New Zealand’s government has been praised for listening to health experts in its pandemic response, but when it comes to dealing with pollution of the country’s waterways, scientific advice seems less important.
Today, the government released a long-awaited NZ$700 million package to address freshwater pollution. The new rules include higher standards around cleanliness of swimming spots, set controls for some farming practices and how much synthetic fertiliser is used, and require mandatory and enforceable farm environment plans.
But the package is flawed. It does not include any measurable limits on key nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) and the rules’ implementation is left to regional authorities. Over the 30 years they have been managing the environment, the health of lakes and rivers has continued to decline.
For full disclosure, I was part of the 18-person science technical advisory group that made the recommendations. Despite more than a year of consultation and evidence-based science, the government has deferred or ignored our advice on introducing measurable limits on nitrogen and phosphorus.
The declining state of rivers, lakes and wetlands was the most important environmental issue for 80% of New Zealanders in a recent survey. It was also an election issue in 2017, so there was a clear mandate for significant change.
But despite years of work from government appointed expert panels, including the technical advisory group I was part of, the Māori freshwater forum Kahui Wai Māori and the Freshwater Leaders groups, crucial advice was ignored.
The technical advisory group, supported by research, was unequivocal that specific nitrogen and phosphorus limits are necessary to protect the quality of people’s drinking water and the ecological health of waterways.
The proposed nutrient limits were key to achieving real change, and far from being extreme, would have brought New Zealand into line with the rest of the world. For example, in China, the limit for nitrogen in rivers is 1 milligram per litre – the same limit as our technical advisory group recommended. In New Zealand, 85% of waterways in pasture catchments (which make up half of the country’s waterways, if measured by length) now exceed nitrate limit guidelines.
Instead, Minister for the Environment David Parker decided to postpone this discussion by another year – meaning New Zealand will continue to lag other nations in having clear, enforceable nutrient limits.
This delay will inevitably result in a continued decline of water quality, with a corresponding decline in a suite of ecological, cultural, social and economic values a healthy environment could support.
The other main policy the expert panels pushed for was a cap on the use of nitrogen fertiliser. This was indeed part of the announcement, which is a positive and important step forward. But the cap is set at 190kg per hectare per year, which is too high. This is like telling someone they should reduce smoking from three to two and a half packets a day to be healthier.
I believe claims from the dairy industry that the tightening of environmental standards for freshwater would threaten New Zealand’s economic recovery are exaggerated. They also ignore the fact clean water and a healthy environment provide the foundation for our current and future economic well-being.
And they fly in the face of modelling by the Ministry for the Environment, which shows implementation of freshwater reforms would save NZ$3.8 billion.
Excess nitrogen is not just an issue for ecosystem health. Nitrate (which forms when nitrogen combines with oxygen) in drinking water has been linked to colon cancer, which is disproportionately high in many parts of New Zealand.
The New Zealand College of Public Health Medicine and the Hawkes Bay district health board both made submissions calling for a nitrate limit in rivers and aquifers to protect people’s health – at the same level the technical advisory group recommended to protect ecosystems.
Our dependence on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is unsustainable, and it is adding to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas footprint through nitrous oxide emissions. There is growing evidence farmers can make more profit by reducing their use of artificial fertilisers.
Continued use will only further degrade soils across productive landscapes and reduce the farming sector’s resilience in a changing climate.
The irony is that for a century, New Zealand produced milk without synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. Instead, farmers grew clover which converts nitrogen from the air. If we want to strive for better water quality for future generations, we need to front up to the unsustainable use of artificial fertiliser and seek more regenerative farming practices.
Michael (Mike) Joy, Senior Researcher; Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington
The latest environmental report on New Zealand’s lakes and rivers reiterates bleak news about the state of freshwater ecosystems, and warns that climate change will exacerbate existing threats.
Almost all New Zealand rivers running through urban and farming areas (95-99%) carry pollution above water quality guidelines, while most of the nation’s wetlands (90%) have been drained, and many freshwater fish species (76%) are threatened or at risk.
The most significant pressures on freshwater ecosystems fit into four issues:
Climate change gets more attention than in earlier assessments, reflecting the fact that glaciers are already shrinking and soils are drying out.
The latest assessment is an update on a freshwater report in 2017 and the comprehensive Environment Aotearoa 2019. It reiterates issues we’ve seen before, but begins to implement recent recommendations by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) calling for a stronger link between data and environmental management.
Biological impacts are at the forefront of this latest assessment. It shows that a wide range of freshwater organisms are at risk. The statistics for freshwater fish are the most concerning, with three quarters of the 51 native species already either threatened or at risk of extinction.
The report uses a particular group of native fish (īnanga, or galaxids) to connect the multiple impacts humans have, across a range of habitats at different life stages.
Īnanga are better known as whitebait, a delicacy that is a mix of juveniles from six different species caught as they migrate from the sea to rivers.
Īnanga of different ages and species live in different habitats, so they can be used to represent the issues facing a range of freshwater fish across ecosystems. The main stress factors include altered habitat, pollution and excess nutrients, water use for irrigation and climate change.
Climate change is expected to exacerbate existing stresses native organisms like īnanga face and protecting their habitat means understanding how much it will reduce water flows and create hotter and drier conditions.
The use of organisms to assess environmental change, including climate change impacts, is an obvious but important step. It makes it possible to consider climate change in a way that meets the Environmental Reporting Act’s requirement to report on a “body of evidence”.
This latest report responds to the PCE’s concerns about gaps in our knowledge, which were raised in the Environment Aotearoa 2019 assessment. The new strategy for filling large holes in our knowledge has three priorities: knowing and monitoring what we have, what we may lose, and where or how we can make changes.
The report highlights that mātauranga Māori, the process of using indigenous knowledge about the environment, can fill some gaps in data or add insights. Other methods and models, such as nutrient budget scenarios, also deserve consideration.
There is some good news as well. Some pollution concerns may be minor or limited to very small areas. This includes several so-called emerging contaminants, such as fire retardants, which have been discovered in groundwater around airfields but are now banned or restricted.
The second piece of good news is that new ways of studying the environment can help fill major gaps. For example, lakes may be more stable indicators of freshwater health than rivers and streams, but only 4% (about 150) of New Zealand’s 3,820 larger lakes are regularly monitored by regional councils.
For almost 300 lakes, the report includes an index of the plants that live in them, and for more than 3000 there is now an established method of estimating lake water quality. Further information is becoming available, using updated estimations, satellite data for the last 20 years and sediment cores to reconstruct environmental conditions over the last few hundred years.
Unfortunately, the data from lakes confirms the general trend of freshwater decline, but at least the multiple forms of complementary information should help us to manage New Zealand’s freshwater ecosystems better.
New Zealand’s government released a plan to reverse the decline of iconic lakes and rivers this week. It proposes higher standards for water quality, interim controls on land intensification and a higher bar on ecosystem health.
The agenda for change recognises that the perceived trade-off between agriculture and the environment makes little sense. If New Zealand trades internationally on a reputation for a healthy environment, continued degradation of water fouls the value of major exports. It also spoils the natural heritage that fuels the tourist economy and many New Zealanders consider a birthright.
The policy announcement reflects more than a decade of previous attempts, with the first draft notified in 2008, the first implementation in 2011, and major updates in 2014 and 2017. The new policy package addresses major deficiencies in the earlier versions, and has been fast-tracked to curtail freshwater pollution that has been allowed to get worse longer than it should.
The new regulations are designed to protect the health of entire ecosystems from excess nutrients. Some of the most compelling provisions draw clear lines where limits need to be set to prevent further slippage.
There’s a halt to significant expansions of dairy farming and irrigation, and limits on the use of nitrogen in some key catchments. Further improvements will better protect waterways and wetlands from grazing animals, and limits will be placed on recently criticised winter grazing.
Two significant steps will reverse the main cause of delays in the past. The first is an implementation at national level. This should reduce reliance on a National Policy Statement (NPS) that requires regional councils to implement changes to local legislation.
This step will be reinforced by signalled changes to the national legislation, the Resource Management Act, which in turn will make regional council actions less cumbersome and underfunded. Secondly, where the new NPS requires region-by-region action, caps on increasing agricultural intensity will apply until regional plans have been amended to comply.
These steps increase the chance of preventing further degradation. Some benefits, such as a reduced risk of getting sick from swimming, should come through quickly. Others, such as reduced nutrient loads of nitrogen and phosphorous and a healthier ecology in lakes and rivers, could take years or decades.
To improve freshwater quality, we will need reliable monitoring and modelling tools to measure progress. These will need to be an integral part of the process, even though any decisions are ultimately determined by values. Working through this challenge highlights two large issues that remain unresolved in the plan.
The first is a lack of monitoring tools. The announcement didn’t take up recommendations in the Freshwater Leaders Group’s report that described present tools as unsuitable for providing enough confidence to move forward. The implications are that promised investment to develop the nutrient-monitoring Overseer tool will only eventually get us what we needed years ago.
Tools need to connect nutrient management with farm and catchment planning. They should focus more on future solutions rather than quantifying impacts of past land use that led to freshwater pollution.
The issue of water allocation is even more important given the constitutional role Māori play in New Zealand’s freshwater governance, enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi.
One of the most intriguing options left open to consultation is the extent to which Māori values will receive compulsory consideration, or alternately, be afforded consideration place-by-place by individual iwi (tribes) and hapū (sub-tribes). The advisory body representing Māori interests in the environment and in land-based industries raised concerns that these options are too weak.
These concerns are substantially amplified by the recent report by the Waitangi Tribunal, suggesting that the delays and dysfunction associated with freshwater policies have disproportionately undermined the ability of Māori to maintain holistic cultural connections to water, and obtain fair value from lands recently returned to them by the Crown.
These concerns and the need for better planning tools that resolve past degradation and enable future investment ultimately go hand-in-hand. Māori businesses, enabled by treaty settlements, are leading innovators and investors using social and environmental values to drive high-value exports.
The release now opens a period of consultation and national debate. This will pit the passionate voice of the farming community against voices representing our freshwater ecosystems. But this is the first time a proposed plan brings together all aspects of policy we need to keep aquatic life healthy.
Two years ago, New Zealanders were shocked when contaminated drinking water sickened more than 5,000 people in the small town of Havelock North, with a population of 14,000. A government inquiry found that sheep faeces were the likely source of bacterial pathogens, which entered an aquifer when heavy rain flooded surrounding farmland.
A second phase of the inquiry identified six principles of international drinking water security that had been bypassed. Had they been followed, the drinking water contamination would have been prevented or greatly reduced.
Here, I ask if the approach recommended by the Havelock North inquiry to prevent drinking water contamination can be extended to reduce the impacts of nutrient contamination of freshwater ecosystems.
Most measures of the ecological health and recreational value of New Zealand’s lowland rivers and lakes have been rated as degraded and still declining. Intensive agriculture often cops much of the blame, but primary industry exports remain the heart of New Zealand’s economy.
The challenge posed by this trade-off between the economy and the environment has been described as both enormous, and complex. Yet it is a challenge that New Zealand’s government aims to tackle, and continues to rate as a top public concern.
An important lesson from the Havelock North inquiry is that sometimes there is no recipe – no easy list of steps or rules we can take to work through a problem. Following existing rules resulted in a public health disaster. Instead, practitioners need to follow principles, and be mindful that rules can have exceptions.
For freshwater, New Zealand has a similar problem with a lack of clear actionable rules, and I’ve mapped a direct link between the six principles of drinking water security and corresponding principles for managing nutrient impacts in freshwater.
Of the six principles of drinking water safety, the first is perhaps the most obvious: drinking water safety deserves a “high standard of care”. Similarly, freshwater nutrient impact management should reflect a duty of care that mirrors the scale of impacts. Our most pristine freshwater, like Lake Taupo, and water on the verge of tipping into nearly irreversible degradation, deserve the greatest effort and care.
Second, drinking water safety follows a clear logic from the starting point: “protecting the integrity of source water is paramount”. For nutrient impact management in freshwater, we must reverse this and focus on a more forensic analysis along flowpaths to the source of excess nutrients entering water. Our current approach of using estimates of sources is not convincing when tracers could point to sources in the same way DNA can help identify who was at a crime scene. We must link impacts to sources.
Third, drinking water safety demands “multiple barriers to contamination”. For freshwater, we’re better off taking a similar but different approach – maximising sequential reductions of contamination. There are at least three main opportunities, including farm management, improving drains and riparian vegetation, and enhancing and restoring wetlands. If each is 50% effective at reducing contaminants reaching waterways, the three are as good as a single barrier that reduces contamination by 90%. The 50% reductions are likely to be much more achievable and cost effective.
The fourth principle of drinking water safety was perhaps the most dramatic failure in the Havelock North drinking water crisis: “change precedes contamination”. Despite a storm and flood reaching areas of known risk for contaminating the water supply, there were no steps in place to detect changing conditions that breached the water supply’s classification as “secure” and therefore safe.
A similar, but inverted principle can keep nutrients on farm, where we want them, and keep them out of our water. Almost all processes that lead to nutrient excess and mobilisation, as well as its subsequent removal, occur in hot spots and hot moments.
This concept means that when we look, we find that roughly 90% of excess nutrients come from less than 10% of the land area, or events that represent less than 10% of time. We can identify these hot spots and hot moments, and classify them into a system of control points that are managed to limit nutrient contamination of freshwater.
A fifth principle for drinking water seems obvious: “suppliers must own the safety of drinking water”. Clear ownership results in clear responsibility.
Two world-leading cap-and-trade schemes created clear ownership of nutrient contaminants reaching iconic water bodies. One is fully in place in the Lake Taupo catchment, and another is still under appeal in the Lake Rotorua catchment.
These schemes involved government investment of between NZ$70 million and NZ$80 million to “buy out” a proportion of nutrients reaching the lakes. This cost seems unworkable across the entire nation. Will farmers or taxpayers own this cost, or is there any way to pass it on to investors in new, higher-value land use that reduces nutrient loss to freshwater? A successful example of shifting to higher value has been conversions from sheep and beef farming to vineyards.
As yet, the ownership of water has made headlines, but remains largely unclear outside Taupo and Rotorua when it comes to nutrient contaminants. Consideration of taxing the use of our best water could be much more sensible with a clearer framework of ownership for both water and the impacts of contaminants.
The final principle of drinking water safety is to “apply preventative risk management”. This is a scaled approach that involves thinking ahead of problems to assess risks that can be mitigated at each barrier to contamination.
For nutrient management in water, a principled approach has to start with the basic fact that water flows and must be managed within catchments. From this standpoint, New Zealand has a good case for leading internationally, because regional councils govern the environment based on catchment boundaries.
Within catchments we still have a great deal of work to do. This involves understanding how lag effects can lead to a legacy of excess nutrients. We need to manage whole catchments by understanding, monitoring and managing current and future impacts in the entire interconnected system.
If we can focus on these principles, government, industry, researchers, NGOs and the concerned public can build understanding and consensus together, enabling progress towards halting and reversing the declining health and quality of our rivers and lakes.
The planning for my holiday is now well and truly underway, with the holiday now being referred to as my ‘NSW Road Trip 2010.’ There is also a website address for viewing my itinerary and for following my progress. It has been a rushed process in the end, organising this road trip, so there will yet be some changes to the itinerary.
I am expecting changes in far western NSW due to road conditions, especially given recent weather conditions out that way, including the widespread rain and flooding that has taken place. Given I have only got a small rental for this trip, I am not really prepared to take the car onto certain roads (which I believe will be part of the rental agreement anyway).
At this stage I am expecting to miss Ivanhoe and head for Mildura instead. I also expect to miss Tibooburra in the far northwest corner of the state, as the Silver City Highway is largely dirt. With these probable changes to the itinerary, I will also miss driving through the Menindee Lakes area, which really was something I was hoping to see – another time perhaps.
On another ‘track,’ I found our that the hottest February temperature experienced in Ivanhoe was around 48 degrees Celsius. No, not the reason I am thinking of bypassing Ivanhoe – most centres out west have similar temperatures in February anyway.