Greens seek fresh approach to protect Waituna Lagoon

Green MP Eugenie Sage speaking in the Invercargill Public Library.
John Hawkins/Stuff

Green MP Eugenie Sage speaking in the Invercargill Public Library.

The Green Party has criticised Environment Southland for not doing enough to protect the waterways at Waituna Lagoon. 

The Green's environment spokesperson Eugenie Sage was in Southland on Saturday, where she went to Waituna and spoke with Southlanders on environmental issues.

However, Environment Southland chief executive Rob Phillips said plans were in place to ensure the waterway was "a more healthy lagoon" with a catchment plan.

In August, the government granted $5m towards Environment Southland's plan to build a buffer zone around the lagoon, which will allow water levels to be managed independently of the need to keep surrounding farm land drained.

While the total cost of the project is expected to be about $14m, the government's contribution will come in increments of $1m during the next five years. 

Waituna was designated as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance in 1976, with the wider wetland complex being included in 2008.

Sage said while there had been a lot of effort made to protect the integrity of the 20,000ha wetlands, a change in approach was needed. 

"I've been there a couple of times before, it's one of the most stunningly beautiful places in the South Island ... [it's got] the rich diversity both of plants and wildlife, the sweeping wetland landscape, it's an utterly impressive place."

Sage said nitrogen pollution from dairy was putting the wetlands at risk. 

"What seems to be being proposed is a lot more mechanical engineering controls, mechanical openings and closings.

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"We need to stop pollution at its source, rather than at how humans can flush out the lagoon, because that will potentially compromise the ruppia beds if you get more salt water going in."

Sage said the situation in Canterbury's Lake Ellesmere (a lagoon separated from the Pacific Ocean by the Kaitorete Spit) was a cautionary tale for what could happen in Southland.

"I'm based in Christchurch, Te Waihora Lake Ellesmere has flipped, its a very turbid muddy water quality there now.

"It lost its ruppia beds after the Wahine storm in the 1960s, and the ruppia beds in Waituna are critical to maintaining water quality." 

Sage said Environment Southland needed to do more to deal with the root causes of the issue. 

"What Environment Southland is doing at the moment, there's not the urgency that's needed, and it's probably going very slowly in order to reduce costs to farmers."

"There's the potential to build on work being done, but needs much more urgency and less of a focus on mechanical schemes and artificial wetlands."

The Green's policy would include a poll charge of $2 per kilo of nitrogen leached per hectare per year, Sage said. 

"We see that as a real incentive to drive changes in land use and farm management.

"It's giving farmers a choice to farm in a way that leads to nitrogen pollution, or whether they have more crops, trees, and manage their stock in a way that reduces nitrogen pollution."

Sage said in talking to farmers in Southland, she was aware of the financial concerns with the party's policies. 

 ​"They were very wary of new taxes, but the problem is the environment is paying the price for intensive agriculture.

"Southland along with Canterbury has been one of the main regions where there has been this massive increase in dairy cow numbers.

"And it's not just farmers, yes we've got to do better in our towns with stormwater, but it has been agricultural intensification which has led to a lot of the pollution in our rural areas." 

But Phillips said there was "no quick fix" solution to the problem.

The lagoon had been a priority for Environment Southland in the past five years.

"It's not as though we've been sitting on our hands.

"Our focus is on a strong governance group. The whole community needs to be involved."

Environment Southland had a strong governance in place with the local iwi, Ngāi Tahu, the Department of Conservation, Southland District Council and Fonterra, Phillips said.

The catchment plan included both a buffer zone and on-farm plans to minimise contaminants into the water.

While there was no effluent in the water, there was always going to be some contaminants, so the plan was set to lessen that amount into the water so that it would not cause any problems.

The plan would use on-farm mitigations, as well as using wetlands and drainage systems to limit contaminants getting into waterways, Phillips said.

It builds on the plans from the past five years, and is expected to be up and running in the next year. It would then last about five years.

 

 - Stuff

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