OPINION: Things are being done to improve the state of Canterbury's water, but it will get worse before it gets better, write Environment Canterbury commissioners PETER SKELTON and DAVID CAYGILL.
In the debate about the state of our fresh water in Canterbury it's easy to forget that we are all seeking the same thing - clean, safe and reliable water for everyone who wants and needs it. We also agree that the state of our water resources is a common concern and that urgent action is needed.
Everyone in Canterbury wants to know that water is being used in the best ways possible, while at the same time allowing for the needs of future generations.
People are rightly asking: what is being done? And when can we expect to see improvements in the state of water at favourite swimming or fishing spots, a reduction in algal blooms in lakes and rivers, and a turnaround in the level of nitrates in shallow groundwater?
The answer to the first question is that a huge amount of work is already going on to improve freshwater - particularly over the past four years since the collaborative Canterbury Water Management Strategy was agreed. Getting water management right remains the single highest priority for Environment Canterbury.
The answer to the second question is that unfortunately things are likely to get worse before they get better. This is simply because so much of Canterbury's water is located underground.
It will take time - in some cases decades - for nitrates and other contaminants to move through the groundwater system and into rivers and lakes. Things are being done right now, however, such as environmental restoration on farms and protection of waterways, which are already starting to improve the quality of our water.
The recent report on freshwater quality from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has been welcomed by Environment Canterbury and many others as a serious addition to our understanding of water issues.
It confirms what we already knew: That the level of nitrates in freshwater has risen significantly in the past decade, largely because of more farming as well as more intensive farming.
The Canterbury Water Management Strategy's broad approach to water issues has been to start with outcomes: what do we want our lakes and rivers to be like? What values should be taken into account for water management?
In Canterbury we have agreed that local communities are well placed to find solutions to local water issues. This approach is fundamental to the Canterbury Water Management Strategy, which sets targets over a range of environmental, cultural, economic and social values, as well as timeframes for when things need to happen. It's the job of councils and others to provide resources to put in place what communities want. We also need robust and easily understood rules for water management which support what people want and value for water.
Stronger rules are about to be put in place through the Canterbury Land and Water Regional Plan which will be received (from its public hearings phase) by Environment Canterbury's Commissioners on December 5.
The plan will set standards across Canterbury for water quality and managing the effects of human activity on waterways. At the local level, communities are involved in developing more detailed (sub-regional) rules which will put in place local solutions for local problems.
This has already happened with the Hurunui-Waiau River Regional Plan and is well progressed in the Selwyn- Waihora catchment.
Assuming they survive any legal appeals, the new policies and rules in the Land and Water Regional Plan will have a significant impact on what farmers (and indeed all land users) can do.
When the rules come into full effect next year they will, for the first time, place controls on the use of nitrate - and other nutrients - in Canterbury.
Farmers and the agricultural industry are fully aware of the need to improve environmental performance, and a big part of this is measuring and managing nutrient limits at the farm level.
Better control of nutrients and other contaminants - in both rural and urban areas - is crucial if we are going to start turning around the decline in water quality we have seen in recent years.
The Land and Water Regional Plan delivers this control and is a significant step forward in the implementation of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy.
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