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Hobbs Speech: Issues and Initiatives – Freshwater

Marian Hobbs Speech: "Issues and Initiatives – Freshwater" Royal Society annual conference, Auckland University, Engineering Atrium Lecture Theatre, 9am Thursday Nov 14, 2003

We have extremely high expectations of our freshwater, and we take it for granted. We all expect there will be plenty of clean water running through our taps every day, so we can drink it, bathe the kids, wash the car.

We all expect to see sparkling clean water in our lakes and rivers – and to catch fish, take a swim or go kayaking.

And we expect to be able to keep the lights going for as long as we need them. We expect our agricultural industry to prosper. And more than this, we enjoy spending time around water and we expect lots of tourists to want to come and spend time here too.

We have high expectations. But, realistically, can we meet all our expectations and continue on our current path? I don’t think so. We need to manage water better.

And that is my challenge to you, as scientists, planners, advisors, industry representatives and users, and as New Zealanders who are interested in making sure there is adequate clean freshwater available for all. So picture this: Sparkling, deep, clear water. A large lake surrounded by dramatic landscapes.

People are always swimming and boating there and the lake supports tremendous trout fisheries. People just love to fish there, and there’s money in the trout fishing too, about 70 million dollars each year. Yes this is Lake Taupo.

And the local iwi Tuwharetoa has a very special relationship with this lake. Communities live in pockets along the shoreline and farmers and foresters are earning a living in the surrounding hills. It’s a beautiful place. And it’s probably not news to you that Lake Taupo is in trouble. Scientific evidence gathered over the last 30 years or so shows conclusively that the health of the lake is declining.

Development of the surrounding rural and urban land has increased the amount of nitrogen flowing into the lake through groundwater and rivers. The nitrogen is like fertilizer to the tiny free-floating algae in the water. They’re doing so well the algae are reducing the clarity of the water. There’s more weed and slime in the sheltered waters near the shoreline, and health warnings have been issued at Whakaipo Bay.

It’s all looking a bit grim and the communities are becoming increasingly concerned. The trout fishery depends on clean, clear water. Significant reductions in water quality will affect the ability of the trout to feed.

They’ll be smaller and there won’t be so many. Fishing won’t be world-renowned anymore, and after a while the community and local economy will suffer. In the middle of it all, are the regional and local councils – figuring out the best way to address these issues and work with the community. And Central Government is also involved.

Lake Taupo is the first practical example of implementing sustainable development principles on the ground. But it’s not the only lake in trouble – the Rotorua/Rotoiti Lakes, Omapere and Lake Brunner also have problems.

I understand Barry Carbon will be talking tomorrow about the Rotorua Lakes. These problems with water quality aren’t restricted to lakes and they are by no means new.

There were severe algal blooms in Lake Omapere in 1985; it was invaded by oxygen weed in the seventies. What is new is that we are now looking at these issues through a sustainable development lens. And it is fantastic that all of these bright minds have come together for a couple of days to look at some of the tough water issues we face today.

Significant progress has been made in getting discharges out of rivers; we don’t have any pipes from dairy effluent sheds emptying into water bodies these days. But the quality of some water bodies remains poor.

Lowland streams, lakes, groundwater and wetlands are at risk. In some ways we’ve tackled the easy problems - much more difficult is reducing the impacts of urban and rural land use on water quality. That lies at the heart of the Lake Taupo situation and it is really tough to find solutions that everyone supports.

But the declining health of Lake Taupo isn’t the only water issue in the news. The Waitaki River is a major resource for renewable energy, for irrigation and for its natural values. There are cultural, economic, environmental and social issues for the districts, the Canterbury and Otago regions and for New Zealand.

Ngai Tahu has a special relationship with the catchment that is acknowledged in legislation, the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act.

In September the Government announced that we will intervene in the process of allocating water in the Waitaki catchment. You’ll no doubt have heard that I have called in applications for Project Aqua and irrigation schemes proposed by Aoraki Water Trust and Irrigation North Otago, as well as some smaller applications.

There are many people, companies and organisations that want to use water from the Waitaki.

Under the Resource Management Act, each application has to be considered on a ‘first in, first served’ basis.

This means that the relative merits of each proposal cannot be compared. There is a need for national perspective and leadership. So the Government has decided to create a better process that will ensure the proposals can be considered on their merits, in light of all available information.

The process will allow people to have their say, especially the applicants and the local communities.

And it will be as speedy and cost effective as possible, with reduced uncertainty to make the process simpler for everybody. The principles and processes will be based generally on the Resource Management Act. We’ll be developing special legislation to set up the process. And a Statutory Body will be established to develop a water allocation framework for the catchment.

The framework will be used to make decisions on the existing applications as well as future ones. Once the framework has been set up, a panel of commissioners will make decisions on the applications. My goal is to ensure that local, regional and national needs are all considered. Both the Lake Taupo and Waitaki catchment initiatives are about sustainable development.

That is “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. We went to Johannesburg last year and signed up to a global programme of action that essentially said: we need to grow our economies so we can pay for things like health and education.

But the growing must continue for our children and our grandchildren. It is not sustainable to use up the planet’s resources, and that includes water.

We came back from Johannesburg and produced the Sustainable Development Programme of Action for New Zealand. The programme focuses on four areas for immediate action – freshwater, sustainable cities, renewable energy and child and youth development. These programmes all cross a number of government departments, and they have multiple goals, cultural, economic, environmental and social. So why did we choose to focus on water?

Well basically, water is really important. We drink it, play in it, we get energy from it and we rely on it in our dry agricultural areas, but: there are water quality problems there are economic and community needs for hydro power and irrigation there is increasing interest in the environmental state of our freshwater and there are competing uses – we need to resolve how to meet national, regional and local interests Access to water has been a fundamental precondition for development in New Zealand.

Clean abundant water has been a key element of economic prosperity, healthy communities, environmental quality and cultural identity. In most parts of New Zealand water is plentiful, sometimes we have too much of it! But in some parts of New Zealand demand cannot be met at some times of the year.

Without adequate supplies of water our economic growth would be compromised. And the impacts at the local level are very real. We’re facing significant increases in demand for water in the very near future, and I’m not confident our current systems for decision-making will be able to cope, let alone deliver the best solutions available.

Through the water programme of action, we must learn how to develop solutions that are better than tradeoffs; that improve economic performance as well as enhancing the quality of the environment and the way we live.

Through implementing the freshwater component of the programme of action, we will define our values for freshwater and secure them. What we are talking about is the national interest in water, what is it and what do we do with it?

The work programme includes three strands – water allocation and use, water quality and water bodies of national importance.

It’s early days in a two-year work programme and I’m committed to an open and participatory process. I consider this is essential to identify the best solutions, and many opportunities will be provided for people to contribute to the programme. The Resource Management Act provides for national policy statements and national environmental standards.

Is there a role for these national tools in water management? 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 with bricks and mortar. I believe there is a crucial role for the government to facilitate sustainable development.

And I’m well aware that this task is extremely difficult.

Meaningful democratic participation at the local level is a principle embedded in the Resource Management Act. And it is plain good sense 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 can’t 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. And what about water bodies that have values that are nationally important – do we know where they are, and what values should be secured, if they’re under threat or need protection? Do we have the best systems in place to identify nationally important water bodies or could we do better?

Why is it when we talk about water for irrigation, we talk about how much we can use, rather than how little?

That townships are so concerned with securing more water, that they forget they spray potable water on their lawns to keep the grass green.

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? To make progress, genuine progress for our community, we have to get past these barriers.

The solutions for Lake Taupo are still being sorted out – we know it will take effective regional rules that limit land use, conversion of some land to low nitrogen uses, sewage and septic tank upgrades, research and advisory services, and a large dose of political commitment and leadership at all levels. And we’ve only just begun on the Waitaki process. We must strive for innovation, making the most of our people and their talents, as well as getting much better value from our water. And collaboration is essential.

Neither the government nor any single player can resolve these issues, clearly central government has a leadership role, but local authorities are the water managers of New Zealand. We must work together. Strong relationships between local government, central government, industry, Maori and the community are essential to create innovative and enduring approaches to water management. I started this morning saying that we have high expectations of our freshwater resources, and that I think we take water for granted. There are some tough issues on the table and we need to sort them out. We need to manage water better, and you are the people who can help us do it. I wish you all the best for your conference and look forward to hearing the outcomes of your discussions. Thank you.

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