October 1 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of The State of New Zealand’s Environment report, New Zealand’s first major environmental review which was published in 1997. It took five years to produce, and was the first attempt to chronicle the state of New Zealand’s environment. It even ranked the threats to freshwater, based on a survey of regional authorities. It concluded agriculture was the biggest threat, followed by urban sewage. “Agriculture outranks other sources of pressure on water largely because of the scale of pastoral farming,” it said. It is obvious from nitrate-nitrogen concentrations . . . that many of our rivers probably exceed the guideline and are at risk of developing nuisance algae,” the 1997 report said.
Let’s fast forward through 20 years of agricultural intensification. The OECD’s report on New Zealand’s environmental performance is crystal clear. New Zealand’s 100% Pure reputation is at immediate risk from the degradation of many New Zealand lakes and rivers. International media, buyers of New Zealand products, tourism interests and public opinion polls have all been ringing alarm bells, and now the OECD itself has joined the uproar.
While leaders in national and local government and primary production have tried to shut down freshwater scientists and others warning about the damage to New Zealand’s waterways, they can’t ignore this message from the international community. Decisive action to enhance the state of many springs, streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, groundwater and aquifers across the country must be taken.
Although much was hoped from the Land and Water Forum, which for almost a decade has brought key stakeholders together to agree on ways of taking care of New Zealand’s water courses, the central government has not listened to almost all of the Forum’s recommendations. There are remarkable parallels in regional government.
While policies on freshwater are the prerogative of Central Government, its management is the responsibility of regional councils. In a process similar to the LAWF, and after a laborious decade-long process that cost millions, the much-heralded Horizons Regional Council One Plan was signed off in 2014 with the promise of better management of Manawatu-Whanganui’s freshwater, air and land quality. It was an apparent environmental breakthrough. Three years later F&G NZ, in conjunction with the Environmental Defence Society, was forced to initiate legal action against the council.
Speaking of the implementation of Horizons One Plan Sir Geoffrey Palmer said: “the council had failed to adequately protect the water quality, was in breach of the Act and had even failed to properly follow its own promulgated plan. The illegality of the council’s decision-making is quite stunning. : “… it is unlawful, invalid and in contravention of the RMA.” Sir Geoffrey said.
Bryce Johnson, chief executive of Fish & Game New Zealand, commented on the recent general election by saying:
“Unfortunately, election campaign meetings in Manawatu and Wairarapa had seen alarmist claims being thrown around that were carefully calculated to strike fear into the hearts of voters. The language was emotive – political candidates had talked about towns being “smashed” and farmers “ruined”.
The One Plan was designed to manage natural resources throughout the Whanganui and Manawatu regions and in particular, tackle pollution, improve water quality and preserve environmental diversity. The plan’s successful implementation will protect the region’s resources and ensure not only that the environment is protected, but also that its economy is preserved.
The reality is that New Zealand cannot continue down the path of ruining our environment for temporary economic gain. We cannot go on rewarding polluters and punishing sustainable, efficient operators. New Zealanders are tired of having to pick up the repair bill for the damage caused by pollution.”
It is interesting to contrast that with a statement issued on the same day by Bruce Gordon, Chairman of Horizons: ‘Another aspect of land management (by Horizons) is ensuring that nutrient leaching levels are kept at a level where they are not having a detrimental environmental impact on our waterways. The One Plan is a policy document that outlines nutrient leaching limits for certain catchments. While the implementation of this document has recently been questioned, Horizons is committed to finding a way forward and will be undertaking informative community meetings throughout the Region to discuss the next steps.’
If you call being found to be acting unlawfully by the Environment Court, ‘being questioned’. That doesn’t imply a whole lot of ownership of the problem to us. We also understand that Horizons has been unable to agree on a lawful way of implementing its own plan, and is taking about redrafting the whole thing from scratch. Does that mean another decade of prevarication and argument while our public waterways, which Horizons are charged with managing, continue to deteriorate?
While the government cites William Blackstone (an early authority on English common law) to the effect that “no one owns the water”, Blackstone was equally adamant that no water user has the right to pollute, foul, corrupt or divert and stop waterways in ways that deprive others of their “lawful enjoyment”. This might be news to many dairy farmers, foresters and developers in New Zealand.
The legal rights of all citizens to enjoy waterways across New Zealand should underpin the work of a Waterways Commission. It is vital that the application of rational, science-based national standards for fresh water is nationally monitored by an independent body, to ensure that the management of waterways and any funding from water rights are not hijacked by political or private interests.
If charging for the commercial use of fresh water is ever introduced, it is imperative that this income flow is not privatised. All New Zealand citizens have a stake in the country’s waterways, and if water charges are introduced, this funding should be dedicated to improving fresh water quality for the benefit of all.
The OECD’s report is a call to action. Declining standards for fresh water in New Zealand must be decisively tackled. A Waterways Commission – one that is truly independent and well resourced, reconciles the rights and responsibilities of iwi with those of other citizens, and takes good care of our waterways – would bring urgency and national oversight to this task.
Twenty years since the publication of the original The State of New Zealand’s Environment report, taxpayers money is still being used to both subsidise agricultural intensification, and clean up the resultant mess; private individuals have to fund legal challenges to regional authorities, just to get them to obey the law and their own rules on pollution; and industry, regional authorities and environmentalists are still talking past each other about blame, while both the science and the legal responsibilities are quite clear. It is difficult not to be cynical about the future of our public waterways. We all knew it was coming, and we exacerbated rather than prevented it. That fact isn’t lost on the rest of the world, and our trading partners. The pity is that after twenty, often bitter, years, the landing (if we can affect one) is likely to be hard and difficult, rather than smooth.
Graham Carter and Ken Sims
New Zealand Federation of Freshwater Anglers (Inc.)