A campaign opposing a sea outfall for New Plymouth's sewage laid the foundation for the constant focus a politician has put on the state of Taranaki's waterways.
When David Lean became the city's representative on the Taranaki Catchment Commission 30 years ago, he realised effluent disposal in waterways was a problem common to rural and urban areas alike.
At that stage the man popularly known as Daisy, after acquiring the nickname at primary school, had been New Plymouth's mayor for three years.
Today he recalls that back in the 1960s rural and urban folk alike were happy about discharges of factory waste, cowshed effluent and sewage into rivers or the ocean where they were "out of sight, out of mind".
"So there's been a quantum leap in attitude by regulators, land users and city dwellers," says Lean, who thinks farmers caught on more quickly than territorial local authorities to the need for better effluent disposal.
"Farmers were already planning for the future while territorial local authorities were sitting on their hands hoping the problem would go away. Palmerston North is still discharging its sewage into the Manawatu River. Get a grip!"
For years the South Taranaki District Council (STDC) allowed Eltham's wastewater to be discharged into the Waingongoro River.
All the while, farmers who had installed oxidation ponds to treat their cowshed effluent or were spraying it on farmland were doing their bit to clean up the river.
In 2003 the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC) identified the discharge as the "worst remaining point source discharge in all Taranaki" and issued the STDC with an abatement notice requiring it to stop industry polluting the river.
Lean, who is now TRC's deputy chairman, is pleased trade waste has been eliminated from the river, following the opening two years ago of a $10.5 million Eltham-Hawera wastewater pipeline funded by STDC, AFFCO and Fonterra.
Among the challenges he sees ahead is the TRC's review of its freshwater plan, with an outcome - in line with worldwide best practice - that's likely to require dairy farmers to develop an effluent disposal system allowing the discharge of treated effluent to land or water.
"Farmers are expecting that and are planning accordingly," says Lean. "Taranaki farmers are realistic and understand the net is tightening, both the regulatory net and in terms of community expectations.
"I think everyone would like to see no discharges to rivers whatever, but I'll be surprised if that occurs within my lifetime."
He says the old catchment commission, whose responsibilities were absorbed by the TRC in 1989, was a small organisation whose only effective tool to improve Taranaki's waterways was regulation.
Saluting farmers for buying into the TRC's 20-year-old riparian planting programme, he says regulation is not necessarily the best way to achieve change.
Rather than be a regulator, the TRC decided to work hand-in-hand with farmers on a programme of fencing and planting Taranaki streams. "We've done that and no other places have got anywhere near what Taranaki has done. Rather than a shouting match between regulators and land users, we've adopted a joint approach of which Taranaki can be pretty proud.
"For farmers to buy in and see the programme as an investment is the way to go."
The alternative is a "them and us" situation with farmers saying, "We know what we're doing," and the TRC acting as environmental police. This would not create goodwill.
"The real challenge is to ensure the positive relationship between many farmers and the TRC flourishes so we can finish the job. It would be a fantastic achievement from a farming community perspective and the wider community if it could be ramped up.
"Then we'll be a shining beacon for the rest of the country."
Lean said last year alone farmers planted half a million plants on Taranaki river banks, and fencing was ongoing.
Regional council figures show the extent of the challenge. In December 2012, more than 9800 kilometres of Taranaki stream banks were protected by fencing and more than 6200km were protected by vegetation. Ninety-two per cent of the province's 2400 riparian plans are expected to be implemented by 2020.
Lean rejects criticism that farmers and the TRC aren't doing enough to improve the environment. "The whole community would like everything to move faster. But we have a real buy-in from a large percentage of the population that will ultimately see a great environmental outcome. The rest of New Zealand is not even contemplating what we've done in Taranaki."
He says some critics are only happy when they're unhappy. "They're not at the coalface leading positive solutions. They're standing on the sidelines throwing bricks."
The environmental challenges ahead are similar to those of the past. "It's really about the need for changes in attitude and finding new solutions rather than perpetuating the old methods and hoping the problem will go away."
Lean still enjoys being on the TRC and an involvement in environmental issues which he can trace to at least the 1974 local body elections when he missed out on a seat on what was then the New Plymouth City Council. A surf lifesaver for the preceding 10 years, he'd taken an interest in the "bubbling" issue of New Plymouth's sewerage.
"There's a real difference between making a noise while you're sitting in the wings and being prepared to stand up and fight the battles publicly.
"It became apparent that was the only option. I wanted to be part of the decision-making process and thought I had something to offer."
He was successful in the 1977 election and popular mayor Denny Sutherland expected him to sit at the city council table, watch proceedings, keep his mouth shut and do as he was told.
So sit and listen Lean did. "And the more I heard about New Plymouth's sewerage, the worse the problem seemed."
While the council was convinced a new outfall was the correct disposal option, Lean opposed it. He was disgusted at the sight of condoms and tampons amongst the mess discharged from the Eliot St outfall and left at the high tide mark at East End and Fitzroy beaches, where he used to train for surf lifesaving.
He says owners of houses near the outfall couldn't give them away. "Those houses were splattered in crap every time there was a northerly wind. Now it's one of New Plymouth's prime locations."
As well as tipping sewage in the ocean back then, the council had no trade waste bylaws, so manufacturing companies could put whatever they liked into the city's sewerage system.
Among those unhappy with council plans to continue sending raw sewage out to sea through an outfall for the next 50 years were renowned artist Michael Smither, conservationist David Medway, Te Atiawa kaumatua Aila Taylor, Zona Wagstaff of the National Council of Women, medical professionals, surfers and surf lifesavers.
So there was plenty of support for the young man who took on the old boys' network and campaigned for land-based treatment of the city's sewage. "You have to believe what you're doing is the correct thing if you're to force the hand of the people making the decisions."
In 1980 Lean won the race for the city's mayoralty in a landslide victory.
Aged just 32, New Zealand's youngest civic leader declined an invitation to join the gentlemen's club where he was told the real decisions about the city were made. The membership card he was given languished in a drawer for the 12 years he was mayor.
Soon after his election, the wastewater treatment plant was approved by just one vote - a victory that remains a stand- out of his political career.
Looking back, he concedes the outfall's opponents were naive because initially they offered no alternative until the land-based treatment option developed by chemical engineer Ken Holyoake presented an option for debate.
Commissioned in 1984, New Plymouth's Carrousel treatment plant set new standards for sewage treatment in New Zealand and defined Taranaki as one of the few regions with a clean coastline. While the plant brought a 27 per cent rates rise, it established a baseline for the country's sewage disposal and received national and international recognition.
Piping sewage to the wastewater treatment plant from the plethora of small towns that joined the New Plymouth district after the 1989 local body reforms has been a gradual process, with Urenui and Onaero still not hooked up.
Today, Lean points out, while there's a price for building and running such facilities, doing nothing is even more costly. His contribution to local government and the community goes beyond the environment and beyond Taranaki and was recognised when he was appointed a Companion of the Queen's Service Order in 1993.
He's a director of the TSB Bank and TSB Community Trust, a former president of the Taranaki Rugby Football Union, a member of the New Zealand Community Trust allocation committee, Taranaki civil defence controller, life member of the New Plymouth Old Boys' Surf Life Saving Club, Taranaki Surf Life Saving Association and Surf Life Saving New Zealand and has been Sport Taranaki chairman since 1994.
Throw in the 1992 circumnavigation in inflatable rescue boat that raised $545,000 for New Plymouth's indoor pool and stadium and anyone can see the contribution has been substantial.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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