of the project.
  • Ensuring the project has a strong and detailed project implementation plan and all members of the project team are clear on roles and responsibilities. Information on the implementation of this project will also be available on the project web site at the completion of the project.
  • Given the higher risks associated with innovation projects an agile approach is being used to deliver project objectives within the required timeframes.
  • The need to manage project partner expectations effectively through the project plan and formal agreements where required.
  • The need to ensure that the right people are employed for the right job.  This is critical with the short project timeframe.  It is important to have project participants that have a ‘can do’ attitude and can work well together across multiple disciplines to achieve great project outcomes.
  • The need to be open-minded and trusting of the expertise available and the need to adapt thinking to ensure the right expertise is available. Often unforeseen opportunities are presented and the project manager and project team need to be able to look for and act on opportunities. The development of the CCTV camera technology for measuring creek flow is an example of an opportunity that arose through consultation with key stakeholders. 
  • The delivery of many, unexpected, very positive outcomes for project partners and the community as a result of the project.  For example, the project will allow Cairns Regional Council to have a calibrated flood and stormwater quality model.  These tools are critical for future catchment improvements.
  • A significant number of university students have had the opportunity to participate in the project through the partnership approach including environmental, information technology and Internet of Things engineering students.  This has allowed the project to benefit from fresh ideas and has also given students the opportunity to work on ‘real life’ projects as part of work placements or internships.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.  In delivering this project a significant emphasis has been put on engaging with critical stakeholders from the beginning to ensure that the project deliverables meet as many needs as possible.  As an example the water quality gauging station has been established to align with gauging stations in key agricultural catchments.  Monitoring at the Saltwater Creek gauging station aligns with other gauging stations meaning the data will be of value to the evaluation of the Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan and how it applies to an urban environment.
  • It was important to treat this project as a pilot study.  Project implementation has been made more achievable because of the resources and experience available through Council, for example capital works delivery (for the construction of the gauging station) and information technology (for data communications).  Going forward, there is an ambition to link the gauging station into Council’s SCADA network via a programmable logic controller so that it is on the same operating system as other key Council assets such as pump stations and treatment plants. This is technology available to councils that would not be generally available to state agencies or universities and is a strong example of the importance of the collaborative approach.


  • With sensors and cameras installed in the catchment, the Gauging Station is operational with data being received.
  • The use of Smart Water Meter communication technology has been confirmed to work in the laboratory environment but yet to be tested in the field.
  • Engagement with the community within the Saltwater Creek Catchment along with presentations to national and local audiences has generated strong interest in the project.
  • A project website was launched in February 2019 and is communicating the program vision, goals and progress to date.

Contact details

Name: Lynne Powell
Phone: 07 4044 8343