How the Bay will feel the heat

As I reported in the last edition of BayBuzz (Only a Chance to Save the Planet), world leaders may have agreed in Paris to keep global warming below a two degree rise and transition off fossil fuels, but how this looks in practice will come down to the finer details of national, and even local-driven, policies.

So what’s in the cards for Hawke’s Bay, which faces rising seas, eroding soils, and the gamut of wilder weather events and unknowns? What is being done on a governance level to make ‘the best of a bad situation’ and prepare us for inevitable change?

Rising seas

When Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, released her latest climate change report, Preparing New Zealand for Rising Seas, she likened the effects on our coasts of an “incremental and inexorable” sea rise to “a slowly unfolding red zone”, with 9,000+ homes lying less than 50cm above spring high-tide levels.

Under NZ law, the responsibility for planning to deal with rising seas lies entirely with local government, which leaves councils “between a rock and a hard place”, Wright points out. They must act, but there’s no coordinated guidance or fiscal resources from central government to do so. Indeed, some national policies counteract local adaption and mitigation efforts. She calls for a major review.

In Hawke’s Bay, a joint committee of local councils and iwi, chaired by regional councillor Peter Beaven, has been set up to study the coastline from Clifton to Tangoio, assess what infrastructure will be at risk from coastal erosion, inundation and tsunami – “not just houses, roads, businesses, etc., but parks, reserves, wetlands” – and to come up with a strategic 105-year framework to ensure long-term resilience.

Using a probalistic range of a 0.6-1.5 metre sea rise, the Coastal Hazards Committee has modelled three scenarios, and are working on the median estimate of a 1 metre rise by 2120 (you can find interactive maps illustrating the scenarios at hbhazards.co.nz).  Over 3,000 homes and businesses in Hawke’s Bay could be directly impacted within 50 years, the majority of these on Napier’s reclaimed land, including our regional airport.

Recent analysis of satellite data by German researchers, however, indicates the contribution of oceanic thermal expansion to sea rise has been grossly underestimated and could be twice as much as previously calculated. Taking this into account dramatically upscales projections.

“We need to agree on the risk profile as a community … until we agree on a framework, we’re going to be punching in the dark.”

PETER BEAVEN

Three adaptation options on the table, all with their “problems” and none forming a sole response, are: hard-engineering, such as groynes; soft-engineering (the replenishing of shingle, for example); and managed retreat, which in some cases may be the only affordable option, says Beaven.

Groynes create scours, compounded by the unique factor of the 1931 earthquake that tipped Napier up, Clifton down, creating a dynamic of northern drift: waves push shingle north. And replenishment requires supply with its accompanying problem of sourcing; already 10,000m2 of river gravel are deposited each year on Westshore Beach.

But before weighing decisions, “We need to agree on the risk profile as a community,” says Peter Beaven. And then there are tough questions like how to prioritise and split the cost between people on the coast and those living inland. What division of responsibilities, how far ahead to look? “Until we agree on a framework, we’re going to be punching in the dark.”

Beaven agrees with Wright’s insistence that while mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) is a matter of national and global urgency, “haste can be counter-productive” when it comes to planning for rising seas.

“It’s more important to get the right decision than a fast decision. You need to think about different practicalities for different occupations – a ‘horses for courses’ approach,” says Beaven. And “you have to be adaptive with your solutions. There’s a balance between taking a precautionary approach and being so severely risk-adverse that you impact on communities now.”

The Hazards Committee is due to release a draft report on its coastal assessment in March for input, followed by a series of public workshops.

Peter Beaven

Erodible landscapes

James Palmer, HBRC’s new strategy manager, believes the area with the most opportunity for effective regional response to climate change is the intersection between fresh water quality and soil conservation – “acute issues faced by our pastoral hill country” from Wairoa to Porangahau.

Hawke’s Bay – whose land is almost 80% hill country or mountainous – was once almost totally forested, but now has highly erodible landscapes, with sediment and accompanying farm run-off contributing significantly to river degradation. An estimated 100,000 hectares is considered at risk of severe erosion. Modelling for the Tukituki catchment alone indicates annual soil loss at 282,000 tonnes from stream banks, plus another 597,000 tonnes from hillslopes. And the disastrous release of silt through Wairoa’s Waihi Dam – seriously damaging the environment and farmers’ livelihoods alike – illustrates a worst case scenario resulting from soil erosion.

With climate change, “we’ll see more frequent and severe droughts coupled with increased storm events and intensive rainfall periods” that will only exacerbate soil loss.

In this “transitional period to becoming a zero-carbon society,” Palmer says, “it’s imperative to not only reduce emissions but to sequester carbon.” Tree-planting (whether timber plantations, native regeneration, or ‘performance forests’ such as olives or manuka) is crucial for improving water quality, retaining soils and cultivating resilience (trees provide shelter for stock, fodder for bees, etc). But planting trees also “helps mitigate [climate change] at a local level for global benefit.”

In his view: “We need to plant an awful lot of trees.”

Palmer believes it’s better to create “coalitions of the willing” than wield the “blunt tool” of regulation. A key task for HBRC, as he sees it, is “to make a more compelling business case for changing our highly erodible landscapes to more forested environments.”

It’s important people “see the confluence between freshwater issues, climate change issues – both mitigation and adaption – and soil erosion”.  The question is, “How do we bring it all together to find the sweet spot and build, year on year, a momentum?”

He suggests we need an applied, integrated approach that gets down to farmscale. “We need a sustained programme across the region: start in the most acute places, work methodically and stay on the case.” This will require a substantial resourcing commitment – there’s no question in Palmer’s mind, “we’re going to have to invest more as a community.” In recent years, HBRC has allocated only $250,000 to $400,000 per year toward soil conservation.

James Palmer

Is forestry the answer?

Forestry is sometimes touted as the salve for NZ’s emissions, but there are some gnarly knots. A “live issue” for HBRC is the 1 million m2 of radiata pine due to be harvested in Wairoa over the next 20-30 years, with a loss-loss situation all round if the process is not properly managed: the cost of extraction is high, the environmental impacts great, the economic returns small.

In hindsight, says Palmer, many of the areas “should never have been planted [for harvest]”, though the plantations also play an important role in keeping coastal hillsides intact and Hawke’s Bay’s carbon footprint down.

Palmer sees no simple solution to the conundrum but “a bunch of insidious choices.” For instance, as a price for the interim benefits of carbon sequestration and halting erosion, “Do we accept every 25 years a pulse of soil into our water-ways and carbon release?” Or could we incentivise landowners to turn their plantations into permanent forests? He believes “a high price on the Emissions Trading Scheme could make a really big difference.”

HBRC is currently working with forestry groups, iwi and the Wairoa community, and awaiting a new central government standard on forestry.

“We need a sustained programme across the region: start in the most acute places, work methodically and stay on the case … we’re going to have to invest more as a community.”

JAMES PALMER

Water

Water is a big, fraught topic in the Bay, with fresh water (quality, quantity, distribution) high on the council and public agenda, and the long-term climate forecast: increasingly dry.

Hill-country farmer, Bruce Wills, is “a great believer in water storage”, and proponent of large-scale government-supported infrastructure such as the Ruataniwha dam. “It seems crazy that we simply let 98% of rain water run out to sea.” There’s wider community benefit, as he sees it, “If we can sensibly and intelligently store water in times of plenty and then sensibly and intelligently use it.”

Land-systems consultant Chris Perley, however, is adamant “the ability to hold water in our landscapes is our best advantage. And that means in the soil, within the farm system (wetlands, ponds) not mega dams!”

As local soil experts Phyllis Tichinin and Nicole Masters regularly note, better managed soil can retain 20% more water. Masters writes: “Techniques that focus on soil health and soil biology are better adapted to hold on longer during dry spells and bounce back quicker when rains do come. Research shows that biologically managed systems have increased nutrient and water storage, improved soil structure and resilience to climactic extremes. Soil carbon acts like a giant sponge; a 1% increase in organic carbon can increase the soil’s ability to store water by 144,000 litres/hectare, roughly a bucket of water per square meter.”

Perley says rather than engaging with ‘climate change’, we need to start with a “shared conceptual goal” that everyone can get behind, such as the kids being able to swim in the rivers again.

Coherent communities tend to be based around ‘the water hole’, so “the river is key… it’s a cultural common”; to address the rivers (that the kids can swim) you have to address all the issues that feed back into the bigger picture. Integrated catchment management is a great example of bringing people on board, he says.

An at-risk home by the sea for HDC’s sewage treatment plant

Land-use changes

With climate change, it’s not just the outlier events like drought, storms, warmer weather, “We don’t truly know the effects we’ll be facing; the pests, weeds, new crop species, diseases,” cautions Nathan Heath, HBRC’s acting manager for land management. What’s certain: land-use will change.

Bruce Wills has already changed pasture species to longer-root grasses, and swapped his Romney sheep for the tougher Texel-Suffolk cross, though he says they’re not coping well this summer, and if the future is these “warm, damp, Waikato-like conditions”, he’ll be moving out of sheep altogether.

He’s planted 15,000 trees, over half natives, the rest poplar and willows (“they’re our hill-country heroes”). He’s locked up 160 hectares in a QEII covenant and fenced off 140 hectares of marginal land to revert back to native bush. He’s “breeding up” dung beetles to work his soils for better water retention.

The government’s Emissions Trading Scheme, currently under review, doesn’t include native stands as an offset, which Wills sees as a “gaping hole”. If we could offer the 4,000 farmers nationwide with QEII covenants some kind of remuneration, such as carbon credits, for their bush reserves and increase the $4.2 million the QEII Trust currently receives from the government, Wills believes we could up the ante for global benefit: increased biodiversity and carbon offset.

Global warming to Wills, spells change, innovation, integration: “Good farmers have always adapted,” he says, “and we’ll just have to adapt more quickly than we have in the past.”
James Palmer says he has “one eye to opportunities” for new industry, such as kiwifruit production which will shift further south as areas like Bay of Plenty become frost-free. There’ll also be changes in viticulture, he says; the types of grapes grown and wines made.

A 2015 government-commissioned report, Effects of climate change on current and potential biosecurity pests and diseases in New Zealand (available online), summarises the latest research and modelling scenarios on risk and distribution. The interaction between new exotics, innocuous “sleeper” pests, weeds and diseases, and evolving climates is complex and, as yet, far from conclusive. But we are likely to see the establishment of invasive insects currently limited by temperature, the introduction of vectors (disease-bearing mosquitos, ticks), and with new plant crops in response to new climates, new pathogens.

Previously harmless plants and insects may become virulent weeds and pests. For example, in the drier regions like Hawke’s Bay, a shift to more drought-tolerant forages like chicory, lucerne and plantain is anticipated, but in 2014 it emerged two native moth species are major plantain pests.

“Climate change makes us think broader, makes us think long-term, and ultimately that’s a positive.”

NATHAN HEATH

Resilient communities

“We actually need to think about a whole raft of things, not climate change as a factor in its own right,” says Heath. The issue’s going to be how we can collectively build, adapt, towards more resilient landscapes.”

Ultimately, it will come down to the “resilience and adaptability of organisations and communities”, and “the real conversation”, as he sees it, is within the socio-sphere. “How do we collectively work together so we align what we do for the common cause? If we remain in silos, we’re just going to go round in circles.”

Heath says HBRC is in conversation with organisations, individuals in private sectors, NGOs etc, “to build collective support for a strategy.” At the moment it’s driven by building catchment plans; “there’s a focus on water… and that’s not enabling us to have the broader conversation, though it’s obviously important.”

As part of HBRC’s attempt to complement this focus with “another layer”, Nathan Heath organised a two-day conference on dryland farming last year to gather raw material, ideas, from people in the field. It now requires “some clever individuals” to deepen that exchange and come up with well-considered frameworks around it.

HBRC is also meeting communities within and peripheral to the region, from Gisborne to Wairarapa, because “We need local, open conversations.”  Wairoa, for example, is “so deeply entwined with the future of hill-country farming”, and the health and wellbeing of such rural communities directly effects what we can do in our most challenging landscapes, says Heath.

He points to the fact that basic community infrastructure like roads, schools, internet connectivity can underpin the decision to remain, relocate, or not, and “we need good farmers, good foresters, quality labour.” We need the kinds of people who are keen and able to “do” the work that’s needed for the long-term.

The difficulty underpinning all this of course, is money: “In NZ if you pull a dollar out of everybody it starts hurting pretty quickly.” So how do we fund our regional ‘resilience and adaptation’? Heath says these are the kinds of questions being explored, along with mechanisms for change, but there’s no quick, easy answer.

The Bay’s big drys become the norm as summer temperatures soar.

Energy-smart farming

Heath also believes “we need to move away from thinking about land in terms of either production or retirement” to a more dynamic, differential layering which incorporates social as well as environmental and economic benefits.

“Rather than broad-scale monoculture and big silver bullet solutions”, the future, Heath predicts, will be about attending to “the nuances in the landscape” and working with these appropriately. “Farmers are good at this; they know their land intimately.”

Chris Perley agrees. It’s the Tuscany model and the concept of terroir, as he sees it, versus the Nebraska Inc. prototype of industrial monoculture. “A cost and margin approach assumes a flat paddock system, it’s out of step with reality.” Focusing on resilience and quality over boom and bust commodity supply gives farmers the flexibility to adjust to change and challenge.

This means planting woody vegetation (not just trees), creating wetlands and integrated pasture systems, building healthy soils, biodiversity, managing nutrients. When you design for resilience, Perley advises, “You need a matrix of options.”

So what about a couple of small wind turbines in the back paddock, or solar panels on the woolshed, or even setting up a micro-hydro system?

We need agriculture (responsible for half NZ’s emissions) to become more energy efficient – indeed, the whole paddock-to-plate supply chain – and Professor Ralph Sims (Centre for Energy Research, Massey) believes renewables should be part of the farm approach: “The agri-food chain can be decoupled from its current dependency on fossil fuels.”

Sims sees great opportunity for the East Coast hill country to cost-effectively capture local energy sources and even create another revenue stream. He’s involved with a number of projects across the North Island, in Dannevirke and Taranaki, working with electricity companies towards developing base-power technologies for small rural communities. It also means they’re less vulnerable to outage.

Sims’ presentation at the drylands conference generated much interest, and it remains to be seen how this might be considered in the context of HBRC’s energy-futures project, which was originally set to include a comprehensive look at oil and gas as well as alternative energies and transport. The plan’s been on the council backburner but will be revived later this year, says strategy manager James Palmer.

Despite John Key’s assurance post-Paris that oil and gas will continue as before, with the collapse in the price of oil, all exploratory drilling in NZ has been suspended indefinitely by the companies themselves.

“The energy landscape’s moving very fast on us,” observes Palmer, and much of this has a socially-driven impetus. Along with electricity demand and wholesale prices, the cost of solar and electric vehicles is falling and “being deployed faster than anticipated without much intervention.” Palmer expects a similar trend as new technologies come on line.

Ironically, the gloomy prophecy of global climate change has brought about “exciting times” and “incredible opportunities” as we grapple creatively with the implications and practicalities at a regional level.

Says Nathan Heath: “Climate change makes us think broader, makes us think long-term, and ultimately that’s a positive. The more we link the layers, the more we work out how communities need to adapt and be resilient, the more we move towards a common ground.”.

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2 Comments

  1. There was a paper out Wednesday last week on the ice melt in Antarctica, yes it is happening a whole lot faster than was predicted, forget 2120
    Bill needs to do some new research.
    Jason Box has been doing great work on the second largest ice sheet, since about 2009 has been making predictions, some of these were scoffed at, but they have come to pass, maybe a year or two on, than predicted, his thinking is that the models being produced at this point in time are out by a factor of at least two.
    Then there is the study that finds plants, trees, etc., need less co2 because there is more of it in the atmosphere, the stoma just opens that much less, and in turn expels less water, which means it gets that much warmer. There is a lot more, but hey, the general population, in the main is a bit busy to take too much notice, just have to wait for the big seas and that really bad weather.

  2. Vetiver grass is the solution to many of the problems. it survives drought for 6 months, it can survive under water for a long time,can grow near the sea , it is not invasive, it’s easy to transplant, it replaces soil 2 eroded hillsides, it stabilizes hills, it can grow in toxic conditions ie septic tanks landfill runoffs etc, does not need sprays and purifies water and is the most written about plant in the world

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