In our last BayBuzz post, we looked at several major central government water policy initiatives inherited by the National-led Government. Today we look at local water issues.

As we noted yesterday, public pressure that escalated throughout 2008 forced the Regional Council to “re-group” on the water issue and, ostensibly, to devote more resources and priority to the matter. Of course, that in itself doesn’t translate into better decision-making (from an environmental standpoint), if the mindsets of Councillors and staff do not evolve, or if national standards do not force them in that direction.

In Hawke’s Bay over the past year, four issues have dominated the water scene.

1) Tukituki water quality & allocation – the chief issues here involve wastewater discharge by CHB treatment plants (dumping nasties in the river) and resource consents allowing additional water takes from the river (reducing flow, exacerbating the nasties, harming the ecosystem).

Rumour is that CHB Council, which still has until 2014 to fix its mess, is exploring a land-based solution that would result in no discharges to the river. It has implemented such a system at its Otane pond. If this plan is indeed adopted, the Tuki wins. What is still not clear is whether such an approach could be implemented earlier than 2014, and what assistance the Regional Council might provide to accelerate the process.

As for permitting additional water takes from the Tuki, here the Regional Council’s hearings commissioners, led by Councillor Scott, completely botched the matter. Councillor Kirton called these decisions a “cock-up” and a “shambles.” Opponents of these consents have appealed the decisions to the Environment Court. But a mediation process is underway which could result in a “water harvesting” scheme where water takes would be restricted to high flow periods. That would be an improvement on the mess created by Councillor Scott & Co., but still leaves unanswered more fundamental questions regarding the river’s ability to sustain the pressure from more and more water extractions, as well as the impact of these extractions on associated aquifer levels.

In fact, this set of decisions provides a perfect case study for why we need national standards in place on key issues like sustainable water flows and their measurement. If our Regional Council lacks the political will to say “NO!” to farmers and other water users when it should, then it needs help “from above” to do so.

2) Dairy farming impact on water quality – this issue has played out most dramatically in HB’s Mohaka River catchment, where corporate dairy farmers routinely violate consent conditions related to effluents, make millions of dollars in the process off too many cows, then pay miniscule fines that, to them, amount to a bit of spilt milk. The Regional Council routinely puts out breast-beating media releases when it wins one of these token fines, to reassure us that it’s a tough policeman. Meantime, one of the main dairying abusers is now seeking to truck its excess waste over the hills to the next region, assuming it can convince another compliant council to acquiesce.

Fortunately, the Environment Court has just set a precedent dealing with Lake Taupo which might encourage other regional councils – if they have the political will – to get tougher about land use practices that adversely affect water quality. The Court upheld restrictions placed on nutrient run-off into the lake, sanctioning the Waikato Regional Council’s plan to cap the amount of nutrients applied to the land. This could in turn require reduced stocking rates.

Of course, it’s not only dairy cows that foul HB rivers and streams. Other stock routinely “bathe” in the Tuki and other waterways because too many river banks are not fenced off and the Regional Council declines to do the fencing itself or prosecute the farmers whose stock fouls our water.

3) Wastewater treatment – in Hastings and Napier, new multi-million dollar plants are progressing that would – so we are told – improve these cities’ treatment of our wastewater. The Hastings plant should come on line in 2009. Napier, though it has a pilot plant testing the same “Biological Trickling Filter” (BTF) system, says it will observe full operation of the Hastings plant for one year before finally committing to the technology.

[Interesting aside: Why did Napier need an expensive pilot plant to test the same approach that Hastings has already piloted? Because Hastings wouldn’t share its test data or, if you prefer, Napier wouldn’t pay for it. So much for “Backing the Bay” at the Council level!]

Anyway, according to environmentalists, the verdict is out on the effectiveness of BTF systems (these will be the first in NZ) … especially if they do not include the additional elements that other BTF systems employ, such as clarification ponds intended to remove the sludge (BTFers call it “biomass”) that accumulates and is flushed from the filters each day. Hastings and Napier plan to skip this feature to cut costs. Their “transformed biomass” will be flushed out to the Bay, as it always has been.

Expect battles ahead as environmentalists challenge the “harmlessness” of transformed biomass, as well as the biological and chemical monitoring regimes that will be used to assess compliance with stricter environmental standards that will come into play (see ANZAC standards discussion in previous post).

Meantime, if your home uses its own septic system, you should expect to meet tougher operational standards as well, thanks to the new National Standard for On-site Wastewater Systems, and new rules the Regional Council is expected to notify for public comment. MfE says that failure rates for on-site systems range from 15% to 50% around NZ, which has a total of 270,000 such systems. Failing systems discharge pathogens and nutrients harmful to humans and the environment. One local critic estimates there are thousands of on-site septic systems in Hawke’s Bay, many of which would not comply with new rules and represent health hazards.

4) Stormwater run-off – more roads and paved development around the Bay translate to more stormwater run-off, which must be managed at considerable infrastructure cost. This water collects nasties – oil, heavy metals, debris – from the pavement, and must not be allowed into natural waterways without treatment. Environmental damage from stormwater run-off is a problem for the Karamu Stream and the Ahuriri Estuary. Appropriately, the Regional Council is planning tougher standards to govern the run-off permits it grants to local councils. As it does so, it should refrain from issuing new consents.

If you’ve managed to wade through this article, you’re probably gulping for air!

The issues involved – in number and complexity – are no easy matter for the professionals to master, let alone part-time elected officials and volunteer citizen activists!

The water agenda for 2009 …

• Maintain progress on new national standards and policies
• Press for land-based alternative for CHB dumping into the Tukituki
• Stop granting water extraction consents for over-allocated waterways
• Crack down on farmers (dairying and others) who continue to foul our water
• Insist on tough consents and strict monitoring of Hastings and Napier wastewater treatment plants
• Support stricter operating standards for on-site wastewater systems
• Proceed with stricter conditions for stormwater run-off consents

Hopefully this overview provides a primer you can use to follow water issues more knowledgably over the coming year. Water is perhaps the most critical resource shaping both the economic and environmental viability of Hawke’s Bay. You cannot know too much about water issues in the Bay, or be too involved in helping to resolve them in a sustainable manner. BayBuzz will be asking for your help at critical times.

Tom Belford

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for that Tom. Clearly these issues are so very important that they can't be left just too our L.A's.

    Given the need to 'help' some people retire from elected positions- it is time to start working on setting up candidates that won't just represent the land owners etc – or who just want [need] a well paid part time job.

    Councillor Belford has a good ring about it.!

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