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Whither water?

Wed, December 01 2010

For two days this week, a wide range of interested parties — farmers, environmentalists, Maori, orchardists, food processors, winegrowers, central and local government officials, consultants and others — were convened by the HB Regional Council to chart a course for the region’s water management.

Everyone was on their best behaviour, and the result, at one level, was heaps of healthy interchange. Water users said comforting words about sustainability and best practices. Environmentalists responded by pocketing their grenades.

That said, the structure and process of the symposium was designed to round off the sharp edges. And so the issues that generate the most controversy — whether water will eventually be priced, how to “value” non-production benefits of water and waterways, intensification of land use as a threat to water quality — tended to be graciously noted, but not really debated. One had the feeling that many participants were keeping their powder dry.

I guess that’s understandable at this sort of “get to know you” session (although it was hardly a “first date” for many of the protagonists). I’m sure every participant gathered some useful takeaways and more informed perspectives. And that’s no minor accomplishment.

In one of the last sessions of the symposium, our table groups were asked to define “progress” with respect to managing water, what might be the barriers to progress, and how progress might be promoted or enforced. I’d say our group was fairly representative of the ten or so others in composition and observations.

We consisted of a regional councillor, an environmental educator, a prominent CHB farmer, the rep of a major food processor, and myself.

To give you a flavour of the sentiments in the room, here are the observations we made regarding defining progress …

• Positive environmental trends, scientifically documented;
• Better financial return off our land resource;
• Less contentiousness in the regulatory/consenting process;
• Widespread adoption of best practices for land and water use, in accordance with conditions embedded in consents;
• Steadily higher degree of self-management associated with improved environmental trends and best practice adoption.

The obstacles we saw …

• Incomplete knowledge with respect to water usage & supply and environmental impacts;
• Entrenched partisans, unwilling to change or collaborate;
• Long duration of many existing consents, which could impede adoption of better approaches;
• Policies/regulations being too prescriptive and insufficiently flexible to allow adaptation to change, unique circumstances, or unintended consequences;
• Impatience regarding longer cycles associated with recovering on-farm capital investments, changing farming practices, and getting council response to “early warnings” in the environment.
How to promote/ensure progress …
• Much more transparency regarding land and water use, abetted by water metering data and best practice audits;
• More intensive monitoring of environmental conditions, so as to earn the confidence of those concerned with ecosystem health and recreational values;
• Review clauses in longer term consents;
• All supported by a robust review process.

For me, one of the key exchanges occurred when water protection advocate David Renouf raised a concern about the long lag time between early clear signals that water quality and ecosystems were being compromised and eventual policy and regulatory action by the Council. Responding to him was Morgan Williams, for ten years NZ’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. He made a strong statement in support of councils taking a more precautionary approach … not waiting for scientists to study interminably and attempt to eliminate all uncertainty.

Amen! Without discounting the importance of sound science, having watched the HBRC in this context in recent years, I’m totally supportive of both the question and the response!

Finally, a comment was raised from the floor at the very end that might have taken a bit of wind out of the sails and was not effectively rejoined.

The commenter asserted there were no incentives to force action on resolving these water issues, and worried that the initiative would flounder.

I disagree, and think there are at least four reasons why our region will drive forward to craft a better (for all parties) water management regime.

First, in our most significant catchments in terms of farm production, effectively no new consents will be granted and, indeed, in cases where consents lapse with water unused, those allocations will be withdrawn.

Second, farmers eagerly want water harvesting in the region.

These two economic drivers will force the issue. Whether in the direction of widely agreed solutions remains to be seen, but the issue will not sit still.

Third, the HBRC itself has major political incentive to lead on the issue. First because of growing impatience from all players concerned about our water resource; but at least as importantly, because central government is clearly demanding action … or else (as we have seen in Canterbury, national policies, EPA, etc)!

And fourth, the numerous Treaty settlements in process in the Bay will enhance the role of Maori in resource decision-making, in a framework that is more than merely “advisory.” This will strengthen the voice calling for change in water management.

In short, this train has left the station and is gathering steam.

From an environmental perspective, the challenge is to capitalise on a process that, although triggered by other economic and political interests, puts into play environmental issues that might otherwise be ignored or deferred. It’s a process that will need to come to terms with environmental values … or wither.


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