OPINION: Given that Southland's economy is underpinned by agriculture, it's no surprise that the Southern Field Days at Waimumu is such a major biennial event.
The buzz in the Environment Southland tent this year was firmly around pests - both plants and animals. A major talking point, and the reason for many people to stop in for a cuppa and a chat, was the emergence of clover root weevil on their properties - a pest with the potential to have a major impact on the feed quality of pastures across the region. This impact would pose a major threat to Southland's economy.
About 100 lucky farmers took away a small container of weevils infested with a biocontrol agent for release on their properties, with more than 200 signing up for further releases. Biocontrol agents use the natural enemies of a pest to help reduce the damage it causes.
In this case, the weevils are infested by a wasp which makes the weevil infertile and unable to cause further damage to clover.
We are actively working with other regional councils on a suite of projects. Of note is the joint funding of biocontrol research. In Southland, there are currently 28 different biocontrol agents, including 25 insects, two mites and a fungus, that are working to combat the unwanted species.
Environment Southland has been an active and long-time proponent of the use of biocontrol agents to help combat pest plants and was among the first regional councils to back the introduction of dung beetles, with recent releases on Southland properties.
Biocontrol is a numbers game and our aim at Environment Southland is to eventually build up biocontrol agent populations enough to harvest, so the community can distribute them on the target pest plants they might have at home.
Further to these efforts, South Island regional councils are working together to review their Regional Pest Management Strategies collectively, which will see cost savings in investigations and consultant fees. It could lead to having one Pest Management Strategy for the island.
Unfortunately, I missed the field days this year as I was attending a two-day Regional Sector Group (RSG) meeting in Christchurch. This group is made up of the chairs and chief executives of all the regional councils in New Zealand. We usually meet on a quarterly basis.
In the past three years, most of our discussions and decision- making has been around the changes in water management as a result of the Government's National Policy Statement for Freshwater.
It's really important that regional councils speak with one voice on these vital water issues and the group's united front has resulted in strong influence over the policy decisions that government officials have been making in this water space.
One of the initiatives of the RSG has been an information website for regional council data called Land and Water Aotearoa (lawa.org.nz). The site will be launched in March and will show comparative water quality data, but future plans include adding water quantity, coastal water quality, biodiversity, biosecurity, and air quality data.
Significant funding has been gained from the Tindall Foundation for the project and it looks as if we will receive some significant government funding as the site will become the "go to" place for all of the regional council data needed to implement the National Policy Statement.
While in Christchurch, we took a tour of the city and eastern suburbs, which replicated one we did nearly two years ago. The recovery and rebuild is kicking into gear, but with underground infrastructure only 30 per cent finished, there is a long way still to go.
Like all crisis situations, some big lessons have been learned from Christchurch, one of which is having an efficient emergency management structure in place, as we do in Southland. This is vital.
The Southland councils have been working together for some time to ensure that the structure and the relationships are in place before we are faced with an emergency situation. Another of the major lessons from Christchurch is that the right planning and implementation of the long post-disaster recovery phase is so important, as communities struggle to get their lives back together.
Emergency Management Southland is a shared service of the four Southland councils and its staff are actively working with communities and key groups to improve the awareness, knowledge and preparedness across Southland should we be faced with a similar situation.
It has been a great shared service initiative and we are always looking at the potential for more opportunities to gain efficiencies across the councils.
All regional councils have a lot of work ahead of them in implementing the National Policy Statement. Working together is essential, as is working with our rural and urban communities as we move toward setting values for our waterways and what limits might be needed to protect those values. Balancing environmental improvements with a growing rural-based economy is not easy and won't happen overnight.
Our job, in concert with the government, other regions and our communities, is to ensure we have the right tools, rules and practices in place to get the balance right.
Ali Timms is Environment Southland chairwoman
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