Clean & clear

Fix­ing fresh wa­ter

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Dirty wa­ter. There’s a lot of it about, de­spite a grow­ing clam­our to clean it up. Ac­cord­ing to the Auck­land Coun­cil’s lat­est State of the En­vi­ron­ment re­port, 54% of the 100 or so streams and rivers it mon­i­tors are in a poor or de­graded state.

Most of the streams in trou­ble are in ur­ban catch­ments, where they are af­fected by in­puts of met­als, other con­tam­i­nants and sed­i­ment.

Many ur­ban streams have been put in chan­nels and con­creted to cope with stormwa­ter over­flows, or piped un­der­ground as a re­sult of ur­ban devel­op­ments.

That means there is lit­tle op­por­tu­nity for eco­log­i­cal com­mu­ni­ties to de­velop.

Mayor Len Brown says while air qual­ity has im­proved, the re­port shows the chal­lenges around wa­ter.

“Be­cause of how quickly we are grow­ing, our res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ment in some of our green­fields sites, the chal­lenge we put on our lo­cal wa­ter­ways, our creeks, our streams our es­tu­ar­ies, you can see it in the Ta­maki and Oru­arangi es­tu­ar­ies where high sed­i­ment lev­els from sub­di­vi­sion, met­als com­ing off cars and tyres off the roads through the stormwa­ter into the lo­cal creeks, all means we are do­ing bet­ter but we have to do a lot bet­ter than that,” he says.

In the lakes, the coun­cil re­ports a ma­jor in­va­sion of the aquatic weed horn­wort, which threat­ens bio­di­ver­sity, wa­ter qual­ity, util­ity and recre­ation. It grows up to 10 me­tres tall, blocks wa­ter in­takes and out- com­petes de­sir­able na­tive aquatic veg­e­ta­tion.

Erad­i­ca­tion op­tions could in­clude man­ual re­moval, in­tro­duc­tion of grass carp or se­lec­tive her­bi­cides.

Things aren’t much bet­ter be­low ground. The ni­trate con­cen­tra­tions in the south Auck­land vol­canic aquifers ex­ceed drink­ing wa­ter and en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards.

This ground­wa­ter emerges at var­i­ous springs in the Franklin area, in­tro­duc­ing high ni­trate con­cen­tra­tions to Franklin’s streams.

The coun­cil says it is in­volved in re­search projects to bet­ter understand the ni­tro­gen cy­cle in the area, which could lead to science-based man­age­ment to re­duce the ni­trate con­cen­tra­tions.

Ni­trates and phos­phates are a prob­lem na­tion­ally, driven by an ex­pan­sion in fer­tiliser use that makes New Zealand one of high­est per­cent­age users of fer­tilis­ers in the OECD.

The ex­cess fer­tiliser go­ing into streams in­creases the phos­pho­rus level, but it’s what the fer­tiliser is used for that creates the ni­tro­gen prob­lem.

The lush pas­ture it pro­duces means more cows can make more milk over a longer sea­son.

While sheep uri­nate in small amounts, which the grass treats as fer­tiliser, cows gush litres of urine at a time. The grass can’t take it up, and it passes through the soil into the ground­wa­ter.

Ac­cord­ing to an up­date re­port on wa­ter qual­ity by the Par­lia­men­tary Com­mis­sioner for the En­vi­ron­ment, be­tween 2008 and 2012 the amount of land used for dairy­ing in­creased by 157,900 hectares.

That ac­counts for most of 151,000 hectares no longer used for used for sheep and beef farming, as well as some of the 9600 fewer hectares in plan­ta­tion for­est.

While the com­mis­sioner’s ear­lier mod­el­ling pre­dicted a large in­crease in both for­est and scrub land by 2020, it’s now clear that won’t hap­pen, and the felling of for­est on the Vol­canic Plateau for dairy con­ver­sions is go­ing to mean lots more nu­tri­ent loss into the up­per Waikato River catch­ment.

Other land use ac­tiv­i­ties such as open-cast min­ing and ur­ban ex­pan­sion are also sources of dif­fuse wa­ter pol­lu­tion. It all serves to negate the gains made from im­proved waste­water treat­ment and the 30-year crack­down on pointsource pol­lu­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to Robert Davies-Col­ley from the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Wa­ter and At­mo­spheric Re­search, about 40% of New Zealand’s land area is used for graz­ing live­stock.

So while river wa­ter qual­ity com­ing out of New Zealand’s con­ser­va­tion es­tate may be de­scribed as ‘very good’ when com­pared with Europe, North Amer­ica and Asia, the rivers drain­ing pas­toral catch­ments are only fair.

A year ago the gov­ern­ment re­leased un­der a un­der the Re­source Man­age­ment Act na­tional pol­icy state­ment for fresh­wa­ter man­age­ment, set­ting min­i­mum re­quire­ments for re­gional plans.

Re­gional and uni­tary coun­cils must set wa­ter qual­ity tar­gets for each wa­ter body or “fresh­wa­ter man­age­ment unit” in their area based on the value their com­mu­nity places on it.

The start­ing point is to ac­count for all wa­ter taken out of rivers, lakes and ground­wa­ter, and the sources and amounts of con­tam­i­nants go­ing into them.

“Ecosys­tem health” and “hu­man health for recre­ation” are com­pul­sory na­tional val­ues and must be pro­vided for every­where, even if the na­tional bot­tom lines set in the

“The way to im­prove fresh wa­ter is to set lim­its that will pro­tect eco­log­i­cal health and then drive the im­pli­ca­tions of that up into the land...”

state­ment are lower than many of the crit­ics would have liked.

Wad­ing and boat­ing is the na­tional bot­tom line, and it’s up to coun­cils to say if a river or lake should also be swimmable, let alone drink­able.

The dead­line for com­pli­ance was brought for­ward to 2025, and coun­cils need to file an­nual progress up­dates.

En­vi­ron­men­tal De­fence So­ci­ety chair Gary Tay­lor says the na­tional pol­icy state­ment is im­ma­ture and needs a lot more work be­fore it will be ef­fec­tive.

“It’s a start, at least there is some na­tional guidance, but the state­ment in­cludes am­bi­gu­i­ties and un­cer­tain­ties and the na­tional ob­jec­tives frame­work, the num­bers in there are in­com­plete,” Tay­lor says.

The state­ment has al­ready been tested and found want­ing in the case of the pro­posed Ru­atani­wha ir­ri­ga­tion scheme, where the En­vi­ron­ment Court found the “un­ders and overs” ap­proach to wa­ter pu­rity be­ing taken by the Hawkes Bay Re­gional Coun­cil was un­law­ful.

“The key ob­jec­tive with fresh­wa­ter is to man­age the life­sup­port­ing ca­pac­ity of fresh wa­ter, in other words main­tain its eco­log­i­cal health,” Tay­lor says.

The key at­tributes for do­ing that aren’t in the NPS yet. It will be re­viewed next year with the Land and Wa­ter Fo­rum hav­ing a hand in it and science pan­els al­ready squir­rel­ing away to see what to do with it.

“What the Land and Wa­ter Fo­rum has done is get agree­ment across the board, in­clud­ing from farm­ers, that we need to man­age wa­ter within lim­its, but what lim­its and when, what is the path­way? If you have an over-al­lo­cated catch­ment, how long do you give peo­ple to get it back into an un­der­al­lo­cated state?

“Un­der the (Re­source Man­age­ment) Act there is a first- come, first-served en­ti­tle­ment. The Land and Wa­ter Fo­rum has been look­ing at that, try­ing to de­velop pol­icy ap­proach be­tween ex­ist­ing and po­ten­tial and new and more ef­fi­cient users, which might re­quire some trad­abil­ity.”

That comes up against the gov­ern­ment’s con­tention that wa­ter can’t be owned, even though the cur­rent regime creates de facto property rights.

“Iwi rights and in­ter­ests are also a wrin­kle – to what ex­tent is a set­tle­ment for the crown and to what ex­tent should re­gional coun­cils man­ag­ing wa­ter make al­lowance for iwi?” Tay­lor says.

“We are making progress on fresh wa­ter but it is tricky. It is hard to get na­tional guidance right and re­gional coun­cils’ per­for­mance is un­even. Some are do­ing a good job, some are do­ing a sec­ond-rate job.”

EDS is meet­ing one of the re­gional coun­cils next month to study its ap­proach, be­cause it sus­pects it is flout­ing the law.

“A lot of re­gional coun­cils are dom­i­nated by farming in­ter­ests who look af­ter their own.”

He says things should im­prove once the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Land and Wa­ter Fo­rum start be­ing im­ple­mented.

“The way to im­prove fresh wa­ter is to set lim­its that will pro­tect eco­log­i­cal health and then drive the im­pli­ca­tions of that up into the land with stock­ing rates and so on,” Tay­lor says.

He sees three im­me­di­ate chal­lenges: fix­ing the na­tional pol­icy state­ment and na­tional ob­jec­tives frame­work to give clear, com­plete and ef­fec­tive na­tional di­rec­tion; hav­ing re­gional coun­cils up­skilling and, if nec­es­sary, re­train­ing peo­ple to im­ple­ment that na­tional di­rec­tion ef­fec­tively; and for the science com­mu­nity to reach agree­ment on what to mea­sure and how to mea­sure eco­log­i­cal health.

Wa­ter test­ing in the Waikato River. Photo: Paul Est­court

A well fenced and planted stream in Taranaki. Photo: Getty

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