During the next few weeks, council staff will be talking with hill- and high-country farmers about how they can help improve the region's water quality.
Southland's inland hill country might seem a long way away from our estuaries and all the freshwater in between, but these discussions are front-footing a proposed plan change that's part of the council's mountains-to-the- sea approach.
Water quality is the council's No 1 priority - nothing new there. The Environment Southland Water and Land 2020 & Beyond project is driving that priority and is this council's response to the Government's National Policy Statement for Freshwater - to maintain and improve water quality throughout New Zealand.
This project takes a mountains- to-the-sea/whole catchment perspective. So, in the Aparima catchment for example, we're considering the land use effects on water quality from the Takitimu mountains to the Jacobs River Estuary at Riverton.
Southland has undergone a huge change in land use, which has been occurring since the swampy landscape was first drained and modified more than 150 years ago. Add to that more people, development, industry and farming and you get some highly modified environments. The pressure is showing in declining water quality, which is most apparent in our estuaries and coastal lagoons.
Our estuaries and catchments are dynamic, complex systems that respond over varying time frames to a range of influences.
Understanding and explaining this takes more than a quick quote or a headline. Establishing the precise causes and effects that negatively affect their health is also complex. But Environment Southland is focused on getting on with positive actions that will result in improvements to Southland's water quality. In this, all of us can contribute and play a part. And it's going to take time.
As far as the proposed rule change for hill- and high-country development is concerned, it is one in a suite of focus activities in the Water and Land 2020 project. Other focus activities being progressed include nutrient management, riparian management, wintering and community sewage schemes.
The focus activities are first steps toward a catchment-based approach to limit setting, as required by the National Policy Statement.
Much of the work done to date for the focus activities has been around good management practices.
The hill and high country is no exception and there has been some progress in better management of the development in these areas. But, we've all seen examples of poorly planned and managed practices such as "spray and pray" swede crops on high steep slopes and removal of important filtering vegetation from gullies.
The proposed plan change is designed to ensure that hill- and high-country development is properly planned to minimise adverse environmental impacts, in particular, the loss of valuable soil and the effect this has on water quality.
It's proposed that development in the hill and high country become a "permitted activity", which means that so long as certain conditions are met, it does not require a resource consent. Those conditions relate to distances from water and gullies, elevation heights, and fodder crops on steep slopes.
Good planning prior to development will be the key to farmers meeting the conditions and Environment Southland's land sustainability officers will be able to advise farmers on this.
The council to date has sought views from farmers, iwi, industry, conservation groups and other local councils, and has commissioned reports as the foundation of the proposed rule change.
That input has resulted in further changes to the proposed plan change.
And now, the council has directed further consultation with the wider hill- and high-country farming community to outline the proposed changes and to get their input before this plan change is notified.
I urge hill- and high-country farmers to find out more about what is being proposed. Check out the Environment Southland website (www.es.govt.nz) and get along to one of the public meetings if you can, there's one in Gore on Monday (Croydon Lodge, 3pm- 4.45pm) and another one in Mossburn on Tuesday (Mossburn Community Centre 3pm-4.45pm).
In the end, we want this plan change to be simple and effective; simple for farmers to pick up and run with, and effective because it contributes to improving Southland's water quality.
Ali Timms is Environment Southland chairman.
- The Southland Times
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