Extensive catchment modification since European settlement on the eastern coast of Australia results in poor coastal water quality, which poses a major threat for near shore coral communities in the iconic Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Long lived inshore corals have the potential to provide long-term temporal records of changing water quality both pre- and post-anthropogenic modification. However, water quality proxies require more study and validation of the robustness of coral-hosted geochemical proxies for a specific site is critical. This study investigated the long-term (1958–2010) influence of environmental drivers on high-resolution Ba/Ca and Y/Ca proxies obtained from Porites sp. coral from Great Keppel Island, southern GBR, Australia. Geochemical proxy records were influenced by environmental change on a seasonal to decadal scale. Although seasonal oscillations of Ba/Ca and Y/Ca were related to rainfall and discharge from the Fitzroy River catchment, some uncorrelated anomalous peaks were evident throughout the time series. Regardless, the behaviour of these proxies was significantly consistent over the longer time scale. Most long-term drought-breaking floods, including one that occurred in winter, resulted in significant increase in the targeted elemental ratios owing to higher terrigenous sediment flux to the near shore marine environment from a catchment with reduced groundcover. Following this intense flushing event, elemental ratios were reduced in subsequent wet periods as a result of less sediment being available for transport to coastal seawater. Ba/Ca and Y/Ca proxies can be valuable tools in reconstructing multiyear variations in terrestrial runoff and associated inshore water quality. As these proxies and their regional and local controls are better understood they will aid our understanding of how reefs have responded and may respond to changing water conditions.