Waituna progress great news

Environment Southland has been hitting the headlines of late, writes Ali Timms in Southern Focus.

It's the nature of most media to emphasise the bad. Apparently this sells newspapers. Meanwhile, try getting some good news published - take Waituna and the surrounding catchment, for example.

The big story last year, of course, was Waituna and the potential for the lagoon to "flip" into an irretrievably toxic soup. Plenty of well-publicised debate, name-calling and mud-throwing but, as usual, very difficult for most people to find out what's actually happening beyond the headlines.

In the nearly two years since the Waituna story broke, enormous progress has been made. I am encouraged to see the beginnings of a genuine partnership among the stakeholders involved with the lagoon and wider catchment.

Farmers recently reported to our council on their updated Waituna Lagoon and Catchment Action Plans involving a raft of initiatives and improvements they are making to reduce their negative effects on catchment and lagoon health. In concert with this, and with the support of DairyNZ, the dairy farmers in the Waituna catchment are developing Sustainable Milk Plans. These set targets based on science that align with Environment Southland and milk company requirements, with the aim of reducing their environmental footprint in the short-to-medium term.

Local farmers are a forward-thinking bunch with a passion for their businesses and the area they live and work in. And industry is stepping up, in particular the Supply Fonterra Environmental Programme. This involves effluent, waterway and nitrogen management and seeing Fonterra developing the beginnings of self-regulation.

At a Fonterra function I attended recently, local dairy farming leaders were openly calling for their company to get rid of the recidivist poor performers. The reputation of all dairy farmers and their companies will continue to be tarnished until this occurs. Bring it on, I say. In fact, what's happening in Waituna will be rolled out in all other catchments as Environment Southland and the community get to grips with the causes of diffuse sources of pollutants - that's the contaminants that don't come out of a pipe.

Through the Water and Land 2020 programme, we will prioritise work around lowland catchments. These are generally where water quality is most degraded but where we can get most bang for your buck.

Earlier this year, the Lake Waituna Control Association's resource consent for opening the lagoon for drainage outfall purposes was amended so it could be opened at either Walkers Bay or Charlie's Bay to maintain lagoon health. The lagoon's been opened twice this year, and our monitoring shows that on both occasions the flush of sediment and associated phosphorus from the lagoon out to sea wasn't as high as expected, because conditions were very calm.

Plans are under way to run stream bank rebattering trials at two sites on the lower Waituna Stream. These trials are part funded by the Government's Clean Up Fund and were designed in conjunction with the new Waituna Drainage Liaison Committee. If the trials are successful, rebattering will prevent a significant amount of eroded stream bank material from reaching the lagoon.

The Government has just released the third report from the Land and Water Forum, which states that good management practice will be critical in achieving freshwater quality objectives. I agree, and Environment Southland is working with focus groups to evaluate and promote this for a multitude of land use activities.

The reality is, however, that, in many catchments throughout New Zealand, this won't be enough to meet the contaminant-load limits required to get our treasured water bodies into a sustainably healthy state. In Southland we are seeing some overall improving trends in reduced phosphorus, bacteria and sediment levels in our waterways. The elephant in the room is nitrogen. How do we continue to grow our rural economy while meeting the limits on nitrogen that will be required through the Government's National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management?

Actually these two goals are not mutually exclusive, but change and innovation will be required. I'm pleased to see DairyNZ stepping into this space and working with Environment Southland to look at initiatives that will bring measurable reductions in on-farm contaminants released to water.

The forum report doesn't make for light reading. One of its 67 - count them! - recommendations is for the Government to step up and set nationwide limits for water quality. This is vital and regional councils have been calling for it for some time.

My final comment on the forum is that it well and truly mandates regional councils as the regulators and facilitators of freshwater quality and quantity management, in partnership with the community. The bad news is that as usual, no government funding is provided for us to do the work.

So we will carry on working with the community to set realistic, achievable and affordable priorities for the region's water quality. As always, it will be a balancing act among what the law requires of us, what the community wants, and what ratepayers are willing to pay.

» Ail Timms is the chairman of Environment Southland.

The Southland Times