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Highlands Professor Publishes on the Importance of Indigenous Leadership in Improving Water Quality

photo of Julie Tsatsaros

Julie Tsatsaros

July 1, 2021

Forestry professor Julie Tsatsaros published research about the vital role played by aboriginal people in Australia in the protection and improvement of water quality.  

Tsatsaros spent five years in Australia, between 2009 and 2013, where she helped implement a community-led pilot water quality monitoring program in the Tully River basin. The freshwater basin is adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef and was selected for the pilot program due to pollution concerns. Tsatsaros has continually published her findings from this project in various academic journals, but her most recent article, published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, is focused on the importance of Indigenous leadership in long-term water quality improvement.  

The article, “A transdisciplinary approach supports community-led water quality monitoring in river basins adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, Australia,” was selected as a part of a special issue dedicated to Tsatsaros’s PhD advisor, Jon Brodie, who passed away in 2020. Brodie’s work frequently focused on using science to prompt policy solutions.  

“Jon worked on the Great Barrier Reef for 45 years and was a giant in the field of water quality chemistry,” said Tsatsaros. “The whole idea of this paper was to have a forum to be able to present the research that Jon was involved with over the past 10 years.” 

Prior to the implementation of the pilot project, water quality standards for the Tully River Basin had been developed by state and federal governments located 1,700 kilometers away.  

“This area is very different because it’s the Wet Tropics and it’s adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef,” said Tsatsaros. “We needed to have a more local process of trying to better identify the uses, values and water quality standards that should apply to freshwaters and the reef.”  

Ensuring that the Girringun Aboriginal Corporation was a part of the leadership process in the pilot project was essential to its success. The Tully River Basin is the traditional homeland of the Traditional Owners in the region, and they continue to use the waterways more than other Australians.  

“They are the caretakers of their traditional homelands and they have really important spiritual and cultural areas that are in the catchment,” said Tsatsaros. “They rely on spearfishing and aquatic life for their daily protein requirements, and there are important storytelling places that are essential to their culture.”  

Tsatsaros’ research highlights the importance of management and co-management of water quality management by Indigenous peoples that have a demonstrated an ongoing commitment to the protection and improvement of waterways they rely on.  

“These are people that are going to make sure they have a commitment to improving land-based sources of pollutants to not just the Great Barrier Reef but to freshwaters themselves,” Tsatsaros said.  

Following the pilot project, Tsatsaros said the Girringun Aboriginal Corporation applied for funding and continued the water quality monitoring in conjunction with a local NGO.  

“Aboriginal people never used to be consulted, they were just told what was going to happen,” said Tsatsaros. “But what we’ve seen over the last 10 years is they are now either driving the activities that are happening in their traditional homelands and/or they are co-managers. This has been really positive.”  

According to Tsatsaros, her findings have implications globally and in New Mexico, too. When tribes are brought in too late or are asked to speak on behalf of all tribes, this can jeopardize efforts to protect water quality in the long term.  

“The lessons we can learn from this is making sure that all stakeholders that have a vested interest in improving water quality conditions,” Tsatsaros said. “If you really want to improve water quality and water quantity over the long-term that’s what it’s going to take.”