Rules to protect water investment
While it’s certainly true the law requires water quality improvements in the Waikato and Waipa rivers, there’s also a major practical financial reason for upping our game.
The proposed Healthy Rivers Wai Ora plan change will protect the existing public and private investment in the health of the rivers. Sixty years ago, bacteria levels in the Waikato River passing through Hamilton were 100 times more than today. A big part of improving that situation has involved Hamilton residents and businesses, through the city council, investing many millions of dollars to clean up discharges to the river. There’s a similar investment story for all our rivers and lakes, from Turangi on the southern shores of Lake Taupo, through the Waikato River system, all the way to Port Waikato. It’s the same for the Waipa River, from Te Kuiti downstream. Every year, urban ratepayers invest more than $60 million to improve wastewater discharges to these rivers. Taxpayers, too, from Bluff to Kaitaia are investing heavily. They’ve chipped in more than $35 million for cleaning up Lake Taupo and another $220 million over 30 years through the Waikato River Authority. Private sector businesses - such as Kinleith in Tokoroa and Fonterra in Te Rapa – are another part of the picture, as are the many farmers, other rural landowners, schools and community groups doing great work to improve our waterways. For example, in 1999 there were some 2400 consented direct effluent discharges from dairy farms to waterways, now there are under 100. Many individual farmers have invested thousands of dollars in the likes of treating farm effluent, and fencing and planting streams. Those same farmers tell me they’re not afraid of the proposed plan change because they’ve already done the work that’s likely to be required. Notwithstanding all this investment in tidying up sewage, industrial and dairy shed discharges – as well as riparian planting and wetland restoration - some measures of water quality in the Waikato and Waipa rivers have continued to decline. The main factor has been the major land use intensification within the catchments in recent decades. Over the past 10 years we have had an area six times the size of Hamilton city converted from forestry to pasture. Cow numbers in the DairyNZ-defined Waikato climbed by almost 100,000 in the seven years till 2014-15, while on the central plateau around lakes Rotorua and Taupo, which also incorporates parts of our region, the rise was nearly 50,000. From as soon as the plan change is notified this month, a resource consent will be needed for any further intensification in the catchments.
This is designed to help prevent a ‘‘gold rush’’ of change to less environmentally friendly land uses before the proposed plan change is finalised after public submissions.
Vaughan Payne is chief executive of Waikato Regional Council.