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From the kitchen to the catchment - simple nrm extension tools

Paul Webb

QMDC, Border Rivers Catchment Management and Landcare Centre, LB3 Goondiwindi, Q 4350. Email


Regional bodies in Queensland are using a range of processes and tools aimed at promoting community based natural resource management. Queensland Murray Darling Committee Inc (QMDC) has developed Sub-catchment planning (SCP) as a process for supporting productive and responsible Natural resource management. SCP links the aspirational targets identified by the community in the Natural Resource Management Plan with on ground activities. Within the Queensland Border Rivers this process has enabled QMDC to establish a large footprint in the catchment. Servicing the variety of needs identified by the groups has prompted the application of action learning as a part of the process.

Some simple action learning activities have been used to assist with information exchange. Cover, erosion, infiltration and deep drainage are discussed during these activities with equipment including lunch boxes and paint trays. Drink bottles and table salt are also used to demystify landscape salinity. Activities, or action learning tools, link productivity and natural resource management issues in simple terms. They also highlight links between land use, water, vegetation and productivity. The tools are in no way comprehensive but they have helped to build a framework for ongoing productive integration of natural resource management stakeholders and themes.

Media summary

Simple action learning tools are engaging stakeholders in natural resource management, helping to promote productive yet responsible options for land management.

Key Words

Natural resource management, action learning, productivity.


The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, and the Natural Heritage Trust are major national programs which aim to improve the management of Australia's natural resources. They represent a $4.4 billion commitment to environmental action and are playing an important role in protecting and enhancing Australia's unique biodiversity, the viability of rural and regional communities, and the future of our agricultural industries

“To achieve healthy regional arrangements in Queensland, a network of regional NRM bodies have been established…. The QueenslandNRM bodies coordinate the views of regional communities andare responsible forpreparing regional NRM plans.” (Regional NRM 2005)

Regional setting

Queensland Murray Darling Committee Inc (QMDC) is one of three regional bodies operating in the Queensland Murray-Darling Basin. All three of these regional bodies are working with industry, communities and government to foster productive yet responsible resource management. Underpinning the activities of regional bodies are regional natural resource management plans (NRM Plans).

Regional Natural resource management Plan

The Regional NRM Plan is the outcome of the community’s desire to see improved management of the activities and investment in natural resource management across the Queensland Murray-Darling Basin and Bulloo Catchments. It is a framework to guide coordinated and holistic planning and on-ground action to improve the management and condition of the natural resources in the regions. The vision is stated as:

The community working together to build healthy, sustainable, attractive and profitable regions, through the effective management of our natural resources” (QMDC 2004 cover)

The NRM Plan identifies resource condition targets and prioritises innovative management strategies to improve catchment health and protect regional assets. These management targets focus on:

  • Motivating changes in land use and in production and environmental management practices
  • Protecting and conserving regional and catchment environmental assets and values
  • Activities to arrest degradation and rehabilitate degraded areas, as appropriate.

Figure 1. Regional bodies in the Queensland Murray Darling Basin (map by Condamine Alliance)

The Queensland Murray Darling Committee Inc. (QMDC) is the designated regional body responsible for leading the planning and implementation of the NRM Plan in the Maranoa-Balonne and the Queensland Border Rivers catchments. This document focuses on the Border Rivers but there are many parallels with Maranoa-Balonne activities.

Regional Investment Strategy

A Regional Investment Strategy (RIS) developed by QMDC identifies actions and investment required to implement the NRM Plan. This document is effectively a business case for a strategic investment in natural resource management in the respective regions. It is presented under a range of themes including: community capital; land and soils; riverine, floodplain and wetlands; vegetation and biodiversity; weeds and pests; Aboriginal interests and cultural heritage; institutional assets; water; and energy and waste.

Sub-catchment planning

A major tool that was funded under the RIS for QMDC was sub-catchment planning (SCP). SCP is aimed to enhance support of existing Landcare groups and to form new groups. Rolling SCP out has been both challenging and rewarding. Initial NRM focus and language has changed to production references to actively engage land managers in continued improvement in land use practices. These improvements have in many cases already been initiated for economic, social and environmental reasons. QMDC through SCP hopes to fill some of the knowledge gaps with current information and to support those wanting to implement changed practice. SCP also aims to integrate works across property boundaries and across themes.

The process established to secure funding requires some rigidity for the sake of auditing. This sometimes seems to compromise works in the field which are unique for each site. The funding subsidies (carrots) are used to encourage stakeholders to work through the sometimes tedious stages towards the goal of an approved and subsidised sub-catchment plan. Plans are approved based on the existence and sound basis of individual property action plans. To be regarded as sound, action plans need demonstrated links with neighbours planning and demonstrated awareness of NRM issues across the full range of themes. The challenge for QMDC staff is to establish this awareness of NRM issues across the range of themes.

Sub-catchment planning footprint

  • The Border Rivers Catchment is 3,849,487 ha an area which is roughly 12% of the Queensland Murray Darling Basin.
  • Sub-catchment and other groups cover 34% of private land in the catchment, an area of 1,125,212 ha.
  • There are 33 active sub-catchment groups in the Border Rivers. (Map and statistics by Huie QMDC, Goondiwindi).

Despite the size of the footprint, activities are organised at a small scale enabling personal contact within each SCG area (smaller coloured areas in figure 2). This has necessitated the development of organised yet flexible information exchange tools.

Figure 2. Sub-catchment planning Groups in the Border Rivers

Simple extension tools

An aim and an auditable part of sub-catchment planning is that stakeholders have at the very least been made aware of the NRM issues associated with their land use and geographical area.

This was initially done with a reliance on desktop reviews resulting in academic reports for each theme and each SCG. This was a labour intensive process and at times seemed to have limited effect in meaningful transfer of knowledge, and particularly, localised application of such knowledge. The desktop reviews have not been discarded but the take home messages are being presented in an action learning context at shed meetings and field days.

The following are a few tools adopted, adapted or inspired by Western Farming Systems action learning tools, as published on their website. This website (see references) is recommended for accessing detailed instructions on a range of action learning tools beyond those presented in this document.

Cover, erosion and water quality – introductory activity

These activities demonstrate how soil cover protects soil from splash erosion and results in better soil retention, more plant available water and improved water quality.

Delivery steps are:

1. Fill 3 lunch boxes with soil and level off flat on top in line with the top of the lip.

2. Cover one lunch box with complete shade cloth clipped to edges

3. Cover one lunch box with shade cloth with approximately 50% of area cut out as a series of small holes.

4. Place a lunch box in the shallow slope part of each of 3 paint trays to represent paddocks in a catchment.

5. Have two vials or dishes near each paint tray.

6. Fill the “cloud” (garden watering can) with the equivalent of approximately 1” of rain.

7. Rain on each paddock making sure all rain falls on the paddock area.

8. Get a participant to use a pipette to collect a water sample from each tray catch (stream) during the runoff event and again a few minutes after the event.


1. Bare paddock should show more soil loss as paddock erosion, catchment deposition, and stream sediment

2. Covered paddock should show the least soil movement although partly covered paddock erosion should also be mostly limited to within the paddock.

3. Water samples during event different for each catchment- related to soil loss.

4. Water samples after the event similar for all catchments – related to soil characteristics.

Figure 3. Cover, erosion and water quality linked with action learning


1. Soil cover minimises erosion.

2. Partial cover protects stream but still results in mobilisation of soil within the paddock – possible cost to relocate soil from bottom of paddock and/or loss of soil structure.

3. Water sampling to determine soil loss needs to be during events and even then misses some of the soil loss.

An optional extension of this activity, for extended workshops, demonstrates the effects of slope and riparian buffer strips on erosion and soil loss. Put a simulated riparian vegetation strip under the bare paddock extending to the edge of the stream. A combination of shade and cotton cloth packed to 0.5-1cm thickness should work. Prop the other two catchment lunchboxes up at an angle. Rerun the rainfall event:

  • Less sediment should reach the stream from the bare paddock than in the previous activity. This highlights the value of riparian vegetation.
  • The partly covered paddock should have significantly more sediment runoff than the covered paddock in this run – highlighting the need for better cover on riparian areas (and slopes).

Follow-on activities:

  • Splash impact activity. On a bare smoothed soil paddock drop single drops of water from 1m above and observe the splash effect. Get someone to hold a piece of shadecloth just above the soil on another bare smoothed patch and drop single drops from 1m. Comparing the soil disturbance with the single drop shows the value of cover in minimising splash erosion. Refer to Western Farming Systems for a more graphic splash impact activity using flour.
  • Infiltration effects of dirty water. Cut the tops off two transparent plastic water bottles. Block the openings with pieces of sponge and insert tops inverted into the bottoms. Place 2-3cm of soil into the inverted tops ensuring there are no large air gaps. Pour well shaken dirty water into one inverted top and clean water into the other. The clean water should infiltrate more quickly down through the soil demonstrating why dirty runoff water from soil with poor cover blocks soil surface pores resulting in increased runoff and poor infiltration.
  • From infiltration to soil water. Set up a water bottle as per the previous infiltration demonstration without putting soil into the inverted top. Poke a straw up through a fitted hole in the bottom of the bottle so that water will leak out through the straw when the water level in the bottle is nearly up to the inverted top. Pour different amounts of water into the bottle explaining the bottle neck/foam is the infiltration limitation. Water left in the bottle neck after rain can be tipped out explaining that water near the soil surface is lost to evaporation. Water poured in at sustained fast rates will overflow the inverted top simulating runoff. After a series of events the bottle will fill enough to leak out the straw introducing the concept of deep drainage. The water left in the bottle after the deep drainage has finished is the soil water store or drained upper limit. Refer to Western Farming Systems for a more extensive soil water bottle activity with one month simulated rainfall.
  • From soil water to Plant Available Water Content (PAWC). Using two different sponges the variation between PAWC for different soils can be introduced. Use a standard piece of foam for one sponge and a car wash sponge, which holds water better, for the other. Ensuring each sponge is dry at the start, put a litre of water in each of two containers then place a sponge in each container. Get participants to squeeze the sponges and release in the water to absorb as much water as possible. Sponges are now at saturation point. Each sponge should be lifted up over the container allowing water to drain freely back into the container. The standard foam sponge will lose more water simulating a sandy soil. The car wash soil can be aligned with clay or clay-loam soil. After the sponges stop leaking, squeeze each one into a separate measuring container. The amount squeezed out represents PAWC. The brawniest person in the room could be asked to give one of the sponges another squeeze to get a bit more out. This introduces the variation between different plants in their capacity to take up water from the soil. Even after the last squeeze however the sponge is still cool to touch showing some water is retained in the soil even with aggressive root systems.

Salinity activities

To demystify salinity and to introduce landscape salinity issues, a number of quick attention grabbers have been successfully used. These activities can stand alone but linked with cover, erosion and water quality activities they enable the integration of themes at an introductory level.

• Introduction to salinity and Electrical Conductivity (EC). Salinity jargon can be explained with a basic EC meter, some metal, salt, soil and cups. Explaining that Electrical Conductivity or EC is an indirect measure of salinity is a good first step. Watch the EC meter readings change with different metals used across the electrodes. Then watch the EC reading jump when a pinch of salt is placed in a cup of rain water. For eager recipients you can even do the maths to predict the EC based on the amount of salt and the volume of water. Milligrams of salt per litre by 1.5 will give a rough estimate of EC in microseimens/cm.

• Effect of evaporation. Evaporation affects the salt store in wet patches of the landscape. To demonstrate this, measure the EC of some tap water. Pour (say) four cups into a kettle and boil half of this away by holding the button down on the kettle. After the water has cooled enough to touch, measure the EC again. It should be approximately twice that of the source water. In the kettle, as with a landscape, very little salt is taken up with evaporation. With each wetting up from seepage and drying from evaporation, there is the potential for salt to accumulate in the vicinity.

• Water accepts soil salts into solution as it infiltrates. Measure water EC before and after it is “infiltrated” through 3cm of soil (as per the clean water from previous section on infiltration effects of dirty water). For eager recipients calculate the amount of salt that moves below the root zone for one hectare of land with native vegetation, dryland cropping and irrigated cropping. Use the infiltrated water EC times 0.64 for mg/l salt. Assume deep drainage of 1mm for native vegetation, 10mm for dryland cropping and 100mm for irrigated cropping (rounded from NR&M factsheet L109)

Questions from these salinity activities especially have indicated a lot of thought has been prompted by the activities. In many cases this has indicated a raised awareness of this NRM issue and with links to other issues and to productivity.


Simple extension tools – part of the picture

These simple tools can be adapted onsite to suit specific interest or time/location constraints. They have been delivered with moderate success on kitchen tables, town halls and in the paddock. Beneficiaries have included the young and the not so young, school of hard knocks and PhD graduates, and various NRM agencies’ staff. Even those who “knew that” have commented that the perspectives and productivity links are enlightening and beneficial.

Action learning tools work well as supplements. Responses vary within and between groups, generally showing land managers what they know is true. The kitchen tools demystify the NRM jargon.

However, these tools cover a lot of bases which can lead to a broad range of discussion and questions. It is important to point to options for further information relevant to local production systems. To ensure ongoing improved information exchange and community capacity building, access to a broad range of expertise would be of significant benefit. In particular extension tools giving more detail and application support are required with tailoring to meet small groups’ individual needs.

Other currently available options to build on the SCP footprint

CSIRO, NR&M, DPI&F and industry bodies covering cotton, grain and grazing industries have developed a lot of quality tools for extension of research findings. Soil Water, LeyGraze, Howwet?, Farm Based Research and many more workshops are available off the shelf for delivery to interested land managers. With all of these products the expertise gained in the development makes participation of the developers desirable in at least the initial delivery. Working these into an information exchange process with regional bodies will enhance production and NRM benefits. However, this will require a concerted effort by all parties to foster the achievement of mutually beneficial outcomes. For example, crop rotation workshops delivered in a regional body forum will require that NRM implications for cropping options are considered along with profit and production risks. Small groups seem to work well in NRM extension despite the apparent lack of efficiency for extension personnel.

A challenge with tailored extension products, particularly accredited packages is the loss of flexibility. Funding bodies highlight accredited training for ongoing funding but meeting demands and interests requires adaptation and often compression. The accreditation of training unfortunately limits the flexibility of delivery, or if flexibility is maintained the extra administration is, in effect, a loss of efficiency.

Monitoring to link productivity with NRM

Monitoring is often implemented as a follow-on activity but in fact has the potential to effectively engage stakeholders. Ideally land managers should be engaged in monitoring at the sub-catchment and ultimately, at the paddock scale. In fact, in many areas changes in land use practices, such as introduction of zero till, have already resulted in improved productivity and in environmental gains. The challenge is to ensure these gains are recognised and that evidence is gathered to demonstrate these benefits


Good science and good extension packages by necessity tend to have a particular focus. Land managers on the other hand are required to consider any issue in the broad context of the production system. Agency staff need to make a conscious effort to amalgamate and integrate extension efforts to minimize duplication and inconsistency. This integration should take into account a matrix of industries, agencies, themes and scales. Despite the apparent complexity of such a mix, it may be that in many cases awareness of other players is enough to make it happen at the operational level. If all stakeholders adopt a cooperative attitude and let others know what’s happening, what does and doesn’t work, integration can happen without having to be driven by policy.


A lot of work has been done by land managers, industry bodies, Government agencies and more recently regional bodies. This work is resulting in enhanced understanding of our landscapes from both production and natural resource perspectives. Ongoing improvements in the way we conduct our business will ensure this continues.

In the Queensland Border Rivers SCP has established a footprint that is continuing to grow. Some simple action learning tools have been used successfully to raise the awareness of a range of NRM issues. The simplicity of the tools has allowed adaptation and application in a variety of settings with a wide range of stakeholders. Once awareness and interest is raised it is critical that ongoing information exchange is maintained to maintain momentum in productive yet responsible development.

A deliberate effort is required to integrate efforts, particularly between publicly funded agencies to ensure quality, timely and tailored extension tools are used in this endeavour.


NR&M factsheets accessed online at

QMDC 2004, Regional Natural Resource Management Plan for the Queensland Murray Darling Basin and Bulloo Catchment, coffee table edition, QMDC, Toowoomba.

Regional NRM 2005, NHT and NAPSWQ information adapted from Queensland Government website accessed August 2005,

Western Farming Systems 2005, Action learning Tools accessed online February 2005,

Wockner G, Dalgliesh NP, Dang Y, Price L and Voller J, 2004, Measuring and managing soil water training manual, Queensland Department of Natural Resources, and Mines, Toowoomba.

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