Taranaki rivers are clearly better

SUE O'DOWD
Last updated 08:51 13/03/2014
Photographer Rob Tucker, former New Plymouth mayor and Taranaki Regional Council deputy chairman Daisy Lean and journalist Jim Tucker on New Plymouth’s Rewa Rewa Bridge over the Waiwhakaiho River. Lean features in Jim Tucker’s research into the state of Taranaki’s rivers and Rob Tucker took many of the photographs that illustrate the story.
ROBERT CHARLES/Fairfax NZ

TELLING A STORY: Photographer Rob Tucker, former New Plymouth mayor and Taranaki Regional Council deputy chairman Daisy Lean and journalist Jim Tucker on New Plymouth’s Rewa Rewa Bridge over the Waiwhakaiho River. Lean features in Jim Tucker’s research into the state of Taranaki’s rivers and Rob Tucker took many of the photographs that illustrate the story.

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After more than two years investigating the state of Taranaki's waterways, veteran journalist Jim Tucker declares they're now in a substantially better state than in the 1970s.

Tucker's research - Clearing the water - consists of 140,000 words in 10 illustrated chapters and is now ready for publication online.

Although rivers are no longer drains for blood and guts from freezing works, cheese whey from dairy factories, raw sewage and untreated dairy effluent, Tucker warns the invisible enemy of bacteria and nutrient runoff from dairy farms and bacteria from birdlife will continue to blight Taranaki waterways.

He's urging people to take an interest in the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC) review of its freshwater plan, expected to go out for formal public consultation towards the end of this year. Predicting the review will limit bacteriological loading on the province's rivers, he said treated effluent in ponds on nearly 900 farms would probably have to be discharged to land.

Eventually he also expects farmers will have to protect the small creeks that now escape regulation if they're below a gumboot top and less than a stride wide.

Since Tucker wrote an award-winning series in the Taranaki Herald in 1972 about Taranaki's polluted waterways, substantial changes - like fencing and planting streambanks, discharging treated effluent from ponds to land, better fertiliser budgeting, and building feedpads and herd homes - have improved water quality

Dedicated to Taranaki Herald editor Rash Avery, who printed Tucker's series in the face of opposition from politicians, farmers and dairy companies, Clearing the water will be published as a Whitireia research project with endnote references. It will be available to researchers and for education. There will also be a print version.

Although Tucker has finished his research, he's vowing to keep a watchful eye on Taranaki's waterways. "Standards will continue to rise to meet the community's changing expectations, but nirvana will never be reached."

He makes the point the rivers never were perfect. "But they're way way better now than 40 years ago when they were technicolour green, brown, red and white."

In his research, he's found the abundance of small creatures called macro-invertebrates (MCI) that live in the streams are a measurement of water quality.

He said anything dumped in rivers now got there by accident and would always generate a complaint. "So no-one can get away with it."

TRC chairman David MacLeod said Tucker's research covered the bad old days when waterways were not much more than industrial drains for blood, whey and effluent and it stepped through the elimination of those notorious point- source discharges. Challenges remained and attention was now turning to pasture run-off and on-farm management of dairy effluent.

Tucker had done the region a service by keeping science at front and centre of his discussion, and his research was a record of progress to date and a pointer to the questions that should be asked in future, he said.

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Tucker was commissioned to undertake the project, originally expected to be 50,000-80,000 words, by New Plymouth's Puke Ariki Research Centre under a sponsorship relationship with the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC) which wanted the story to be told by an outsider. "I hope I'll be seen to be independent," he said.

Describing the project as both a labour of love and a privilege, he said it also allowed him and his brother, New Plymouth photographer Rob Tucker, to work together again, many years after they'd undertaken joint news assignments in Taranaki.

As well, it was a welcome opportunity to retell the stories of former New Plymouth mayor Daisy Lean, who led the campaign in the 1970s and 1980s against an ocean outfall for the discharge of New Plymouth's sewage, and Aila Taylor, who guided his Te Atiawa iwi in the watershed Waitangi Tribunal case against the pollution threat posed by the Motunui synthetic petrol plant.

"[Clearing the water] was written to be accessible," Tucker said. "Each chapter begins with a story and is written as a narrative that's largely chronological."

He said Taranaki led New Zealand in the way it protected its waterways.

"Other regions will dismiss what's been done because of our fast-flowing streams. But that's not the only reason. [Taranaki's] riparian programme is touted by all government bodies as an example of what should happen.

"Currently there's pressure on the Government to be seen to be doing something about water, that they should come up with stringent water standards across the whole country.

"The Government is not doing that and I think they're right. Every area is different, with different land use and geology. So they've set broad limits and each council can work within its region to find out what the people want."

Tucker undertook his latest research as he was running New Zealand's second largest journalism school at Whitireia in Wellington.

During his research he found references to his Taranaki Herald series and votes of thanks in the minutes of TRC predecessor, the Taranaki Catchment Commission. The commission followed up all the pollution he highlighted in 1972.

"It's gratifying that it could have had that impact. And it's quite rare for a journalist to go back 40 years and revisit work that was important then," he said.

"I was the original greenie - the green activist writing about terrible things happening to the environment. It changed the discourse - where have the standards come from that we're being held to account over?

"Most journalists don't have the opportunity to look at issues in depth. This has been a wonderful opportunity to look properly at water in Taranaki."

Tucker said the science he examined during his research was complicated for non-scientists and he appreciated the patience of TRC environmental quality boss Gary Bedford who explained the nitrogen cycle and the role of nitrates, nitrites, ammonia and ammonium. "I was the journalist asking the dumb questions," he said. "TRC saw my chapters as they were being drafted to check the science. I'm comfortable about it. I never felt monstered.

"Some chapters required discussion but there was no breakdown. I was determined to protect my reputation."

But he said the project wasn't all plain sailing.

Farmers he interviewed on Eltham Rd showed a mixed reaction to TRC's riparian planting programme. Many recognised its worth, but others were unhappy with the cost and potential losses caused by floods.

The chapter about the oil industry tested his independence and was the most difficult to write because debates about fracking, deep well injection and deep water drilling offshore were ongoing. New controversies arose constantly during the research and some were still unresolved.

"For the TRC, fracking was not even a resource consent matter when debate broke out in 2011. So it got hold of the oil companies, asked them what they were doing and came up with a policy. The oil industry has a good record of compliance - but not always, with a deep well injection into a water aquifer on one occasion in the past."

He described TRC as an organisation that functioned effectively and worked on building relationships. "It's a triumph - it began as a body that no-one wanted because people were frightened of what it would mean."

It had been careful in its management of land-farming and he described media coverage of the issue outside Taranaki as unfair and inflammatory.

Tucker said Green Party members were suspicious of anyone other than themselves. Their claims about poor water quality were unsustainable because they unwisely lumped Taranaki with the rest of New Zealand. "I've done the hard yards - and I expect them to attack [the research]. Nevertheless, they have started some important debates. They kept me honest - it's all sourced and referenced."

After Massey University scientist Mike Joy questioned Tucker's independence, he was given a copy of the chapter about South Taranaki's Waingongoro River. He told Tucker it was fantastic and he would use his research as a teaching resource.

Tucker said TRC assessed water quality in several key ways - its physical and chemical properties, bacteria loadings, algae growth and a stream's inhabitants - but the results could confuse the public.

Since 1983 it had tested river ecology with MCI scores, which examined what survived in the water long-term. Measuring bacteria provided a snapshot only at the time of sampling, but cost and practicalities prevented more frequent testing.

Tucker said swimming in Taranaki rivers was safe, but poor Niwa ratings for some were based on the worst 5 per cent of samples over summer. "So one poor sample after a fresh stuffs a river's rating for the year."

While Niwa said water cleared three days after a fresh, the Waitara River, for example, took five days to clear. "So people should wait [to swim] for a reasonable time after a flood."

Using TRC data, Tucker examined water quality trends in 24 streams tested in 44 places over two decades and found an overall improvement of 21 per cent in the median scores, with only two deteriorations.

What was once Taranaki's most polluted river, the Mangati at Bell Block, showed the most improvement, with a 56 per cent rise in MCI scores. The results at the two testing sites that did not improve were inconsequential. One was on the upper reaches of the Manganui, which dropped from a high 130 to 126 after a local erosion event, and the other was a temporary fall in the lower reaches of the Huatoki in New Plymouth after the New Plymouth District Council installed a weir and fish pass.

Although a Niwa test of the Waikoura Stream near Manaia found high bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorus levels, the MCI test was good. ''So it's confusing for people to understand. It's not a simple black and white answer. Our rivers are in good condition."

He said it was an irony that water quality was not among the Taranaki Catchment Commission's mandates of flood protection and stopping land erosion when it was established.

Landowners received subsidies to build dams and drain swamps but nothing to stop pollution. "The Government has never funded anything to stop pollution. They've encouraged development so the balance sheet is distorted."

He predicted only large farming operations would survive in the face of huge compliance costs - effluent management requirements in Taranaki had been put at $70 million or more.

Clearing the water has a starting point of 1970, and pollution coming out the ends of pipes at that time had greatly diminished.

The early chapters document Taranaki Catchment Commission history and TRC's work. Next is the story of Hangthua, better known as the Stony River, the only one in the country protected by a local conservation order.

That's followed by an account of the troubled Waingongoro River, valued for its trout-fishing but polluted by meatworks, dairy factories, dairy farms and Eltham sewage treatment plant before a recovery plan was put in place.

The saga of the replacement of New Plymouth's sewage treatment system is more about politics than water. Another chapter traces the campaign to prevent Think Big energy projects overwhelming the province's capacity to preserve its water environment in North Taranaki, its coastal reefs and Waitara River. It tells the stories of the first significant battle to recognise Maori cultural values and the catchment commission's need to expand its expertise

Tucker also examines the Waitara River, which was a depository for sewage and freezing works discharges and on which $50 million was spent cleaning it up.

Investigating why Taranaki dairy farmers still get flak about dirty dairying, he said they unfairly shouldered a share of the opprobrium rightly brought on their national industry by ineffectual environmental management elsewhere, especially in the South Island.

"Most farmers have the message and don't want to be seen as a bunch of environmental wreckers," he said.

- Taranaki Daily News

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