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Water: The Lifeblood of NZ - Marian Hobbs Speech

24 July 2002

Hon Marian Hobbs

Speech Notes

Water: The Lifeblood of New Zealand

The Allocation of Freshwater Conference

Wednesday 24 July 2002, 9.00am

National Library Auditorium, Molesworth St, Wellington

We have high expectations of our fresh water. It is the lifeblood of New Zealand. But we take it for granted. We all expect there will be sufficient clean water running through our taps each morning. We all expect to see lots of clean water in our rivers and lakes - and to enjoy a swim or catch a fish. We all expect the electricity to flow when we flick the jug on each morning. We all expect there is enough water for our industries - agriculture, horticulture and manufacturing. We all expect there's enough clean water in our rivers, lakes and wetlands to sustain our unique biodiversity.

We have high expectations. But, realistically, can we expect to continue on the path we are going? I don't think so. We need to manage water better. And that is my challenge to you - as scientists, planners, advisers, industry representatives and users.

Picture this:

A large river running down a valley from the high country to the sea. There's a town at the lower end of the valley, surrounded by plains. The river drives the aquifers beneath the plains and is the source for the lowland spring-fed streams. The aquifers supply virtually all the water used on the plains and in the township. The valley’s community depends on the river.

The river and its tributaries provide important ecological, cultural, recreational and amenity values. Good water quality of a sufficient quantity is required to sustain those values. The valley’s environment depends on the river.

A new crop has transformed the lower plains area around the town in recent years. The area is ideal for the crop, and the valley has established a world-class reputation for the quality of the crop it produces. The cost of land has skyrocketed, but the crop needs water, and water is by far the most limiting resource for its growers. Further up the valley, there has been change too. Farmers have sought to shore-up their futures through irrigation, diversifying from traditionally dryland sheep farming into other forms of agriculture. The valley’s economy depends on the river.

But there is tension in the valley. There is only so much water to go around. The townspeople are concerned about the reliability and quality of their water supply, and fear that the up-valley users will take the resource. There is competition between the primary producers - the conventional farmers fear they will lose out to the newcomers with the new crop. The community and tangata whenua are concerned about the impact the increasing demand for abstractive uses will have on in-stream ecosystem values and the lowland spring-fed streams.

In the middle of it all, there is a local council, responsible for sustainably managing the valley’s water resources. The council is under extreme pressure from both abstractive users, wanting greater access to the resource, and the community, trying to protect the waterways.

Does this sound familiar? It should. It is Marlborough’s Wairau Valley. When I think of water management in New Zealand I often picture this wonderful valley. The pressures and demands on its limited water resources are replicated in many areas of New Zealand.

Canterbury uses more water than any other region, taking three times more than the next highest region, Otago. But there are increasing pressures and demands all over the country - Manawatu - Wanganui, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa, Tasman, Waikato, Southland, and even Northland.

So what is the current situation with water allocation in New Zealand? You have been discussing this in great detail at your conference, but here is the situation as I see it:

- We know that of all the freshwater allocated in New Zealand, 77 percent is for irrigation. Industry uses seven percent, and the remaining 16 percent is for community, municipal and domestic use. And 67 percent of all this water comes from streams and rivers.

- We know that more than 80 percent of New Zealand’s 500,000 hectares of irrigated land is in Canterbury and Otago. But what I find really staggering is that the area of irrigated land in New Zealand has doubled since 1985 (so much for not being able to develop irrigation without subsidies!).

- We know that demand for irrigation water will continue to grow.

- Crucially, we know that there is not enough water flow rate in rivers and streams to sustain in-stream values and meet the long-term water demands from all sectors.

It is obvious. We must get smart with how we manage our water. It is going to be about a community, our community, learning to work smarter with our water.

This is where your input is critical, and it is why I am so pleased you have gathered here to discuss water allocation and efficiency issues over the two days of this conference. There are some things I would like you to keep at the front of your minds when thinking about these issues. In approaching them, I want you to put the environment first. Sustaining our high quality environment, managing the risks to it and implementing efficient resource use policies underpin our competitive advantages as a nation. Why is it that when we talk about water for irrigation we always seem to talk about how much we can use, rather than how little? Why is it that despite water being a public resource there are many who act as if they own it? Why is it that there is such divisiveness in our community between environmental and economic interests over water resources? To make progress, genuine progress for our community, we have to get past these barriers. With your help, we can.

Let's start with our objective of sustainable water management. What does it mean? To me that means having management processes that will lead to water-bodies suitable for aquatic life, for fisheries, for swimming and kayaking, and waters with their mauri or life-force unimpaired. That is the “instream” side of the sustainable management equation. The Resource Management Act also talks about people and communities being able to have access to these resources for their social, economic and cultural wellbeing. That’s the “out-of-stream” part of the equation. Then there are the needs of future generations, and the need to avoid adverse effects on the environment.

There is a strong public move for improving our water. Recent public surveys have showed that New Zealanders ranked the state of our rivers, lakes and beaches as their top environmental concern. We know New Zealanders value clean, healthy water. The ongoing challenge for all of us is how can we achieve clean healthy water, and enhance our productive sectors, using the tools and levers at our disposal.

So what are the tools and levers we can use to achieve sustainable management? Under the Resource Management Act we have National Policy Statements, National Environmental Standards, Regional Plans, and Resource Consents.

Regional water plans are not mandatory under the Resource Management Act. Ten years on and most regional councils seem to have concluded that they are necessary. I acknowledge the costs in preparing these plans, yet those that bit the bullet years ago seem to effectively manage water use pressures, at least in terms of water abstraction pressures.

Those councils that have yet to notify plans for their regions are in somewhat more difficulty. The folly of managing critical public resources in an ad hoc, consent by consent basis, in the absence of publicly adopted policies, is criticised by those who wish to take the water and by those who care about the quantity and quality of the water remaining in streams. This approach results in a situation where the water is allocated neither efficiently nor fairly, and the water-bodies are not protected.

So what are my expectations for water management? I would like to see regional water plans:

- Prepared and completed!

- Specify goals and objectives for the state of waters, which have been discussed and agreed by the community

- Recognise local, regional and national values

- Consider a mix of ways to achieve these goals. Including mechanisms outside the RMA.

- Contain clear and explicit rules. The rules should specify minimum flow regimes in rivers under pressure from irrigation, as well as clarify how available water will be allocated.

- Enforced by council officers.

- Monitored and the effectiveness reported back to the community.

Many of these processes involve the public because meaningful democratic participation at the local level is a principle embedded in the Resource Management Act. This is reiterated in the Rio Agenda 21 principles, which state that resource management decision-making should be devolved to local communities as much as possible.

But as in any democratic system, there are some hard truths. One is that we cannot always get what we, personally want. We sometimes have to compromise, or at least be patient. And democratic process depends on people taking part, and being well-informed. Education is always going to be a vital part of the equation.

Regional plans, however, cannot achieve sustainable management on their own.

The Resource Management Act provides for national policy statements and national environmental standards. We have the mandatory New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement and the Government has announced the preparation of a NPS for biodiversity. A national environmental standard is being prepared for dioxins emitted to air. Is there a role for an NPS or NES in water management? Is there a need to coordinate some of the government’s activities in water development and protection, where irrigation schemes assisted by the Government are potentially running into conflict with environmental outcomes promoted by other Government agencies?

In the old days, governments simply built irrigation and hydro schemes, often sidelining environmental concerns in the “national interest”. Then governments formed hands-off policies, leaving development to the “market” and supposedly level playing fields. This government is different. We are not hands-off, but we do not build in bricks and mortar. We believe that there is a crucial role for the government to facilitate sustainable development. But this task is considerably more difficult - what is the appropriate role for government? This, and the earlier questions, remains unanswered at this stage. But we are certainly working on them.

No discussion about water management and allocation would be complete without some comment about water conservation orders. Water conservation orders have been around for 20 years, including 10 years since they were included in the Resource Management Act. It is timely that we consider how well they, and other related mechanisms, meet their objectives. The Ministry for the Environment has undertaken an initial internal review of the protection mechanisms for nationally important water-bodies. This review considered regional plans, national policy statements, national environmental standards, and water conservation orders.

The primary objective of the internal review of protective mechanisms for nationally important water-bodies is not to strengthen or weaken existing provisions afforded by water conservation orders. The primary objective is to determine the most effective and efficient way to achieve the management of national values provided by these water-bodies. Like any review, it is possible that existing mechanisms may be altered as an outcome of the review. Some have said “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. I don’t entirely agree. I’m having an initial look at whether there are better ways of doing things without necessarily waiting until they are broken. But I have repeatedly given my assurance that I will work with other agencies, should this initial analysis proceed any further.

I started this talk by saying that we have high expectations of our fresh water resources, and that I think that we take water for granted. We need to manage water better, and you are the people who can help us do it.

We know there is not enough flow rate in our rivers and streams to sustain in-stream values and meet the long-term water demands from all sectors. We have to get smart with how we manage our water.

In doing that we have to put the environment first. Sustaining our high quality environment underpins our competitive advantages as a nation, and our responsibilities to future generations.

Thank you

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