Use of water still seriously unsustainable

ROD ORAM
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2014

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From August 1, for the first time in our history and after decades of failed attempts, we will have a national regulatory framework to safeguard the health of our rivers and lakes.

We desperately need it. Water is the defining conflict between the environment and the economy in our current business model. The pressures will get only more intense as we try to squeeze ever more commodity production out of our land and water.

Only when business realises all its best opportunities come from working with the environment, not against it, will we achieve greater economic wealth and environmental health.

But will the new regulatory regime help push us towards such a fundamental and beneficial shift in our practices?

The case for: the regime is a start, despite some major flaws. The National Objectives Framework coming into effect August 1 sets bottom lines on a wide range of factors essential to the health of waterways.

The framework is vital because it gives force to the National Policy Statement on freshwater the Government implemented in 2011. This requires councils to at least maintain current water quality and, over a long time, seek to improve it.

The Government says it will keep working to improve the framework. The first review in 2016 is surprisingly quick for a new regime. It is also working closely with councils, as the regulating bodies, to implement and further develop the rules.

DairyNZ, the farmer-funded science agency for the sector, says farmers accept they have to farm within the regime's nutrient limits. Improving management practices and technology will enable them to do so and still raise milk output by some 2.5 per cent a year, only slightly below the sector's long term growth rate.

The case against: The framework is too weak, has too many holes and is very long term. Councils have until 2025 to fully incorporate the framework into their plans. Beyond that, they can set timeframes stretching out decades for achieving improvements in water quality.

Yet, the National Policy Statement has required them since 2011 to at least maintain water standards. Have they? The Ministry for the Environment says it is it is difficult to establish reliable trends. The timeframe is too short given variations in weather and farming.

Moreover, what each council measures varies widely, and we have no continuous national monitoring of water quality, or indeed other crucial environmental factors. We have only occasional and imperfect national aggregations of data.

Land-grabs are the biggest fear of framework critics. They say some farmers will rush to convert land to dairying or to intensify their operations over the next few years while councils are still getting to grips with the new regime.

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The environment ministry acknowledges the risk, particularly in catchments where water use and nutrient levels are already at or near their maximum. But it says there are countervailing forces, particularly existing council processes and public opinion.

One thing is certain. This new regulatory regime will be highly litigious, given the gaps, anomalies, ambiguities and contradictions within and between the framework, the National Policy Statement and council's land use and environmental plans.

The two gravest deficiencies in the regime involve nutrients and water health, the two most fundamental and linked issues in the conflict between the environment and the economy. Human activity, particular farming and sewage treatment, add nutrients to waterways. If they are excessive, they cause algal blooms and loss of aquatic life. At the extreme, they kill rivers.

Nitrates are the key nutrient to limit, although it is also important to control phosphorous. The Government has chosen a limit for nitrates, which is the toxicity level that kills fish. However, ecosystem damage starts at far lower levels.

Critics say this is like setting the drink-driving limit at the point the alcohol itself kills you, rather than at the much lower limit at which alcohol impairs your driving. Thus the framework will allow a massive expansion of farming.

The Government says many bottom lines in the framework will come into play together. Thus farming would be curtailed long before nitrates hit their toxicity limit. Moreover, practical nitrate limits vary widely depending on the nature of each river. It is impractical to set them in such fine-grained detail in a national framework but that can be done river by river locally.

There are many other shortcomings in the framework. For example, water has only to be safe for boating. If a community wants cleaner water safe for swimming at specific places it will have to commit to that higher standard.

Most telling of all, several councils already have far more demanding regimes than the framework requires. Examples are Otago's Plan Change 6A and Horizon's One Plan. Likewise, the recent Board of Inquiry decision on the Ruataniwha dam and irrigation scheme in Hawke's Bay set much tougher standards.

So, we still have a seriously sub-optimal patchwork of water regulations across the country. Given the enormous complexity of the issues, the policy statement and objectives framework are big achievements. But they are barely a start.

All land and water users will need to commit to, and work hard on, turning this tentative regime into one that delivers real environmental and economic benefits. In the meantime, our use of our waterways remains seriously unsustainable.

- Sunday Star Times

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