Tuesday, 17 September 2019 08:55

Policy jabs at MfE water meeting

Written by  Staff Reporters

Election candidates raised the temperature on freshwater issues at a packed public meeting in Christchurch.

Local body elections drew regional and city council candidates to a Ministry for the Environment (MfE) consultation on a proposed National Policy Statement (NPS) for freshwater. 

The meeting room at the Sudima Hotel was brimming. At one point a speaker paused for a glass of “pure Canterbury water”, to which someone said it probably smelt of chlorine (in Christchurch’s water supply) and another said it was probably nitrate.

At question time, Lan Pham, a Canterbury regional councillor and freshwater ecologist, called for the Government to introduce binding national water standards. It takes too long for regional authorities to agree on timeframes for local action and the delay is “crippling” discussion, she said.

MfE director water, Martin Workman, said it is harder to set a national standard for freshwater than to track progress against a 2050 zero carbon target. There is a lot of difference between catchments and some regions may find it harder to reach a national target, he said.

Personally, Workman said it is important for communities to work through what makes sense for their local areas. 

Questions would include, “how do we want to go toward the pristine end of the spectrum and how long are we going to take to get to that?”

Workman expects a new NPS for freshwater will change the way local authorities and the Government handle resource management consents.

 “We’re seeing, with all this national direction, there’s a lot more Government oversight being proposed to ensure this does have teeth and that we achieve the quality of environment we aspire to,” he said.

The Environmental Protection Authority is setting up an enforcement unit to “help councils take enforcement across the country”.

Under proposed changes to the Resource Management Act, the authority would have the power, as councils do, to take law breakers to court, Workman said.

A North Canterbury farmer, Jamie McFadden, said he has been helping farmers to protect waterways, wetlands and waterways for the last 20 years, but it now appears those landowners would be penalised for being proactive.

“We’ve got some farmers who have a lot of wetlands on their property, which we’ve encouraged them to protect. They’re going to have to incur huge costs under this freshwater legislation.”

McFadden questioned how much analysis is done of the impact of regulation on different farming sectors. Farmers around him in hill country Cheviot feel under siege from a raft of demands, eg freshwater improvements and biodiversity programmes. 

“In our area those traditional sort of hill country farmers are getting out because they’re sick of it – the amount of regulation and constant penalising of good farmers -- and they’re getting out.”

McFadden is part of a group -- the Rural Advocacy Network -- which walked away from the Hurunui-Waiau water zone committee. The group accused Environment Canterbury of using the province’s zone committees to pursue its own agenda.

A Fish and Game officer at the meeting said this is the first time in her nine years with the organisation that she feels hopeful about improvements in freshwater quality.

But a Banks Peninsula farmer, Pam Richardson, urged policymakers to be careful what they wish for.

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OPINION: When I started writing this piece, I was sitting in my Kaiapoi office on a sweltering 30-degree summer’s day, and I could hear faint “plops” as youngsters pulled “phat manus” and “bombs” off the bridge into the Kaiapoi River as generations before them have done.

Do they know that the river is deemed “unsuitable” for swimming with E. coli levels of up to 2,420 per 100ml? This information is available on LAWA’s website, Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA) - Can I swim here? It makes for sobering reading. With levels this high, we should supply these youngsters with full PPE gear to wear over their shorts. The saddest fact is that this story is repeating itself from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

We are witnessing the systemic collapse of New Zealand’s freshwater systems as our environment can no longer handle the extreme pressure we have placed on it through decades of urban and rural intensification. We have taken too much from our environment and we must start giving back.

Change is coming with a renewed focus on healthy waterways through the National Policy for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM), which the Government announced in August 2020, as well as Plan Change 7 to the Canterbury Land & Water Regional Plan (PC7), which progressed through submissions and a hearing in front of independent hearing commissioners last year.

I attended the PC7 hearing in December and it boosted my spirits to observe the passion our community has for improving Waimakariri’s waterways. I hope the changes that come out of PC7 will be bold and far reaching.

The concept of Te Mana o te Wai underpins the NPS-FM and places the highest value on the health of freshwater systems. This philosophy is the new basis for how we, as a society, interact with our environment. The NPS-FM creates a framework for change, but we must also change how we think as council bodies, as communities, as businesses, and as individuals about how our systems/practices must shift from productive growth mode to sustainability mode, and how we can live within an acceptable environmental footprint. On an individual level, we need to realise how, over the long term, that wet paddock or riverbed block would benefit the planet if it were left to revert to a wetland or a more natural state.

This year the Waimakariri Water Zone Committee will focus on priority areas and working with the community to improve our waterways.

We will support change through three newlyformed catchment groups – the Sefton Saltwater Creek Catchment Group, the Landcare Working Group, and the Biodiversity Group.

We are ahead of the curve in Waimakariri in terms of engaging with farmers, waterway conservation groups and the wider community, but we still have a long journey ahead to restore our rivers and streams.

We must work together in a united way to leave our land and water for future generations to inherit in a better state than when we found it.

Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua - As man disappears from sight, the land remains.

Michael Blackwellis is chair of Waimakariri Water Zone Committee.

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