As I talk to people around the Bay, and consider the issues they raise in emails and phone calls, concerns for our region’s environment come up over and over.
These concerns come from across the spectrum, in many shades of green – from conservative businessmen who value clean rivers in which to enjoy fishing, to orchardists and horticulturalists who want to protect the Bay’s versatile soils, to average folks who want protected landscapes and beaches, urban trees and healthy air; to the most passionate Greens whose concerns stretch from global warming to over-use of chemicals to sustainable lifestyle choices.
Our councils play a significant role in whether the aspirations of these “environmentalists” (some would resist the label) will be met. And although the Regional Council is the “official” protector of the Bay’s environment, our other local bodies are important players as well.
So it is appropriate that all candidates be asked for their views about environmental issues, along with the priority they give to this area compared to others.
Reflecting on issues that have come before the councils in the last couple of years, here is a list of environmental challenges you might question candidates about.
Let me begin by taking “Water” off this list. Water, its availability and quality, and its impact on our ecosystems and primary production economy, stands head and shoulders over all other environmental concerns in the Bay at this time. So we have dealt with water issues in a separate article, On the Waterfront, written by water expert Morry Black.
After water, in no particular order …
Protecting and Restoring Soils
Many agree that HB’s most critical asset, our productive soil, is seriously threatened, in terms of both availability and quality.
The threat of losing productive land to development and urban sprawl is serious enough that the Hastings, Napier and Regional Councils have just gone through a major planning exercise, the Heretaunga Plains Urban Development Strategy (HPUDS), aimed at confining spatial growth as much as possible to our existing urban centres. HPUDS, however, has no force of law, and if its goals are to be achieved, councils must embed them in their respective district and regional plans.
Another threat to availability is soil erosion. According the Regional Council, “20% of the region is at risk of significant soil erosion, which may take 100 years to reverse at current rates of improvement.”
Then there’s soil quality. Says HBRC: “Soil structure is often degraded on cropping land, and soil compaction is a significant problem …”
Furthermore, Hawke’s Bay, obviously not alone in the world, has now had about sixty years of chemically-oriented farming. Within the last twenty years in New Zealand, our farmers have used 600% more urea, and their production has not lifted even 50% in that time. Meanwhile, the data indicate the vitamin and mineral content of our food has declined 60% in sixty years. Old-timers would say taste has suffered as well.
This hardly sounds like a viable long-term business model, let alone a sustainable approach to using the Bay’s precious land resource. Fortunately, a number of farmers and viticulturists are taking alternative approaches based upon re-building the quality of the soil, even as it is used. For example, some form of “biological” farming is practiced on approximately 40,000 hectares in Hawke’s Bay, with excellent results.
Common sense would dictate that our local elected officials, as devoted to the Bay’s land-based economy as they are (and should be), would move protecting both the quantity and quality of our land and soil to the very top of their agendas.
Here the issue is what to protect … and what not to protect.
Environmentalists won a major victory with the protection of Ocean Beach from massive development. The HPUDS report indicates that any future efforts to develop Ocean Beach would be officially resisted.
The focus has shifted to Haumoana/Te Awanga and Westshore. In the Hastings District, local threatened communities propose an engineering solution to beach erosion that environmentalists say is a fruitless effort to fend off the inescapable rise in sea level and more intense storms associated with global warming. Most Hastings and Regional Councillors are treading water on this one … what do their challengers say?
And at Napier’s Westshore, a different engineering solution seeks to protect that beach … with environmentalists again saying this approach merely shifts the erosion problem up the coast. Napier’s Mayor and Councillors seem determined to proceed … what do their challengers say?
Health-threatening air pollution in urban Hastings and Napier arises from open fireplaces and woodburners, in the form of small particulates (PM10), which under national standards set in 2005 must be reduced.
After five years after doing nothing to meet the new standard, political “leaders” in the Bay boast that they recently managed to get the Environment Minister to postpone the deadline for five years to 2018. It seems that once the Regional Council woke up (during which period most other Regional Councils acted to meet the standard), there just wasn’t enough time or installation capacity physically available to meet the deadline by phasing in healthier home heating options.
So now our community — especially our children and the elderly — will bear the health and productivity consequences of PM10 pollution for five more years than others in NZ (already Hastings as exceeded the permitted pollution standard ten times). The health impacts are increased asthma and all sorts of respiratory and cardiovascular complications. The productivity impacts are lost work and school days. In Christchurch studies estimated the average non-complying woodburner generated health costs alone of at least $2,700 every year.
Ask candidates if they are satisfied with this outcome, or would they have acted differently?
Our different HB communities have different looks and feels, in no small part due to the nature of development and environmental amenities they welcome.
Contributing to this living environment is some amalgam of walking trails, cycling paths, reserves and public parks, plantings, urban tree protection, waterway protections, Waahi tapu and historic preservation – all nurtured (or not) by council budgets, official plans and zoning, by-laws, building codes and the like.
Councils importantly shape your living environment. What are the most important two or three steps candidates would propose to improve yours?
The most anemic and embarrassing section of the Regional Council’s State of the Environment Report 2004-2008 deals with biodiversity. It’s seven sentences long.
After conceding that the Council has very limited information on the condition of wetlands (those actively managed are termed “only in poor-to-moderate health”) and stream edges, two critical habitats, the section concludes: “Council also has insufficient information to report on regional-scale terrestrial biodiversity.”
Do any candidates care about biodiversity? While HBRC is the primary regulator and monitor here, other councils deal with critical contributing factors like stormwater run-off into vulnerable streams and estuaries, urban plantings and reserves.
Wastewater and Stormwater
Hastings and Napier Councils allocate millions of ratepayer dollars to treating wastewater and managing stormwater run-off, under the environmental scrutiny of the Regional Council.
Both Hastings and Napier have committed to new “biological trickling filter” (BTF) systems for processing their wastewater before discharging it into the Bay. The odour problems with the now $30 million or so Hastings plant are now legendary. And impacts of its “biomass” discharge to the sea are unknown. Napier, following the same path, is now seeking its resource consent from the Regional Council.
The environmentalist view is that odour is the least of the problem – they say additional treatment of the sewage should be required before any discharge to the Bay is permitted. Virtually all other operating BTF systems include “clarifying” ponds to remove suspended solids from their discharge.
Hastings and Napier skip that step in their systems to reduce costs and address Maori concerns about transporting sludge. Ask candidates: Are the Hastings and Napier BTF systems good enough for you?
With increasing paving over of our urban areas, more and more stormwater run-off finds its way into the region’s streams and rivers, threatening their ecosystems. The Regional Council has just – for the first time – required a resistant Hastings to clean-up its act with regard to discharging its stormwater into local rivers and streams. Napier will soon face the same HBRC consenting process.
How do candidates view this emerging regulatory regime – too tough, appropriate, not tough enough?
The Regional Council reports that rainfall has been “significantly below average” in the region over four of the last five September to April periods. Central and southern Hawke’s Bay have experienced three droughts, and northern HB two in the same period. Consistent with this, mean river flows have been below the long term mean for the past five years.
In the longer term, the Council comments that climate change is expected to bring warmer, drier conditions to the region: “There could be more extremes in Hawke’s Bay such as prolonged dry periods and intense rainfall events, leading to more droughts and floods.” With rising sea levels and more intense off-shore storms, adverse coastal impacts will come into play as well.
If this is our future, candidates need to be asked how we should prepare … and specifically what the local government role should be in areas like energy conservation (including transportation and fuel options, heating homes and water), coastal protection (should we be building groins, shifting shingle?), building and farming in low-lying areas, encouraging climate-appropriate farming and forestry, and conserving water.
Clearly the presence of pollutants in our air, water, soil and, potentially, food chain can have serious impact on human health. In recent times, issues have been raised about PM10 (fine particle) air pollution principally from woodburners, healthiness of recreational swimming areas, dangers from toxic chemical contaminated sites and waterways, and over-use of agri-chemicals.
Unfortunately, the roles and responsibilities of various local government bodies, as well as the District Health Board, in protecting us from environmental health hazards are fragmented and often murky … a situation which is ripe for inattention, inaction and buck-passing. For example, the Regional Council might monitor waterways for health-threatening pollution, but the DHB issues the health warnings. The Regional Council sets conditions for various discharges into the water and soil, but often it is the territorial councils who determine what activities are permitted that generate the discharges. The DHB encourages addition of fluoride to municipal water, but the territorial body decides whether to do it.
Many local body councillors (and, I suspect, candidates) are hard-pressed to identify environmental health issues for which they should bear responsibility. But they should be asked to do so, and certainly Regional Council and DHB candidates should be asked their views on the environmental health priorities they will urge upon their respective bodies.