AbstractThe Wet Tropics region has a unique water asset and is also considered a priority region for the improvement of water quality entering the Great Barrier Reef due to a combination of high rainfall, intensive agricultural use, urban areas and the proximity of valuable reef assets to the coast. Agricultural activities are one of many identified threats to water quality and water flows in the Wet Tropics in terms of sediment and pollutant-related water quality decline. Information describing the current state of agricultural management practices across the region is patchy at best. Based on the best available information on agricultural management practices in the Wet Tropics in 2008, it is clear that opportunities exist to improve nutrient, sediment and pesticide management practice to reduce the impact on the water asset and the Great Barrier Reef. Based on current understandings of practices and the relationship between practices and reef water quality, the greatest opportunities for improved water quality are as follows: · nutrients – correct rate and the placement of fertilisers; · pesticides – improve weed control planning, herbicide rates and calibration practice; and · soil and sediment – implement new farming system practices. The 2008-09 Reef Rescue program sought to accelerate the rate of adoption of improved management practices and through Terrain invested $6.8M in the 2008-09 year for: · landholder water quality improvement incentive payments; · cross regional catchment repair of wetlands and riparian lands in areas of high sediment or nutrient loss; and · partnerships in the region to lever resources and support for on-ground practice change. The program delivered $3,021,999 in onground incentives to landholders in the Wet Tropics to improve farm practices from D or C level to B or A level. The landholder Water Quality Incentives Grants program received 300 individual applications for funding and funded 143 individual landholders to implement practice change across 36,098 ha of farm land. It is estimated that the Reef Rescue program facilitated practice change across 21% of the cane industry, and 20% of the banana industry. The program levered an additional $2,441,166 in landholder cash contributions and a further $907,653 in non-cash in-kind contributions bringing the total project value of the landholder grants program in the Wet Tropics to $6,370,819. Most funded projects targeted multiple water quality objectives with a focus on nutrient and sediment reduction. Of the 143 projects funded, 115 projects addressed nutrient management either as the primary focus or in combination with strategies that targeted other water quality objectives. Overall, 82 projects addressed two or more water quality targets. Forty-five percent of incentive funds were allocated to new farming system practices (direct drill legumes, zonal tillage equipment, permanent beds, min till planting equipment, GPS units, laser levelling), followed by 24% allocated to subsurface fertiliser applicators (subsurface application of fertiliser using a stool splitter or beside the stool, at the correct Six Easy Steps rate). As a result, Terrain estimates that the incentive grants achieved considerable reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment and pesticide loads. The program supported nutrient management training of 167 growers managing farms covering over 20% of the area harvested in 2008, and 18 industry advisors and resellers. This resulted in 115 growers (155 farms) developing nutrient management plans. The program also supported Integrated Weed Management training of 80 growers managing farms covering 8% of the area harvested in 2008, and 6 industry advisors and resellers. This report, which draws on the best available Reef Rescue Management Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting, and Improvement (MERI) information to evaluate program performance and impact on water quality outcomes, is the first in a series of annual reports that will assess and evaluate the impact of the Reef Rescue program on agricultural practices and water quality outcomes. The assessment is predominantly focused on the cane industry because of data availability. In the next stage, efforts will expand to: · improve practice data for the banana and grazing industry; · gain a better understanding of the water quality trends and the factors influencing them in the Wet Tropics; in particular work will focus on linking the results of the Paddock to Reef monitoring program and practice change data to assess program impact; · enhance estimations of the impact of practice change on pollutant loads from agricultural land use; · gain a better understanding of the extent of ancillary practice (change not directly funded) resulting from Reef Rescue training/ education/communication programs; and · provide a better understanding of the economic cost of practice change across the Wet Tropics region. From an ecological perspective, water quality trends and the factors that may be contributing to change, require further investigation. There is a critical need to work towards an enhanced understanding of the link between catchment land management practice change and reef water quality, so that reduced nutrient, sediment, and pesticide discharge to the Great Barrier Reef can be quantified. This will also assist with future prioritisation of grants money to agricultural industries, catchments and sub catchments. From a social perspective, the program has delivered significant water quality benefits from landholder education and training. It is believed that these activities are giving landholders the information and tools to implement further lasting change in their production systems and in doing so, creating a change in attitude that is supportive and inclusive of Natural Resource Management (NRM). The program in the Wet Tropics has also considerably strengthened institutional partnerships for NRM, particularly between NRM and industry and extension organisations. As a result of the Reef Rescue program, all institutions are actively working together to collectively improve water quality. The Reef Rescue program is improving water quality entering the Great Barrier Reef Lagoon by catalysing substantial activity in the Wet Tropics region to improve land management practices and reduce the water quality impact of agricultural landscapes. The solid institutional partnerships between the regional body, industry, catchment and government organisations have been fundamental to the successful delivery of the landholder grant and catchment rehabilitation programs. Landholders have generally had a positive perception and reaction to the program, its intent, and the practical, focused nature of grant-based support. Demand in the program was extremely high in 2008-09 and is expected to increase in 2009-2010.