Glossy spin distorts the truth about water quality

RACHEL STEWART
Last updated 11:02 24/12/2012

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OPINION: The Water Trilogy (Part 2 - and final), so not really a trilogy.

Well, it was ambitious of me. I was going to further explore the detailed science of the claim by the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC) that our region's water quality is "either stable or improving".

I started with only one section of their recent publicly circulated glossy pamphlet on river ecology, figuring that the stream life was probably more interesting than getting my head around complex chemicals.

I expected I would need the assistance of freshwater scientists to aid me in my interpretation of the science, but I never got that far. What I found was even simpler than critiquing the science.

The more I looked into the TRC's own quoted technical report, Fresh Water Macroinvertebrate Fauna Biological Monitoring Programme Annual State of the Environment Monitoring Report 2010-2011, versus its glossy spin, the more I found things just didn't add up.

It's always a challenge to do justice to certain topics in an 800-word column and difficult to summarise a complex report, in this case 313 pages, into something comprehensible.

Coupled with that, the TRC sticks firmly by the old adage of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

The glossy pamphlet, if you recall, noted that the TRC originally developed the system for using stream invertebrates to monitor stream health. That's something it and the region can definitely be proud of.

The rest of that section of the pamphlet discusses whether the condition of those invertebrates has changed over time.

The reader is left concluding that things must be pretty OK - in fact, that things are even getting better.

What the glossy leaves out are the conclusions drawn by the TRC's own scientists.

The council's technical report says that the ecological health of our rivers typically decreases in a downstream direction from "very good" in the upper reaches of catchments, through "good-fair" in the middle reaches, to mainly "fair" in the lower reaches towards the coast.

This reflects the fact that as rivers leave the National Park and hit sunlight, the temperatures rise, nutrients from surrounding land use and discharges increase, algae flourish and stream ecological health deteriorates.

The report even goes on to say that invertebrate communities in the lower reaches are "well adapted to the cumulative impacts of upstream point source discharges and non-point source diffuse runoff and are particularly resistant to further impacts (other than toxic discharges)".

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In other words, the stream health in the sections of our rivers most affected by agriculture has degraded to a point where they have bottomed out.

The glossy pamphlet also said that Taranaki waterways were as good as or better than comparable waterways elsewhere in New Zealand.

So what does the technical report say? This is where it gets a bit more complicated.

The technical report compares monitoring results with three models developed to help predict what invertebrate communities should be there in comparable waterways - two of these have been developed using historic regional data and the third developed nationally.

Depending on which model you look at, you get different answers, but using the third model shows that 40 per cent of lowland sites are significantly worse than would be expected under the best possible conditions.

Maybe at the end of the day, it all depends on what your expectations are and how low we let the bar go.

However, let's not dress it up and pretend that the severely compromised ecological health of our Taranaki waterways is something to be proud of.

It does need to be said that if this province can't get it right, then nowhere can.

With our short, fast rivers and high annual rainfall, our freshwater has every possible natural advantage going for it, with the exception of denuded stream banks that have yet to be planted.

The TRC has always made much of its Riparian Management Programme and it's a great initiative, albeit glacially paced.

The TRC's 2011-12 Annual Significant Activities Report says that "as at June 30, 2012, plan holders have fenced 2306km and planted 1155km of stream bank".

"This equates to 41 per cent of the recommended fencing and 23 per cent of the recommended plantings."

Since the scheme started in 1994, farmers have planted less than a quarter of the stream banks that need to be planted, despite the TRC offering them free riparian plans, planting assistance and the possibility of winning all manner of prizes if they get their heavily subsidised plant orders in by a certain date.

Yet farmers consistently say that the voluntary, educational approach is the only effective approach. Really?

Despite also employing the auditor-general's report on water quality to endorse their management of Taranaki's water and cherry-picking the good bits, it certainly wasn't all favourable.

The auditor-general says that "given that the TRC is so well positioned, it could be more ambitious with taking action to enhance freshwater quality in those low-elevation areas where it does not meet relevant trigger values".

So answer this: If the TRC continues to spend an inordinate amount of energy on spin, while attempting to solely take the credit for the region's water quality, what incentive is there for farmers to change?

If everything is so very awesome out there, why should farmers do the voluntary riparian planting?

Why should they look at putting in the expensive infrastructure for a land-based system of effluent disposal?

This is the corner the TRC is painting itself into every time it wastes ratepayers' money on publishing self-congratulatory, back-slapping spin to try to convince you that all is well.

- Taranaki Daily News

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