The past year has seen plenty of developments on the water front … some good, some bad. From central government, new policy statements and policy standards in development. From our Regional Council, a mixed picture of begrudging new priority given to water issues, combined with regrettable decisions on water takes from our rivers and mediocre enforcement of existing consents. Also, in Hastings and Napier, major progressing (some say dubious) of water treatment infrastructure.

The many moving parts of water policy and management threaten to swamp the handful of public interest advocates who seriously track the issues – folks like David Renouf and Bill Dodds of the HB Environmental Water Group, Iain Maxwell of Fish & Game, and Morry Black of the Mauri Protection Agency. Without the uphill efforts of these advocates, our local authorities, chiefly the Regional Council, would still blithely be reassuring the public that water was a “not to worry” issue.

Indeed, back during the October 2007 local elections, that was precisely the posture of the Regional Council. Now, barely a year later, the Regional Council has elevated water to its #1 strategic priority … or so its rhetoric claims.

But whether the HBRC leads, or is dragged behind public demand, water is a very worrisome issue for Hawke’s Bay, and public interest advocacy will need to intensify, not lessen, in the year ahead.

Here’s a brief overview of the situation, starting with important central government initiatives. Our “Part II” BayBuzz post will look at regional/local initiatives.

National Initiatives

Major enhancements of national policies for managing water supply and quality were progressed though 2008, though some would say rather late in Labour’s stewardship …

1) New National Environmental Standards for drinking water (effective last June 20), ecological flows and water levels (report on submissions now being prepared), measurement of water takes (final legal drafting underway), and on-site wastewater systems (report on submissions now being prepared).

2) New National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (submissions close 23 January). Not as directive as a “standard,” but still very important in guiding the behavior of regional authorities.

3) Reviewing, with the intent of strengthening, the ANZAC 2000 Guidelines that establish reference levels for all sorts of pollutants and effluents that could harm human health, biota or ecosystems. Nasties like faecal coliforms, suspended solids, mercury, lead. Many regional resource management plans and resource consents incorporate these standards. Submissions on this review closed in November.

Assuming these positive initiatives continue to be advanced by the National-led Government, the next year could see impressive improvement in the regulatory regime that protects and allocates New Zealand water. In each case, the intention has been to strengthen water protection. Presently, environmentalists must battle council-by-council, often consent-by-consent, over issues like minimum water flows conducive to ecosystem health, maximum effluents or pollutants consistent with human health, and the measuring methodologies and regimes used to monitor water conditions.

Consequently, a very significant benefit of these new policies and standards would be to provide far more precise direction with more demanding levels of protection to regional councils as they manage water resources under their Resource Management Act authorities. Here in the Bay, public interest advocates would expect these new directives to lessen the discretion of the HB Regional Council, forcing it to be more protective of our water.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the new Government will indeed proceed with these regulatory changes in 2009, slow them down, or weaken them. MPs Foss and Tremain have dipped their toes in local water issues. It will be interesting to see what role they play in National’s handling of water policy. BayBuzz and friends will be vigilant!

Next post, we’ll look at the status of local water issues.

Tom Belford

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