Time to focus on water quality

The National Party won some plaudits in Opposition five years ago when it said it had seen the light on the environment and would now approach policy development with "blue-green" vision.

The just-passed Environmental Protection Authority bill and recently issued National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS) confirm the "blue-green" agenda has been trashed.

"Balance" is a word much- used by this government when it talks about the economy and the environment; what it means is economic growth at the environment's expense. National has introduced and passed a very weak Environmental Protection Authority Act (EPA).

The EPA has no clearly defined environmental goals; it has not been given the staff nor the budget to achieve any real advance in protecting the environment. When the EPA kicks in on July 1, almost all its staff will be transferred from other agencies, notably the Environmental Risk Management Authority, or Erma. Supplementing them will be some climate change staff and those employed to fast-track roading and irrigation projects.

Environment Minister Nick Smith also last month released a very weak freshwater management national policy statement, one that failed to enforce any new regulatory controls on delivering safe, fresh, clean water. It contains no national standards, and fails to address the biggest issue for freshwater quality and quantity; farming intensification.

The original NPS was drafted by a board of inquiry chaired by respected Environment Court Judge David Sheppard who delivered it to Nick Smith 18 months ago.

Smith kicked it to the Land and Water Forum which brought together farming, environmental and other interests. This NPS was largely and consensually supported by the forum. It suggested only four changes. The forum (and Sheppard) versions have now been gutted by the Cabinet's pro- growth cabal and 23 significant changes made.

Under the Government's NPS, instead of strong national water standards, more than a dozen regional/ unitary councils will each be given until 2014 to meet new regional goals on improving water quality, such as they are.

However, if meeting these goals proves "impracticable", councils have until 2030 to bring everything into line. Recall, this Government threw out Environment Canterbury (ECan) councillors because they were supposedly taking too long to address water issues.

ECan argued it needed a strong, national framework to make further progress. Now, the same minister who sacked them is passing responsibility for improving water quality back to regional councils, not giving them national standards and allowing them 19 years to come up to scratch! Even then, where a waterway is too badly degraded it will not have to come up to any standard; the assessment of improving water quality will be made on the whole region.

On June 11, the Canterbury Natural Resources Regional Plan, completed by ECan's commissioners, came into effect. It covers policies and rules on water quality but without a national framework behind it, the plan simply cannot deliver the certainty that everyone wants.

The original version of the NPS required that conditions be imposed by councils on all discharge permits affecting fresh water to protect the environment. The version gutted by the Cabinet simply requires councils to "have regard" to any adverse effect.

The Government's NPS is so poor that the environmental groups on the Land and Water Forum are condemning it. Even forum farming representatives are unhappy.

What they want most is certainty. The lack of any teeth in the NPS will inevitably see more harm for the environment and the prospect of more court battles.

This is particularly a problem for us here in Canterbury. A recent survey found over 80 per cent of small waterways on the Canterbury Plains are either moderately or severely polluted.

Thirty or so years ago, Lake Ellesmere/Te Waihora was regarded as one of the world's top trout fishing fisheries. Six years ago, the Environment Court found that the lake was biologically dead, killed by the flow of nutrients and other pollutants. Yet last year Agriculture Minister David Carter helped overturn a Department of Conservation decision to decline a lease renewal to a dairy farm with land on the edges of the lake.

While many individual farmers do their best and are supported by dairy industry leadership, without real standards and enforcement in place, improvements will only come slowly, at best.

Let's also acknowledge that the Avon and Heathcote rivers are also not safe to drink from or swim in, and that was before the short-term necessity of using them to carry sewage.

We need to get serious about water quality in town and country. If for no other reason, we make a living in the world on the basis of our "clean, green image".

Last month's Budget included a welcome two-year $15 million increase to improve water quality, while at the same time $435m was indicated to support irrigation projects. That should only happen if our water remains blue/green, not brown.

That's the colour you get when noble ideas give way to short-term growth objectives.

* Brendon Burns is the Labour MP for Christchurch Central.

The Press