Lake Ellesmere clean-up deal explained

Te Waihora-Lake Ellesmere this week at dawn. Shamefully it is New Zealand's most nutrient-polluted lake and a new deal ...
Iain McGregor

Te Waihora-Lake Ellesmere this week at dawn. Shamefully it is New Zealand's most nutrient-polluted lake and a new deal between farmers, greenies, runanga and officials will see it cleaned up over decades.

It has all been going on in the countryside, says departing Environment Canterbury (ECan) commissioner and former Ngai Tahu deputy kaiwhakahaere Donald Couch.

It's the biggest change for Canterbury's farmers since the stripping away of government subsidies in the belt-tightening 1980s.

Ta Mark Solomon of Ngai Tahu, left, Donald Couch, ECan commissioner, and Dame Margaret Bazley, ECan chair, at Couch's ...

Ta Mark Solomon of Ngai Tahu, left, Donald Couch, ECan commissioner, and Dame Margaret Bazley, ECan chair, at Couch's retirement party earlier this year. It was understood that a water deal in Couch's district, Selwyn-Waihora, would be hard, but lead to deals elsewhere.

On the one hand the farmers are being granted their irrigation schemes. But on the other, they will now have to learn to farm within strict nutrient limits.

And some are going to struggle to find a business model that will make this new economic equation work, Couch admits.

We are having coffee and a surprisingly frank conversation about politics – both provincial and tribal – the day before 78-year-old Couch and his wife Dorothy fly off to Canada to reunite with their kids and eight grandchildren.

The Selwyn-Waihora watershed feeds into Te Waihora-Lake Ellesmere, which shamefully is New Zealand's most ...

The Selwyn-Waihora watershed feeds into Te Waihora-Lake Ellesmere, which shamefully is New Zealand's most nutrient-polluted lake.

Couch, an elder of the Rapaki runanga in Lyttelton harbour, spent many years in Canada as a polytech administrator. He even became a local politician on city and regional councils over there.

The whanau are all settled in Vancouver and Calgary. And with his Governors Bay home needing six months of earthquake repairs, his five year stint at ECan coming to its natural conclusion with April's passing of the Selwyn-Waihora water plan, this is the obvious time for an extended visit.

"One of the factors in coming back to New Zealand was that there were no grandchildren on the horizon. But get back here and suddenly there they were. So we thought if we've got to get out of the house, why not go live with the family."

And Couch says he ends his role as one of the seven Government-appointed commissioners in good heart. Because for years Canterbury has only been talking about its water problems. Now, after ECan's shake-up, it is acting.

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As with Te Waihora-Lake Ellesmere – shamefully, New Zealand's most nutrient-polluted lake, he says – people have long known what was wrong.

"I taught Maori resource management at Lincoln University 15 years ago. And even back then there were at least 20 theses sitting in the library, all pointing out the lake's problems. But no-one dealt with the issue."

Likewise a bicultural approach to the countryside was mandated under the Resource Management Act (RMA), yet for years the old ECan got away with avoiding any practical recognition.

Striving for a polite way of putting it, Couch – Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu's deputy chair from 2004 to 2009 – says: "I don't think people were brave enough to say it's a changing world and we've got to change with it."

But the Government put the commissioners in to get action. And just a few weeks ago, Couch's particular piece of the puzzle – Variation 1, the Selwyn-Waihora chapter of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS) – was passed into local planning law.

The CWMS's job was to find a way to allow increased irrigation while fixing Canterbury's deteriorating water quality. The logic was one could pay for the other.

Through more profitable farming – mostly dairy intensification of course – there would be extra cash for riparian planting, the fencing of streams, the retiring of sensitive land, the adoption of nutrient monitoring and other sophisticated farm management practices.

Most of all, the draining of local underground aquifers and streams could be replaced by the storage of alpine water. Reservoirs up in the foothills would capture the spring snow-melt, allowing coastal tributaries to fill up and start to flow once more.

The CWMS established 10 zone committees to draw up a water plan for each catchment. Commissioners were assigned to the various zones.

Couch's big one, Selwyn-Waihora, covers the section of the plains between the Rakaia and Waimakariri rivers, running from their headwaters down past Springfield, Darfield and Rolleston to Te Waihora-Lake Ellesmere and the coast.

ECan expected this zone to be one of the most contentious. "The commissioners have looked to Selwyn-Waihora because, with the possible exception of Ashburton, it is the area with the greatest intensification going on," he says.

"It's where the dairy conversions are. It's where Central Plains Water (CPW) wants to make some pretty massive irrigation changes between State Highway 1 and the foothills. So it was thought if we could do it there, it indicated we could do it anywhere."

Couch says the process got off to a rough start and needed a couple of time extensions. The zone committee's mix of farmers, greenies, runanga and officials took some time feeling each other out.

But Variation 1 was agreed late last year, and to Couch's relief, signed off by an independent review panel in April to make it official.

"The panel made alterations to every page," Couch says. However mostly just to tighten up the language.

Committees have a habit of using ambiguous wording to paper over their differences. Yet Couch says that just creates loopholes for RMA lawyers to pounce on later.

And he says the key changes – such as Te Waihora-Lake Ellesmere being declared a Ngai Tahu cultural landscape, something he had to use his table-thumping skills to achieve – were endorsed.

So the ground is laid, he says. Now the water plan has to be implemented. We will discover whether there is the political follow-through to actually fix Te Waihora as promised and whether farming can achieve the profitability that makes the trade-offs pay.

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Couch says nutrient limits will require a radical culture change, particularly for smaller traditional farms.

Evidence to the zone committee warned that for years many Cantabrian farmers have been surviving more on their capital gains than their productive output.

It has been the ever rising property market – the increasing value of the land they occupy, rather than the sheep or crops they might grow – which has been paying their bills. And in turn, it was making this low-income farming work that encouraged a cheapskate approach to the environment.

However water quality rules are likely to prove a double whammy as they will not only add management costs but could also hit rural land prices.

Of course farmers will be given time to adjust, says Couch.

Some 80 per cent of the ground water consents in Selwyn-Waihora don't even come up for renewal until after 2030. Existing boreholes can continue to be used. Meanwhile, the rules on minimum river flows don't kick in until 2025. And, the requirement for audited farm plans starts in 2017.

However Couch says the package of measures will eventually bite and farmers will be pushed towards farming in new ways.

"There are a lot of young farmers who are very knowledgeable in the technicalities of farming. But yes, we are forcing the issue now. Because we've  had to."

Couch says farming industry leaders have been supportive of the zone changes. There is belief they will pay.

A study by Dairy NZ said a green light for the CPW irrigation scheme would lift mid-Canterbury's agricultural GDP contribution from $620 million to $930m a year.

And while nitrogen management rules would represent a cost, trimming a potential farm surplus from $290m to $250m, this would still be a big jump  from the current $180m a year.

So intensification can cover the environmental commitments being made by farmers, says Couch. Although for those on marginal land or unwilling to join the rush to dairy conversion, the equation looks more difficult.

Then Couch says, the success of the zone process also presumes there will be public money to pay for some of the legacy of what farming and rural development has done to Canterbury's waterways.

Cleaning up Te Waihora-Lake Ellesmere is the priority. And that is something which could cost as much as $200m over a generation.

Couch agrees Pakeha may have ambivalent feelings about Canterbury's largest lake.

Many will reason it is just a shallow, brackish lagoon. Big enough, being 14 km by 30 km wide, yet not even two metres deep over most of that. If you live in Christchurch and want a proper lake, you drive south to the big lakes.

But of course for Maori, says Couch, Te Waihora is the fish basket of Rakaihautu. A place of plentiful food.

And despite the lake having a summer trophic index of 6.8 – way above the tipping point where algal blooms take over from normal plant growth – local iwi still make an annual pilgrimage to feast on its eels and flounder.

"People still eat them. Well, some of us don't," admits Couch, pulling a face.

The nutrient over-load problems of Te Waihora are in fact complicated. It is shallow and slow to flush. The Wahine storm of 1968 ripped out the bottom-lining weed beds that helped filter the water while supporting a population of 80,000 black swan and other wildlife.

The lake has a nitrogen problem from run-off. But this comes from septic tanks as well as farms.

"There are all those lower Selwyn huts around the lake, some at very low elevation," says Couch. It doesn't take much of a flood for sewage to end up where people want to boat or fish for eel.

However the most difficult issue is the heavy build-up of phosphate in the lake sediment. This gets easily churned up by wind and waves, triggering soupy algal blooms.

Again, farms get the blame for fertiliser pollution of the waters running into Te Waihora. But phosphorous also comes from detergent in washing water. And a lot may come from hillside erosion.

The volcanic soil in the area has a high phosphorous content. So early logging – another colonial activity – also will have contributed to the phosphorous legacy.

Phosphorous is the expensive one to get rid of because it sits in the lake bed. And advice to the zone committee is that phosphorous levels would have to cut by half to bring Te Waihora back to what it once was.

One proposal is to use a chemical neutraliser, alum. This has been tried in some lakes near Rotorua. Couch says dumping further chemicals into the lake's tributaries is a challenging idea in itself. And it would cost millions.

But other remedies, like dredging, would be even more expensive, while also stirring up toxic levels of the nutrient.

However Couch says what matters is that the long-term ambition to fix Te Waihora-Lake Ellesmere has been accepted, and indeed a start already been made.

As a sweetener for the irrigation deals, the Ministry of Environment coughed up $6m to replant lost weed beds and begin other rehabilitation measures. This was matched by $2m from ECan and another $2m from Ngai Tahu, Fonterra and Selwyn District Council.

Couch says there needs to be follow-on funding to make a real dent in the lake's problems. The applications have gone in to the Government but the word is not to expect anymore money for a while.

"We have to demonstrate that that first $10m was worth it. Hundreds of thousands of plants were put in. We have to give them a chance to grow and see what it does to the water quality. That's fair enough I guess."

Couch says the other important step is the lake and its surrounds being established as a landscape of tribal significance under Variation 1.

Landowners on the lake's margin and along its feeder rivers, such as the Selwyn, Halswell, Kaituna, Harts Creek and Birdlings Brook, now have to consult with Ngai Tahu when applying for resource consents.

Couch says this is a sign of how iwi concerns are being built into the fabric of local government rules.

One his early wins as a commissioner at ECan was instituting the Maori double-barrelling of place names, like Te Waihora-Lake Ellesmere. It became part of staff training. And recognising tribal authority down to the runanga level in a zone water plan is another such symbolic move.

Couch grins as he remembers the battle he had to fight.

"Here's the inside scoop on that. In July 2013 I came back from a trip to Canada and the draft of Variation 1 had in effect been gutted of all the Ngai Tahu interests."

Couch found that while he had been abroad, his fellow zone committee members and ECan officials had decided some judicious "streamlining" of the proposals was merited.

"I really did a haka about that. I said this is not acceptable. Our interests have to be reflected in this. As part of the settlement, Ngai Tahu has the right to be on the consultation boards."

ECan's officers were told to work it out. And Couch says they eventually came back with the "landscape of significance" formula, a useful template for acknowledging bicultural values.

"I met a couple of farmers at my leaving party and they said well, we always knew you were going to get that. But that's the give and take of these things."

Couch says this is why the zone process feels like a success to him. All the local interests had to get around the table and come to the best mutual compromise. And out of this has come a roadmap for action that would have been difficult to agree otherwise.

So is Couch now finished for good? Was ECan his last big job for the tribe? Most probably, replies Couch, sounding none too sure.

"This is actually my fifth retirement now. So I'm practicing, but it's hard," he laughs.

 - The Press


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