Devil’s in the detail for big water plan

A $229 million water clean-up plan sounds impressive but it’s left many scratching their heads. David Williams reports.

Pull your gummies out of a boggy waterway and watch as the sediment cloud grows. That muddy plume is about as clear as yesterday’s Budget announcement on a $229 million waterways and wetland clean-up.

It’s acknowledged the issue’s getting serious money. “It’s a good figure,” says Martin Taylor, the chief executive of lobby group Fish & Game. What’s not clear – at least not yet – is what it means.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said yesterday the so-called sustainable land use package will “invest in projects to protect and restore at-risk waterways and wetlands, and provide support for farmers and growers to use their land more sustainably”.

Taylor: “We’re wondering is it just to assist monitoring? Or, actually, can it go to farmers for transition? It sounded like that, from what Grant said.”

Federated Farmers’ dairy chair Chris Lewis is also unsure how the money will be spent. Will it be “wasted on administration and bureaucracy”, he cynically ponders, or given directly to farmers to “achieve great things”?

“It didn’t mean anything to me,” Lewis says. “Potentially it could mean wonderful things, potentially it could mean nothing.”

(The policy’s term wasn’t stated either. Environment Minister David Parker’s office confirms it’ll be spent over four years.)

“It’s hard to know how successful it will be.” – Jenny Webster-Brown

University of Canterbury’s Jenny Webster-Brown, the director of the University of Canterbury’s Centre for Freshwater Management, is adamant about how the money shouldn’t be spent. “As long as it’s not supporting the primary sector to do more of what it does now, I think that’s the key thing.”

The Budget announcement is directly connected to last month’s Environment Aotearoa report, she says.

That report underlined what we already knew – that farming pollution and water takes are major issues for rural rivers, streams and lakes. (Urban waterways fare no better.)

The Budget announcement foreshadows direct intervention in catchments that are already in quite serious trouble. “The devil will be in the detail, won’t it?” Webster-Brown says. “It’s hard to know how successful it will be.”

Waterways will respond in different ways, over different timeframes, she says. Farm pollution seeping into slow-moving groundwater systems – like in the central North Island, Waikato and Canterbury – will take a long time to fix.

The easy gains could come from areas where surface water pollution comes predominantly from runoff – when intense rain runs across a farm’s surface, collecting contaminants along the way.

“That is a clear and obvious and preventable effect,” Webster-Brown says.

(She was disappointed the Budget made no mention of the loss of fertile soils to housing, and the declining quality of rural drinking water supplies.)

Regional councils under scrutiny

Improving waterways is a big focus for the Government. It wants noticeable improvements within five years (a term stretching beyond the next election, of course) through greater controls on intensive farming and reining in risky activities, like intensive winter grazing.

A new national policy statement on freshwater – set by central Government and implemented by regional councils – is expected in July. It’s thought some of the money announced yesterday will be applied to whatever’s announced then.

In the Budget, Robertson talked about better compliance and enforcement by councils, and addressing “capability gaps and inconsistent practices” in developing and implementing freshwater rules. Fish & Game’s Taylor is hot on that topic.

“The biggest issue in all of this is the performance of regional councils,” he says, claiming that councils like Horizons, Otago and Environment Southland “don’t want to shift”. “It’s a huge sea change that needs to take place within rural New Zealand and it has to be driven and led by regional councils.”

Is that fair? To an extent, says Bay of Plenty regional councillor Stuart Crosby.

Crosby, the vice president of Local Government New Zealand and a former Tauranga mayor, says the responsibilities for enforcing freshwater rules lie with regional councils and, yes, they’ve got a bigger role to play. That’s why Parker’s put them on notice to enforce the current rules proactively to improve water quality.

The work of councils should be acknowledged, Crosby says – “they definitely haven’t been sitting on their hands” – and the rural community has made great strides. And compliance and enforcement is “just one component” of improving water quality. The goal isn’t enforcement, he says, but “voluntary endeavours”, especially to improve waterways on private property.

“Instead of chucking words at us they’re better off to join forces and achieve great outcomes.” – Chris Lewis

For his part, Lewis, of Federated Farmers, is sick of finger-pointing and farmers being slagged off. “This sort of rhetoric was probably valid 10 years ago, when farmers had their heads stuck in the sand,” he says. “But nowadays farmers are well-educated in this stuff.”

Environmental gains are close to home for Lewis. He milks about 1000 cows, and has some beef cattle and grows maize at Lewisridge Farm, about half an hour’s drive from Te Awamutu, in the Waikato.

On Monday, children from Pukeatua School planted 800 manuka on a fenced-off area of the property, taking the total number of trees planted there to 22,800 over the last five years. He’s noticing the benefits of some of that work now – “I can see some of those streams are crystal clear”.

Lewis doesn’t try to sugar-coat it. There’s no question some rivers are getting worse, while others are stabilising and, for some, water quality is increasing. It’s getting stuck in and doing the work that counts, he says.

“These so-called environmentalists, instead of chucking words at us they’re better off to join forces and achieve great outcomes. We all want the same thing.”

Well, as long as better water quality doesn’t “unfairly” hit farmers in the pocket. “It’s actually about spending the dollars on the problem.”

Time for tough love?

Some farmers are undoubtedly doing the right thing and deserve taxpayer help. But the idea of a fix coming from an entirely voluntary regime, as suggested by Bay of Plenty regional councillor Crosby, seems naive and far-fetched.

Victoria University of Wellington’s Mike Joy, arguably the country’s most prominent freshwater ecologist, reckons our waterways didn’t need to become so polluted that the country’s swept with a summer epidemic of no-swim warnings. He blames central and regional authorities for failing to stop the pollution pouring into our waterways for decades.

Webster-Brown, from the University of Canterbury, isn’t averse to a little tough love for intensive, polluting farms. She thinks the writing’s on the wall for such operations, noting a shift by consumers to more environmentally friendly products.

“They would go out of business if they keep operating the way they operate now.”

(Newsroom columnist Rod Oram has, for years, been writing about the increasing prominence of food and agriculture in climate negotiations – and the enormity of the challenge facing New Zealand farmers.)

Perhaps Kiwi farmers would find better opportunities in producing high-end products with a “good, green reputation”, Webster-Brown suggests, rather than “just producing milk powder the whole time”.

“Obviously you can’t make a switch like that overnight, and you can’t make it without someone having to make a financial hit in the short-term. But it’s a long game, isn’t it? It’s looking at what the next generation will have to enjoy.”

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