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Dunne Speaks: Time to Clean Up Our Freshwater Act


There has been a curiously lethargic reaction to the Land and Water Forum's report regarding steps to improve water quality levels over the next few years. Environmental organisations have decried the report as timid, while the Minister for the Environment has said the report shows the Forum has reached the end of its life. Yet neither has criticised directly its recommendations. Whether that means they will be implemented in whole or in part remains to be seen.

Since its establishment by the Government nearly ten years ago, the Forum, which contains a wide representation of business, environmental and recreational groups (but no longer major conservation groups like Fish and Game) has made a series of recommendations on freshwater management. But there has never been wholesale acceptance of its work. The previous Government adopted a pick and choose approach to its earlier reports, which caused much frustration within the Forum and led to the withdrawal of some organisations, yet the present Government seems likely to take a similar approach to this latest report.

However, there is no doubt that the issues the Forum is dealing with impinge directly upon the future ownership and management of our national freshwater resources. Therefore, it would have been reasonable to expect Governments, past and present, to have taken more notice of what it has had to say. This latest and potentially last report addresses water degradation issues and a future plan for dealing with these. It makes the telling point that water management standards are currently variable between regional councils, with no clear national enforcement, and proposes instead a national approach.

Perhaps more controversial is the view of the Forum about iwi rights in freshwater management. It rightly points out that resolving these will be critical to future freshwater management. The previous Government travelled warily around their edge during the tortuous resource management changes of the last few years, trying to balance off the concerns of the Maori Party against any perception of exclusivity. The Forum draws the obvious conclusion that the longer these rights and claims remain unresolved, the more difficult it is becoming to achieve consistent management standards and an improvement in overall freshwater quality. And that effects all New Zealanders.

While the Land and Water Forum may have come to the end of the road, the issues still cry out for resolution. The debate around the impact of dairy intensification on water degradation is strengthening, and public impatience for the Government taking decisive action to improve water quality is increasing. In the absence of any other likely successful strategies, the Government should adopt the Forum's recommendation of a new national approach, and get on with it.

A clear early statement to that effect would not only remove the existing uncertainty, but would also clear the way for the issue of iwi rights to be similarly addressed. But, if past experience is any guideline, this is likely to be the point where things founder.

Frankly, that will no longer be good enough. All the while, as uncertainty holds sway, water quality will continue to decline and New Zealand's credible ability to market itself as clean and green will similarly continue to erode. Rather than deride the Land and Water Forum for its perceived shortcomings, the Government and environmental groups need to come together to implement its recommendations, put things on a national basis, and then devise an effective future management system, which acknowledges the legitimate rights of iwi, and the interests of other New Zealanders.

The babies born today deserve no less.

ends

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