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Caring for our water

Water is a scarce and essential natural resource.

Conserving and maintaining water quality is especially important in Australia, the world's driest inhabited continent.

Preventing or reducing water pollution protects our water quality and is essential to maintaining the health of our environment and our own quality of life.

Interesting facts about water

  • Water is essential to life.
  • Less than three percent of Earth's total supply of water is fresh water.
  • Polar ice and inaccessible groundwater make up more than half of that three percent.
  • In the developed western world, as well as the developing world, water is becoming more polluted.
  • Every year, polluted water kills more than 24 million people in the developing world. Most of those killed are children.
  • The department manages water quality in Queensland, licensing discharges of treated sewage and industrial wastewater, and protecting water quality under the Environmental Protection (Water) Policy 2009 (PDF)*.
  • Industry is only one source of water pollution. Other sources include sewage treatment plants, households, streets and footpaths.
  • Individuals pollute water by littering (including cigarette butts), pouring oils down the sink, and using fertilisers and other chemicals on their gardens. These pollutants are then washed or blown into stormwater drains and local waterways.
  • Litter is a major contributor to visual pollution of waterways. Most litter reaches waterways through the stormwater system, washing from footpaths and streets into stormwater drains.

Water pollution sources

Water in its natural state is not always crystal clear. Decaying plants and animals, tidal flows which stir up sediment, run-off containing minerals, and sediment and nutrients are all natural, but can make water murky, cloudy, coloured or salty (saline).

In agricultural, urban and industrial settings, we have to discharge water containing some pollutants to our sewage treatment system or a waterway, because our activities rely on water to flush away waste material.

The two types of water pollution sources are point and diffuse.

Point sources

A 'point source' is a discharge or outflow from an identifiable location, such as a pipe. Many industries use this method, while others discharge to the sewerage system. Point source and sewerage system discharges from an environmentally relevant activity must be licensed under the Environmental Protection Act 1994 (PDF)*.
Oils, detergents, herbicides, insecticides, paints and solvents from households are sometimes poured down sinks and toilets, creating problems in the sewerage system and in our waterways. For more information, see Questions and answers about wastewater.

Diffuse sources

A 'diffuse' or 'non-point source' discharge doesn't come from one identifiable source. For example, run-off from agricultural and urban sources usually does not enter a waterway at one point, but enters at a number of points, including stormwater drains.
In urban areas, runoff flowing into waterways through stormwater drains carries pollutants from various sources:

  • garden fertilisers, chemicals and soil from gardens;
  • lead, oil and tyre rubber from roads;
  • bacteria and micro-organisms from animal droppings; and
  • litter items such as plastic bags, drink containers, food wrappers and cigarette butts.

Everyone can help reduce water pollution.

Agriculture, forestry, new developments and mining activities lead to land being cleared, excavated and often eroded. After rain, surface water run-off carries soil, as well as fertilisers and chemicals. This soil and chemical mix is carried by run-off water into creeks and rivers, where it can cause:

  • silt to build up on creek and river beds - siltation;
  • excessive plant growth caused by nutrients from fertilisers - eutrophication (e.g. algal blooms); and
  • the death of aquatic plants and animals - poisoning.

Managing water quality

Managing water quality depends on knowing the current, and desired, uses of particular waterways. Any use of water has the potential to pollute. Even sunscreen washed off while you're swimming can cause water pollution problems in particularly sensitive areas.

We have different water quality objectives for different water uses. Domestic water supplies for human consumption need to be of a higher quality than water used for livestock. Recreational activities such as swimming and windsurfing need water to be of a much higher quality than water used for cooling machinery in industrial processes.

Diffuse pollutant discharges are difficult to manage because they're so widespread. One solution to the problem is education programs aimed at industry and the community. These programs include Landcare, Integrated Catchment Management and Waterwatch (07) 3896 9332, and the development of guidelines on environmental management for industry.

The department's role

The department is committed to adopting and promoting modern and effective environmental management techniques to minimise harm to the environment. Ecologically sustainable development is the main principle behind decision making. This means providing for economic development while protecting ecological systems so that future generations will have an environment as least as healthy and diverse as that existing now.

The Environmental Protection Act 1994

The Environmental Protection Act 1994 adopts what is called an 'environmental stewardship approach'. Environmental stewardship means taking responsibility for and looking after the environment for ourselves, our families and friends. The Act places a general environmental duty on everyone in Queensland not to harm the environment.

In the workplace, companies must ensure they are operating with 'due diligence', by taking all practical steps towards meeting their environmental responsibilities.

The Environmental Protection (Water) Policy 1997

While the Environmental Protection Act outlines broad environmental measures, the Environmental Protection (Water) Policy 1997 (EPP) gives more detail on how these measures should be implemented to protect our waterways.

Licensing

Under the Environmental Protection Act 1994, activities which have the potential to damage the environment are known as environmentally relevant activities (ERAs). Anyone carrying out an ERA must be licensed under the Act. Many industries are required to obtain a licence before they're allowed to discharge wastewater to waterways.

Licensing point source discharges is an important part of water quality management. Licences limit the discharges to specific levels, taking into account the waterway uses. Each licence is specific to the discharge and the waterway which will receive the discharge. The quantity, type, frequency and place of discharge is stated on each licence. Operators discharging without a licence will be prosecuted.

Enforcement and prosecution

The Agency uses a range of enforcement methods to ensure water pollution problems are corrected and don't recur. Prosecution is usually seen as a last resort. It's more important to the Agency to work co-operatively to ensure that companies are operating in a way which doesn't cause environmental harm in the first place. However, some companies and individuals have been prosecuted for offences, leading to substantial fines.

Reporting a matter

If you notice a reduction in water quality, a fish kill, or any activity affecting water quality, report the matter to either:

  • your local government for minor water contamination matters; or
  • Environmental Protection Agency for serious environmental harm.

Your role

We can all take steps to reduce water consumption and contribution to water pollution. Some broad steps include:

  • ensuring our waste does not end up in waterways,
  • reducing our waste and use of chemicals, and
  • becoming a 'green consumer'.

Specific suggestions follow.

Personal action Environmental problems addressed

Garden

Use fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides sparingly. Make sure runoff doesn't carry these chemicals into the stormwater drain or your local waterway.

Fertilisers contain nutrients, including phosphates and nitrates, which can pollute waterways. Pesticides and herbicides can harm aquatic life.

Compost your food scraps and garden waste. Don't dump garden or lawn clippings near waterways.

Compost creates a natural fertiliser for your garden and uses up kitchen and garden waste. This reduces waste to the sewerage system, waterways and landfill.

Install a timer which automatically turns off water after a set period of watering time.

Overwatering causes run-off and wastes water.

Give the garden a thorough watering about once a week, rather than three light waterings a week.

Deep watering encourages plant roots to grow deeper, seeking water from below, rather than close to the surface.

Consult your local plant nursery for advice on planting native gardens.

Plants native to your area require less water, fertiliser and pesticides. They also attract birds and other wildlife.

Mulch garden beds well to reduce water needs.

Mulch reduces evaporation and stores water for plant use.

Reduce herbicide and pesticide use by using organic gardening methods. Libraries and book stores have literature on appropriate herbs and flowers to deter pests.

Pesticides pollute waterways and can harm animals and other plants, especially aquatic life in waterways.

Stormwater

Don't put the following items into stormwater drains: oil, chemicals, paint, thinners, radiator coolants, pesticides, poisons, swimming pool backwash waters, leaves, grass and garden clippings, animal droppings, plastic, polythene, plastic bags, bottles and paper.

Substances put in stormwater drains flow untreated directly to the local river or creek.
It's an offence under the Environmental Protection Act 1994 to pour oil, herbicides, pesticides and other prescribed chemicals down the stormwater drain or place them where they could flow into waterways.

Sewage

Don't place the following items into sewers (except with the prior approval of your local government): solvents, oils, paints, varnish, thinners, paint strippers, pesticides, poisons, fertilisers, acids and solid objects which are likely to cause blockages.

The sewerage system can't treat many of these substances, and their presence in sewage may also prevent proper treatment of other pollutants.

Boating

Avoid toxic anti-fouling paints on boats. Alternatives include a barnacle scraper, wax and teflon-based paint.

Anti-fouling paints often contain toxic chemicals which build up in marine organisms such as oysters, fish, and barnacles, harming them and the animals which feed on them, including us.

Take care in refuelling and boat maintenance. Avoid spilling fuel and oil.

Fuel and oil pollute waterways and the ocean.

Empty sewage holding tanks by pumping holding tanks out to sewage collectors or as approved by local government.

Untreated sewage pumped into a marina, waterway or the ocean is an environmental and health hazard.

Litter

When away from home, place rubbish in garbage bins or take it home with you to recycle or dispose of with household rubbish. Where possible, take reusable items with you.

Rubbish often finds its way into waterways through stormwater drains, creating visual pollution. This pollution, particularly plastics, can also choke and kill animals living in waterways and oceans.

Oils

Collect, store and recycle your used car motor oil if you change your own oil. Don't put it down the sewer or stormwater drain. Ask your local service station for advice.

Oil forms a film on water which reduces oxygen transfer from the atmosphere to water. Dissolved oxygen is essential for fish and other aquatic life. Oil also coats birds' feathers, making it difficult for them to fly.

Minimise your use of cooking oil and allow meats to cook in their own juices. Use non-stick pans or grills. This will help not only the environment but your health. To dispose of large amounts of used cooking oils, pour the oil into a small hole in the garden and mulch.

Oil washed down your drain is not effectively treated by sewerage treatment and often ends up being discharged to waterways or the ocean.

Detergents

Buy detergents, cleaning agents and washing powders which are low in phosphates. Alternatively, look for pure soap or soap-based dishwashing and laundry substances.

Phosphates in detergents flow into the sewerage system and increase treatment costs. Excess phosphate in waterways can cause rapid algal growth. Algae robs water of dissolved oxygen, essential for aquatic life.

Measure laundry and dishwashing detergents carefully and use only the recommended amount or less. Use the 'suds saver' on your washing machine if available. This recycles the washing water

Even after treatment, some detergent ends up as pollution in waterways.

Washing the car

When washing cars, minimise your use of detergents and water. Wash cars on the lawn or a grassy area, not on the driveway or road.

By reducing the amount of water and detergent you use and ensuring it soaks into your lawn and doesn't run down the stormwater drain, you reduce water pollution.

Household maintenance

Save water by fixing dripping taps. In the meantime, catch drips in a bucket and use them to water plants. Turn off the tap when brushing your teeth. Install a dual-flush toilet or water-conserving shower nozzle, and sweep paths and driveways rather than hosing.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent, yet we often waste water. One dripping tap equals ten deep bathfuls of water a month.

Cleaning agents

Avoid unnecessary use of cleaning agents. Natural alternatives have less harmful effects. 'Environmentally friendly' alternatives can be found in household cupboards.

Commercial cleaning agents contain phosphates and chemicals which can pollute waterways.

Avoid commercial toilet cleaners and substances used to freshen toilets. Scrubbing with a toilet brush and a cup of vinegar is effective. Bad stains can be removed with a brush and bicarbonate of soda.

Toilet fresheners contain chlorine and hydrocarbons which can be dangerous to aquatic animals.

Paints and solvents

Avoid placing paint and solvents down sinks, sewers, gutters, or stormwater drains. Local councils can suggest suitable alternatives.

Petroleum-based paints and solvents can kill aquatic life.
Water-based paints cloud water.
Paints and solvents coat plant and animal life in waterways and cause visual pollution.

More information

Ask your local council - check local telephone guides for phone numbers.

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Last updated
14 May 2003