Cape York is characterised by wetlands, lakes, springs, rivers, floodplains, estuaries, aquifers, coastline and healthy reefs. It's aquatic ecosystems have high cultural and biological value, with several waterways regarded as being some of the most biodiverse, pristine, and intact in Australia.

During a big Wet Season, the rivers, floodplains and wetlands flood and connect into one flowing water body. Water is captured in specific areas to support the towns, agricultural industry, grazing industry and mines. These dams, reservoirs and bores are in relatively restricted areas but still have a significant impact on the local and regional environment. Rivers also define the boundaries of Indigenous clans and tribes and many of the cultural stories are based around saltwater and freshwater sites and areas.


Water is fundamental to all living things. It transforms landscapes, defines the seasons, changes ecosystems and is a resource for animals and plants. We use water for almost every part of our lives - agriculture, drinking, industry, transport, energy and recreation.

Water is also a significant part of the culture of Cape York. People tell stories of cyclones and floods, identify with recreation spots, value the marine and aquatic systems and respect its ability to flood and restrict access during the wet season. Indigenous people are deeply connected to water, through their spiritual connections, knowledge and identity with rivers, springs, wetlands and sea country.

What's changing?

Changes in hydrology from developments such as mining and roads has significantly changed the use of water. There is a loss in structure and organic matter in soils, reducing the ability to hold water. Sedimentation is also filling up waterholes, changing flows in rivers and wetlands and impacting the Great Barrier Reef. Cape York is experiencing a loss of springs, increases in sea level rise, recurring droughts and floods and salt water intrusion into freshwater. We are now learning a lot more about the aquatic and marine systems of Cape York, through improved monitoring and capturing local knowledge of these valuable systems.

What are the key issues?

Cape York has yet to experience large scale dams and intensive uses of its water like areas further south. However, the community is concerned about water quality, sedimentation, changes to groundwater and river flows and the impact that this has on the wetlands, rivers and the Great Barrier Reef.

Management of water on farmland is also a concern. Living soils should have a high content of organic matter and good structure to hold water, but this is declining. The water system is also vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate. People are already noticing less springs, higher sea level rise, bigger droughts and floods and salt water intrusion into freshwater. A better holistic management of water is hindered by gaps in recorded knowledge, data and information.

Aspirational Program Goals

  • Improved health and protection of significant aquatic ecosystems and viable species populations.
  • People working together to care for the aquatic environment and to promote the sustainable use of aquatic resources.
  • Improved Western and Indigenous knowledge and management of aquatic ecosystems.