The good folk at Greening Australia have been working for years to help improve the health and resilience of the Great Barrier Reef – all whilst working dozens of kilometres inland. Here’s how their ongoing restoration program, Reef Aid, is helping return balance to a fragile ecosystem that’s endlessly under threat.

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the Countries on which these adventures and this work take place who have occupied and cared for these lands, waters, and their inhabitants for thousands of years. We pay our respects to them and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.

Runoff and Reef Aid

You’d have to be living under a coral-shaped rock to not have heard about how climate change is warming ocean temperatures and causing coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. 

But you wouldn’t be blamed for having missed the far less publicised issue affecting the Reef – water pollution. 

Did you know that sediment and nutrient runoff from properties dozens of kilometres from the ocean affects water quality on the Great Barrier Reef? In fact, it’s considered the second biggest threat to the Reef, and most of Australia hasn’t heard a word about it.

Land erosion is having a literal flow-on effect. Sediment, nutrients and pesticides are running off the land, forming giant gullies, making their way into waterways, passing through damaged wetlands unhindered, and flowing out into the ocean and the Reef. 

This runoff not only directly affects life on the Reef, as it smothers fish, seagrass, and coral, and causes algal blooms, but also affects the entire ecosystem. It weakens the Reef’s ability to recover from other threats – like cyclones and bleaching – that are intensifying due to climate change.


‘What we’ve seen recently is that some of the actions of people who are way, way up on the coastal plains, the farmers, people who don’t necessarily think that they’re connected to the ocean, their actions have impacts [on the Reef],’ says Marine Scientist Lucas Handley. 

‘No matter where we are on this planet, we’re connected to the sea,’

says Lucas. 

I know what you’re thinking, ‘For heaven’s sake, not another environmental issue! How many fronts are we battling this war on now?’. But trust me, this one isn’t all bad news. Scientists and Traditional Owners already have the knowledge and tools needed to make practical changes that restore balance to the land and in turn, to the Reef. 

And there are already heaps of passionate people, like the Prior Family Foundation, who are funding the work that needs to be done to help fix the problem, through projects like Greening Australia’s Reef Aid program. Here’s what they’ve been up to.

Rebuilding Eroded Gullies

Did you know that thousands of tonnes of excess sediment end up polluting the Great Barrier Reef lagoon every year? And gully erosion contributes a whopping 90% of all fine sediment reaching the Reef. That’s why Reef Aid is working with local landholders and Traditional Owners to restore these badly eroded gullies and streambanks in upper catchment areas, dozens of kilometres inland.



‘Since launching Reef Aid in 2016, we’ve gone from restoring 200 hectares of coastal wetlands to restoring over 1,700 hectares of coastal wetlands and eroding gullies, and also decreasing sediment by 22,000 tonnes to the Great Barrier Reef,’ says Lynise Wearne, Director for Reef Aid at Greening Australia.

One of the most successful projects by Lynise’s team has been the restoration of gullies at Strathalbyn Station, a beef cattle farm. This station is within the Burdekin River Catchment, a region that’s estimated to be responsible for almost 50% of the total sediment that makes its way to the Reef.

The project ran from 2017-2020 and remediated 10 different gullies on the property which involved the creation of an onsite quarry and multiple rounds of earthworks and revegetation. The work done at Strathalbyn Station has since been shown to reduce the total sediment runoff by an average of 98%! That’s saved 8,500 tonnes of sediment from reaching the Reef, every single year, the equivalent of over 500 fully loaded semi-trailers.

But there’s always more to be done. By 2030, Greening Australia is aiming to prevent over 475,000 tonnes of sediment and nutrients from reaching the Reef, every single year.

‘In order to have an impact, we need to be working at scale,’ says Lynise. ‘Our projects occur from Cairns right down to Rockhampton. We have 32 projects which occur right across the Great Barrier Reef catchments.’

This is where the sediment comes from, but how does it get all the way to the ocean? That’s where wetlands come in. 

Wetland Restoration

Wetlands aren’t often people’s favourite type of environment. Usually considered swampy and uninviting, they’re often dismissed for more immediately aesthetic and gobsmacking landscapes. But wetlands aren’t just indispensable habitats for all kinds of species, they play an essential role in the overall health and proper function of an ecosystem. 

Wetlands are the kidneys of an ecosystem. A strong and healthy wetland slows down the water arriving from upstream inland sources and is filled with plants that filter out excess sediment and nutrients before the water continues on to larger waterways and ultimately, the ocean.


So when it comes to the Great Barrier Reef and runoff, coastal wetlands are the last line of defence. Unfortunately, many coastal wetlands neighbouring the Great Barrier Reef lagoon aren’t in the best shape, with invasive species and changes in managing land much to blame. Cattle and feral pigs turn up the land, invasive tropical fish affect the water quality, and weeds, like Hymenachne, Salvinia, Para grass, and Water hyacinth, wreak havoc on the native flora species, dominating some wetlands entirely.

That’s why wetland restoration is a key piece in the Reef Aid puzzle. 



In collaboration with Traditional Owners and landholders, Reef Aid is working to improve grazing practices and reintroduce tidal flows for properties with coastal wetland areas, to reduce the spread of invasive weeds and help revegetate native wildlife corridors instead. 

In fact, Reef Aid is even constructing artificial wetlands as a way of catching excess nutrients from farm runoff before the water reaches the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. 

In turn, this protects and enhances biodiversity on land as well. Win-win!

Connecting People, Land, and Sea

One of the most important aspects of the work Greening Australia is doing with the Reef Aid program, is building relationships between people. From the essential funding that comes from the Prior Family Foundation and other impact investors, to connecting and sharing knowledge with Traditional Owners and landholders, it’s the people that make these projects possible.

‘Our partnership with landholders and Traditional Owners is the most important relationship that Greening Australia has. Without that partnership, there is no value. There is no environmental improvement,’

says Greening Australia CEO Brendan Foran. 


So far, the Reef Aid program has worked with more than 35 different landholders and Traditional Owner groups, exchanging specialised local knowledge and helping facilitate a variety of restoration projects in a community-driven way. 

Greening Australia recognises that restoring the health of the Reef isn’t just about saving a beautiful environment, it’s about improving the wellbeing and livelihoods of those who work, play, live, and care for it too. 

That’s why Reef Aid especially seeks to collaborate with First Nations groups and organisations and aims to create 25 active partnerships by 2030, in order to co-design and co-deliver an Indigenous-led vision for the restoration of the Great Barrier Reef. 

‘We have one of the seven wonders of the world out there…Our Sea Country that’s sustained our people for thousands of years. And since records have been taken, it’s never been in a worse state. That should be alarming for all of us,’ says Jacob Cassady from Mungalla Aboriginal Business Corporation. 

‘There’s a really great opportunity for reconciliation for black and white Australia, because we’ve got a common goal, and that’s looking after our country,’

says Jacob.

How can I help out?

With the catalysing financial support and aligned goals of the Prior Family Foundation, Greening Australia has been able to put the Reef Aid program into practice and has proven that on-land restoration makes a big difference to water quality on the Reef. 

But the team is dreaming big and the next few years are critical to the health of the Reef, so they need as much support as they can muster. 

‘We know about how important the Reef is for oxygen or food consumption or coastal protection,’ says Lucas Handley. 

‘But I think we need the Reef to exist for us to collectively move forward and say that we care about our planet and we care about future generations. If we lose the Reef, we lose that bit of magic and colour in our lives, which makes things important.’

If you’re keen to support the work of the Reef Aid program, Greening Australia is taking donations and every cent helps. You can also help spread the word about water quality being the second biggest and lesser-known threat to the Great Barrier Reef.


Feature image and underwater photography by @nicolemclachlanphoto
All other images by @caitmiersphotography