wa­ter wa­ter ev­ery­where...

Element - - Enterprise - By So­phie Bar­clay

Not so long ago, you'd have hap­pily flung your­self into a clear, clean New Zealand river, con­fi­dent in the knowl­edge that it was among the world's most pris­tine. Com­pared to the foetid, slug­gish wa­ters that flow through Europe, Asia and the US, ours are the very epit­ome of good en­vi­ron­men­tal prac­tice; vig­or­ous, healthy full of flour­ish­ing fauna. The lifeblood of peo­ple and an­i­mals. Right? Wrong.

WWF NZ’s re­cent pub­li­ca­tion ‘Be­yond Rio’ shows that wa­ter qual­ity has con­sis­tently de­clined over the last 20 years. It finds that of 300 wa­ter­ways 96% were too pol­luted to swim in, a third of our lakes are sick and, be­low the soil, ni­trates have in­vaded the ground­wa­ter in 39% of mon­i­tored sites. Two thirds of our na­tive fresh­wa­ter fish are in ma­jor de­cline. Up to30,000 peo­ple con­tract wa­ter­borne dis­eases ev­ery year. The chal­lenge is how to re­store the health of our rivers, lakes and wet­lands in the face of in­creas­ing in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of farm­ing and an ever-bur­geon­ing car cul­ture – the two big­gest threats to our fresh wa­ter.

The coun­try

Back in 2001, signs of dis­con­tent were vis­i­ble in our big­gest lake – Taupo. The is­sue was the same as that plagu­ing all of our wa­ter­ways: ex­ces­sive ni­tro­gen find­ing its way into the wa­ter. No mat­ter how well planted the lake edge was, the por­ous pu­mice means that wa­ter doesn’t fil­ter through ri­par­ian plant­ings but in­stead trav­els un­der­ground, drain­ing into the lake. En­ter the Waikato Re­gional Coun­cil (WRC) which, along with the Lake Taupo Pro­tec­tion Trust, iwi, Taupo Dis­trict Coun­cil and cen­tral gov­ern­ment worked out how to ad­dress the prob­lem. A ni­tro­gen trad­ing sys­tem was de­vel­oped, mak­ing avail­able an $81 mil­lion fund to in­cen­tivise land use change and buy ni­tro­gen cred­its and land from land own­ers.

It works by cap­ping land own­ers at their high­est ni­tro­gen us­age from their most in­ten­sive year be­tween 2001 and 2005 un­der a sys­tem known as ‘Vari­a­tion 5’. If they want to in­crease this level, for ex­am­ple by in­ten­si­fy­ing a dairy farm, they have to buy cred­its.

Cred­its are cre­ated by landown­ers from land use changes – re­tir­ing un­pro­duc­tive ar­eas of pas­ture and turn­ing them into for­est or down­siz­ing op­er­a­tions. This leads to smarter farm­ing de­ci­sions – ra­tion­al­i­sa­tion of land and bet­ter choices about where to farm.

The long-term goal is the pro­tec­tion of wa­ter qual­ity, keep­ing it at 2001 lev­els while re­duc­ing the amount of ni­tro­gen in the lake by 20%. Dairy farms make up only 18% of the catch­ment but add 90% of the ni­tro­gen load to the lake. Ur­ban ni­tro­gen has also been ad­dressed by up­grad­ing sewage sys­tems.

Ac­cord­ing to Natasha Hay­ward, from the WRC, the wa­ter in Lake Taupo takes around 50 years to fil­ter through the soil and reap­pear as lake wa­ter. “We have to re­mem­ber it is a long-term project. The ef­fects of what we’re do­ing now won’t be vis­i­ble un­til around 2080”.

Vari­a­tion 5 has been a suc­cess, de­spite ini­tial re­luc­tance. New dairy and dry stock farm­ing, above a cer­tain stock­ing level, will now re­quire con­sents, in con­trast to the rest of the coun­try where farm­ing is a per­mit­ted ac­tiv­ity with­out any con­di­tions on agri­cul­tural runoff.

New Zealand is an agri­cul­tural na­tion. Forty per cent of land is de­voted to agri­cul­ture, with a to­tal of 1.5 mil­lion hectares in dairy farm­ing. Agri­cul­ture con­trib­utes five per cent to our GDP, with the dairy in­dus­try alone ac­count­ing for 2.8% and $10.4 bil­lion of ex­port earn­ings.

Over the last half cen­tury, agri­cul­tural prac­tices have em­pha­sised ex­ter­nal in­puts – ni­tro­gen and phos­phate-rich fer­tilis­ers, pes­ti­cides and feed­stuffs like palm ker­nel which come at the ex­pense of en­dan­gered species and rain­forests in Bor­neo and In­done­sia. Urea fer­tiliser alone in­creased 162% be­tween 1996 and 2002. This puts pres­sure on the en­vi­ron­ment, jeop­ar­dis­ing soil and wa­ter re­sources.

Farm­ing con­tin­ues to in­ten­sify, and why wouldn’t it? De­mand for agri­cul­tural prod­ucts – par­tic­u­larly dairy – con­tin­ues to in­crease as Asian mar­kets blos­som. Be­tween 1994 and 2002 the num­ber of dairy cows in­creased by over a third, while land for dairy farm­ing in­creased only 12%. The num­ber of cows shot up by two mil­lion be­tween 1992 and 2011, with the na­tional dairy herd now com­pris­ing more than 4.5 mil­lion cows.

As farm­ing intensifies, fer­tiliser use and stock num­bers rise. Tree­less fields cause soil ero­sion when it rains which washes, un­hin­dered, into wa­ter­ways. Ni­tro­gen and phos­phates from fer­tilis­ers as well as ni­tro­gen-rich cow urine are the big­gest agri­cul­tural prob­lems. “To get an idea of the scale, the urine pro­duced from the na­tional dairy herd is equiv­a­lent to that from 80 mil­lion peo­ple, but with­out the sewage treat­ment," says Green Party wa­ter spokesper­son, Eu­ge­nie Sage. In ma­jor farm­ing re­gions, wa­ter qual­ity con­tin­ues to de­cline.

The Re­source Man­age­ment Act (RMA) only ad­dresses pol­lu­tion that comes from a par­tic­u­lar spot – ‘point-source pol­lu­tion’. It fails, how­ever, to ad­dress ‘non-point pol­lu­tion’ such as agri­cul­tural run-off. Non-point pol­lu­tion has been called “the most se­ri­ous fresh­wa­ter man­age­ment chal­lenge in New Zealand to­day” by the Min­istry for the En­vi­ron­ment.

Other coun­cils have come up with good ideas to sup­port ru­ral landown­ers to ad­dress this prob­lem, like En­vi­ron­ment Waikato’s Clean Streams Fund. This con­testable fund pro­vided a pool for fenc­ing, to keep stock from let­ting rip in our rivers, as well as sup­port­ing plant­ing of wa­ter­ways which sta­bilises bank­side ar­eas, ab­sorbs some of the agri­cul­tural runoff and re­duces sed­i­ment loads to wa­ter­ways.

Fol­low­ing a pe­riod of tar­geted fund­ing to land own­ers in Bay of Plenty, the BoP Re­gional Coun­cil in­tro­duced ‘Rule 8’, which pun­ishes farm­ers who let their livestock me­an­der the streams that sur­round the Ro­torua lakes. The Coun­cil still sup­ports stream­side pro­tec­tion through the Ri­par­ian Man­age­ment Pro­gramme. The mix of ‘car­rot’ (spe­cific fund­ing sup­port) and ‘stick’ (reg­u­la­tion) has meant that landown­ers have been fi­nan­cially sup­ported to make good de­ci­sions about ri­par­ian ar­eas.

The city

Wa­ter­ways that flow from moun­tains to the sea pass through an­other nox­ious en­vi­ron­ment – the city. The sul­lied creeks trick­ling through ur­ban ar­eas are rarely con­sid­ered to be ‘life-sup­port­ing’, but fish and in­sects are still there, strug­gling to sur­vive.

Sewage sys­tems be­gan with ‘night men’ gath­er­ing the ‘night soil’ from houses, but moved to piped sew­er­age sys­tems im­ported from the Mother­land, based on the Vic­to­rian idea of wa­ter be­ing a ‘con­duit for waste’. Thus, our cities in­her­ited a legacy of pipes – a sys­tem that is ex­pen­sive to change and main­tain.

Toxic runoff from cars is just one of the im­pacts of plas­ter­ing our cities in con­crete. Around 70% of the nas­ties in storm wa­ter runoff, from lead to zinc to cop­per, are caused ei­ther di­rectly or in­di­rectly by our love af­fair with cars. More cars, says Dr Sam Trows­dale from the Univer­sity of Auck­land’s

School of the En­vi­ron­ment, means more roads. “What we re­ally need to do is fo­cus on source con­trol – we need to elim­i­nate the source of con­tam­i­nants and the source of the prob­lems. We need to re­con­fig­ure our city and re­de­velop so that we are less reliant on cars. This will re­duce the amount of im­per­vi­ous sur­faces and the amount of big, smooth roads.”

When it rains, wa­ter rushes over ‘hy­drauli­cally ef­fi­cient’ sur­faces from rooftops to roads, and is fun­neled down drains, col­lect­ing lit­ter, drive­way­car-wash de­ter­gent and pol­lu­tants. In older parts of Auck­land city, com­bined

sys­tems mix this so-called ‘storm wa­ter’ with ‘waste wa­ter’ – wa­ter from kitchens, laun­dries and bath­rooms. This is piped to the waste­water treat­ment plants where wa­ter is ‘treated’ and dis­charged into the sea.

Com­bined sewage sys­tems, how­ever, are not de­signed to deal with high rain­fall. In­creases in storm wa­ter can cause them to over­flow, spilling sewage into rivers or the sea. Beaches like Cox’s Bay, Me­ola Reef, Kawakawa Bay, Wey­mouth Beach and Lit­tle Oneroa La­goon have per­ma­nent health warn­ings be­cause of the high lev­els of E.coli – a bac­te­ria in­di­cat­ing the pres­ence of sewage.

Only a frac­tion of storm wa­ter re­ceives any kind of ‘treat­ment’ be­fore be­ing dis­charged. Wa­ter­ways are in­creas­ingly con­tam­i­nated by zinc from tyres (found on our roads in tiny par­ti­cles of rub­ber), from gal­vanised iron roofs, and from paint par­ti­cles dis­solved into rain wa­ter. Cop­per from ve­hi­cle brake linings, soil, ce­ment, and shiny spout­ing runs across our im­per­vi­ous cities, down the near­est drain and into the wa­ter.

Our hu­man im­pacts may be in­vis­i­ble to the naked eye, but they are adding up. In 2004, Auck­land Re­gional Coun­cil re­ported that zinc con­cen­tra­tions were high enough in ur­ban streams to kill some crea­tures and ex­ert a ma­jor influence on es­tu­ary-dwelling crea­tures. This wa­ter gets ab­sorbed by shell­fish, which we con­sume. They are also con­sumed by the snap­per that we fish from the har­bour ev­ery day. Ev­ery­thing is linked. Worse still many pol­lu­tants bio-ac­cu­mu­late up the food chain mean­ing that the higher-up you are the higher the ex­po­sure lev­els.

In many sites lev­els of cop­per, lead and poly­cyclic aro­matic hy­dro­car­bons (PAH – re­sult­ing from in­com­plete com­bus­tion of petrol as you start your car) also ex­ceed the ‘am­ber’ lev­els (com­pared to green – ‘good’ and red – ‘bad’). Whilst lead con­cen­tra­tions are de­creas­ing be­cause it has been re­moved from petrol, zinc and cop­per are on the up – es­pe­cially as land use changes from ru­ral to ur­ban.

Should we be aim­ing for ‘tip­ping points’? There is a bet­ter way for us to work with our en­vi­ron­ment, says Dr Kepa Mor­gan, se­nior lec­turer in civil and en­vi­ron­men­tal engi­neer­ing at Univer­sity of Auck­land and of Ngati Pikiao, Te Awara, Ngati Kahun­gungu and Ngai Tahu de­scent. His con­cept, the Mauri Model, aims to pre­serve the mauri of wa­ter­ways, or the “bind­ing force be­tween the phys­i­cal and the non-phys­i­cal at­tributes of wa­ter.” It’s sim­ple, he says. Ei­ther we’re en­hanc­ing the mauri – mak­ing it bet­ter, some­thing we ide­ally should be aim­ing for when we prob­lem solve, or we’re not. “When you put rub­bish into wa­ter, you di­min­ish the mauri and even­tu­ally you get that ‘tip­ping point’, where the wa­ter no longer has the ca­pac­ity to sup­port life or to even re­gen­er­ate its own mauri.”

The strength of the mauri leads to dif­fer­ent clas­si­fi­ca­tions of wa­ter. Many em­pha­sise phys­i­cal at­tributes, such as wai tai (salt wa­ter) or wai maori (fresh wa­ter) or meta­phys­i­cal as­pects. Wa­ter may have his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tions and knowl­edge as­so­ci­ated with them. For ex­am­ple wai kino (‘bad’ wa­ter) may sig­nify that the wa­ter is not fit for drink­ing or swim­ming. Other ex­am­ples in­clude wai tapu (sa­cred wa­ter), wai apu (swal­low­ing wa­ters – dan­ger­ous to cross in flood), wai ariki (chiefly wa­ters – in­di­cat­ing the pres­ence of hot springs or cu­ra­tive wa­ter).

Rain­fall is con­sid­ered wai tapu. Wa­ter from the sky is ‘nga roimata o Rang­inui’, the teardrops of sky-fa­ther Rang­inui. Rain­fall is con­sid­ered tapu un­til it has trav­elled over or through Pa­p­at­u­anuku, the earthmother. Many houses in Te Urew­era do not have gut­ters on the roofs of the wharenui, to en­sure that wa­ter falls di­rectly onto Pa­p­at­u­anuku, says Mor­gan.

The mix­ing of two wa­ter bod­ies with dif­fer­ent mauri is against Maori pro­to­col, and is based on com­mon sense. In the Wai-8 claim Maori were against us­ing wa­ter from the Waikato River as a coolant for the Glen­brook Steel Mill. This is be­cause the wa­ter was dis­charged into the Manukau Har­bour, an area that the river does not nat­u­rally flow into. Wa­ter from the Waikato, which has a high nat­u­rally-oc­cur­ring level of ar­senic, would there­fore have had a detri­men­tal im­pact on the ecosys­tem of the har­bour, states Mor­gan.

Mor­gan has taken his Mauri Model to many con­fer­ences, in­clud­ing the an­nual con­fer­ence of In­sti­tute of Pro­fes­sional En­gi­neers of New Zealand, where it was used to an­a­lyse waste­water sys­tems in New Zealand. Un­sur­pris­ingly, this model showed that con­ven­tional sys­tems were un­sus­tain­able. He says an ethic of kaiti­ak­i­tanga, which de­scribes the obli­ga­tion and re­spon­si­bil­ity that comes with stew­ard­ship, would avoid di­min­ish­ing the mauri in any way at all.

Mor­gan says that the sus­tain­abil­ity move­ment and con­cepts such as en­vi­ron­men­tal engi­neer­ing are re-es­tab­lish­ing the for­got­ten link be­tween engi­neer­ing and ecol­ogy.

Ur­ban de­vel­op­ment acronyms like Low Im­pact De­sign, (LID), Sen­si­tive Ur­ban De­sign Sys­tems (SUDS), Wa­ter Sen­si­tive Ur­ban De­sign (WSUD) and Wa­ter Sen­si­tive Cities (WSC) are not only good ar­tillery at a din­ner party, but also in­spir­ing us to move for­ward in a less de­struc­tive way. All have the same ideas in mind – re­mind­ing peo­ple of the con­nec­tion be­tween hu­mans and na­ture.

Dr Trows­dale says we are too fo­cused on ‘treat­ing’ our wa­ter rather than pro­tect­ing it. “If we had to pro­tect our wa­ter source we wouldn’t be al­lowed to use prod­ucts that pol­luted our wa­ter in the first place. With our drink­ing wa­ter we think we can just pol­lute it, be­cause it’s sent to a treat­ment plant.” Trows­dale as­serts that a ‘pro­tect par­a­digm’ would stop peo­ple pour­ing paint down our drains, and pro­hibit the dis­posal of in­dus­trial chem­i­cals into sew­er­age sys­tem; a sys­tem which tox­i­fies our sewage waste mean­ing it has to be land­filled rather than be­ing reused as fer­tilis­ers.

En­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion groups like Auck­land’s Wai Care are work­ing with chil­dren and community groups, prov­ing that our wa­ter­ways are far from dead. Through riverside restora­tion projects, crea­tures like fish, small in­sects and eels ben­e­fit, while stronger com­mu­ni­ties are forged that re­spect and nur­ture the nat­u­ral world. Ur­ban restora­tion projects like Waitakere’s Project Twin Streams is reveg­e­tat­ing 56 kilo­me­tres of stream banks in West Auck­land with ad­di­tions like ron­goa gar­dens and pa harekeke (flax gar­dens) dot­ted amongst the na­tive stream­side plant­ings.

This is been done us­ing a community de­vel­op­ment model that seeks to re­con­nect the community to the en­vi­ron­ment. With groups like these, and de­vel­op­ment par­a­digms that work with rather than against the en­vi­ron­ment, the fu­ture of our cities could be ex­tremely liv­able and ex­cit­ing.

The Hayes fam­ily – An­drew, Jenny, and sons Fred and Rod­ney – get to work on Lake Kaituna back in 2004. Photo: Greg Bowker.

Above: Dr Sam Trows­dale Photo: Michelle Hys­lop

Dr Kepa Mor­gan

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