Faced with pressure from above and below, the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council is starting anew to devise a strategy for protecting and managing the Bay’s vital freshwater resources.
Not all of this pressure pushes in the same direction.
Some interests – chiefly farmers and those directly dependent on food production, processing and export – are intent on generating more economic value from the sector through more intensive farming. To them, the Bay’s rivers and streams serve as a vital water supply, whose security must be enhanced, but also, historically, as a natural channel to carry away pollution from animals and over-use of fertilisers.
Other interests – chiefly conservationists, fishermen and other recreational users, environmentalists, and iwi – are concerned with protecting the quality of the Bay’s rivers and streams, so as to protect freshwater ecological systems, recreational enjoyment, and cultural values.
The clash between these interests, with the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council sitting between them, is played out today in every major catchment in Hawke’s Bay. Decisions to be made over the next eighteen months will set the ground rules for freshwater and wetlands protection and management in Hawke’s Bay for decades to come.
And even this sweeping set of issues represents only a part of the Bay’s water management challenge, which also includes stormwater and wastewater management, provision of safe drinking water, improvement of on-site septic systems, and flood and erosion control.
Pressure from above
Management of New Zealand’s fresh water has taken national significance.
Water quality is recognised to be deteriorating; water supply is often overallocated. Ineffective management by regional councils, including our own, has played its part. Henceforth, our Regional Council’s management of Hawke’s Bay’s freshwater will need to satisfy more watchful and demanding eyes.
The Land and Water Forum
This national group of 58 stakeholder organisations conducted a painstaking and comprehensive review of NZ’s fresh water management. Its September 2010 report, A Fresh Start for Freshwater, spelled out 53 recommendations for improving the nation’s water quality and management. Most observers consider it to represent ‘best thinking’ on the subject. Regional councils would be unwise to discount its urgency or direction.
National Policy Statement (NPS) on Freshwater Management
This policy took effect on 1 July 2011. The Government argues that it raises the bar for regional councils in their water protection role. For example, any existing over-allocation of water takes must be phased out, which would apply to the Bay’s Tukituki, Ngaruroro and other waterways. According to an HBRC staff memo: “The NPS also strengthens the weight that needs to be afforded to ‘avoiding’ adverse effects on water resources, whereas the RMA provides for ‘mitigating and remedying’ effects. Hence there is a substantially greater onus upon applicants to demonstrate how adverse effects will be avoided …”
However, many environmentalists contend that the NPS avoided the tougher recommendations of the Land & Water Forum, while giving regional councils too much time (2030) to fully implement even the weaker NPS provisions. The highly regarded Cawthron Institute recently issued a critical report on the NPS, concluding that its various weaknesses mean “the condition of New Zealand’s lakes, rivers and wetlands is likely to decline for several more years and possibly much longer.” Most importantly, actual standard setting still sits with each regional council, and it’s still unclear whether they must regulate farm run-off (so-called ‘diffuse discharges’).
Fish & Game’s regional manager Pete McIntosh comments: “The Cawthron report states the NPS ‘will have no effect’ on the main source of the problem – pollution from intensive agriculture – unless regional councils change their plans to require consents for diffuse pollution.” A step HBRC might or might not take.
Fresh Start for Fresh Water Fund
In his Cabinet paper of 8 March 2011, Environment Minister Nick Smith acknowledged deteriorating water quality and noted: “Delay in clean up and the continuation of some practices will mean that some waterbodies will deteriorate further, creating a much more difficult problem to fix … I expect there tobe an increase in the ad hoc requests for a Crown contribution to clean up contaminated waterways.”
The Government adopted Smith’s proposal for a $15 million contestable national fund (over two years) that would help facilitate the freshwater management improvements mandated by the new NPS and to ensure “increased investment in irrigation to boost economic productivity.” The policy notes that any funding granted must be matched with specific measurable pollution reduction outcomes.
Irrigation Acceleration Fund
Smith’s clean up fund is dwarfed, however, by Agricultural Minister David Carter’s new irrigation promotion fund that would spend $35 million over five years to help water storage and irrigation schemes become “investment ready”, with $400 million provisioned as future capital expenditure. This is the pot of gold our Regional Council is chasing.
However, Fish & Game’s chief executive Bryce Johnson says: “The science shows our declining water quality is linked to intensive agriculture, and yet [Carter’s] pro-irrigation package will potentially mean one million more cows, and reduced stream flows to deal with the increased pollution.”
Two other national initiatives bear importantly on our water management in Hawke’s Bay. First is a new Government policy requiring water metering for all significant water takes. Consent holders throughout the Bay have been busily installing or upgrading metering equipment, which will significantly increase the reliability of water use measurement and permit more effective management, regulation and enforcement. Notes McIntosh: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
Also, ongoing Treaty settlements in the region, negotiated by the Crown, will result in altered governance, with a much stronger Mãori voice in regional water policy making (via a Regional Planning Committee with equal participation by elected Counsellors and Mãori-appointed representatives), and award financial resources that might be applied to water clean up and infrastructure.
Pressure from below
Water quality was first raised as a regional campaign issue two elections ago, in 2007. At the time, none of the incumbent Councillors felt there were any problems. But the Hawke’s Bay Environmental Water Group, which
focused initially on sewage discharge from CHB, persisted in raising concerns about Tukituki water quality.
About 200 concerned citizens met with the Regional Council at a catalytic Havelock North meeting on the Tukituki in March 2008. The intensity and pedigree of that audience appeared to get the Council’s reluctant attention.
The Regional Council has moved (staff more quickly than Councillors) from a position of denial of any water problems, to quarreling over the extent of the problems, to commissioning more ‘scientific’ examination of the situation, to admission that serious problems indeed exist.
A recent consultant report on the effectiveness of HBRC’s water quality regulation, as currently provided in the Regional Resource Management Plan, concludes:
“The issue with both the regulatory and non-regulatory interventions contained in the plan which I think is going to be critical, is whether these actions are doing enough, quickly enough, to not only maintain the region’s comparatively good water quality and ecology, but to improve the baseline water quality and prevent
future deterioration occasioned by land use intensification.
“The data suggests … that the plan is not as effective nor are the methodscurrently being applied, as they could be. Where substantial land use change has taken place in Hawke’s Bay resulting in new areas of intensive farming, but particularly dairy farming, the scientific indicators used point to at least partial failure to adequately manage those situations.”
Even now, not all Councillors share that concern (one based on the fact that he can see his toes in the water, another because he hasn’t gotten sick when falling in).
Since the Tukituki rebellion, public pressure has grown, driven by complaintsabout other rivers – video showing Mohaka degradation … meat processor AFFCO polluting the Wairoa … low flows in the Ngaruroro … growing recognition of over-allocation in the face of water take consent renewals … concerns about
the inter-play between river flows and aquifer levels.
Says Pete McIntosh: “So far, environmental concerns have been considered by the Regional Council, but whether these concerns are adequately addressed in Hawke’s Bay water policy is yet to seen.”
Draw your own conclusion, as we look it the ‘state of play’ in each four principal waterways in Hawke’s Bay.
Water quality in the Wairoa River is ruined today by the significant effluent discharges from the AFFCO meat processing plant.
AFFCO is spending as little as it can, as slowly as it can, to meet effluent discharge conditions imposed by the HB Regional Council back in July 2009 – conditions it is miles away from complying with!
At times water tests have revealed faecal coliform counts of 3600cfu/100ml, when the HB Regional Resource Management Plan sets the relevant level at 200cfu/100ml. Not surprisingly, the District Health Board sees this level of pollution as too high!
AFFCO has appealed the HBRC conditions and is engaged in a protracted mediation with the Regional Council … a process now in suspended animation while AFFCO tries to ‘diffuse’ the waste products it is dumping into the Wairoa River. Given the high levels of waste the plant is discharging, one might be justifiably sceptical that ‘diffusion’ spreading the waste in finer particles into the river – think of it as thin gruel versus thick) will be sufficient to protect human health or the ecology of the river.
Under an agreement negotiated with HBRC, AFFCO has until September 30 to establish that measures it is taking are capable to bringing it into compliance with the 2009 consent conditions. Failing to satisfy HBRC (and a 274 party submitter, environmentalist David Renouf), the matter would go to Environment Court by year’s end.
Meantime the waste pours out, even though earlier this year AFFCO, now wholly-owned by the Talleys group,
announced a group profit of $36.56 million for the year ended 30 September 2010, while holding $52 million in cash.
AFFCO has lamented that it might cost $1-2 million to clean up its Wairoa plant. But in June AFFCO announced plans to build a new lamb processing facility at the plant, expected to be ready in September. It appears money is no problem for AFFCO, so long as it isn’t wasted on protecting the environment.
The situation doesn’t bode well for Wairoa’s intention, as discussed at a recent ‘Think Tank’ on the community’s future, to use the Wairoa River as a tourism focal point!
Taharua and Mohaka Rivers
The upper reaches of the Mohaka River are protected by one of New Zealand’s few Water Conservation
Orders. These orders are intended to protect the natural state of the country’s most iconic waterways. The Regional Council is charged with enforcing the Order … that is, protecting the river.
However, over the past decade dairy farming has come to the upper reaches, specifically in the catchment of the tributary Taharua River. Our Regional Council approved consents for this activity, permitting increased levels of fertiliser use, obviously increasing farm run-off.
More lately, HBRC sought penaltiesfrom one dairy farm for polluting the river in violation of its existing consent and a fine was ordered. Fishermen, supported by Fish & Game, and iwi have complained steadily about declining water quality in the river, and view the limited fines as inconsequential in the face of dairy farm profits.
In 2009, facing intensified media pressure (including BayBuzz webcasting a Fish & Game video of the Mohaka pollution), HBRC set in motion a ‘stakeholders’ process to develop a land and water management strategy for the Taharua/Mohaka part of the catchment.
A draft strategy, published recently for informal public comment, proposes that landowners make land use changes over a fifteen year period designed to lower nutrient discharges into the Taharua, such that a lowered overall discharge ‘cap’ for the region is achieved and lower nutrient levels are achieved at key points in the two rivers.
Of course, the devil will be in the details. Will the overall ‘cap’ and the related sitespecific nutrient standards be sufficiently low to restore the ecosystem (and what of they are not, as some conservationists argue)? Is the timetable too elongated? What land use practices will be required or regulated, if any, in order to ensure that the necessary reduction of pollution is achieved?
The pollution problems of the Tarahua/Mohaka have stemmed from four (now three) dairying operations. Some question, given porous soil types in that region, whether any dairying should be allowed, or whether, at a minimum, the farming intensification should be directly controlled (e.g. limits on animals per hectare, on amount of fertilizer applied per hectare, on diffuse discharges).
After considering views from the informal consultation, HBRC staff will formulate a formal plan change for adoption. This proposal will proceed through the official public notification and plan change process, with
notification expected by December 2011.
The lower Ngaruroro River skirts the west and north sides of the Heretaunga Plains before emptying into Hawke’s Bay. It serves as a major source of replenishment for the Heretaunga aquifer in the vicinity of Roy’s Hill, which in turn supplies irrigation and drinking water for a significant portion of the Hastings district.
The problems of the Ngaruroro include ensuring reliable supply both for irrigation takes and for maintaining flow levels that will sustain the river ecology. Some also argue that increased pollutants in the river find their way into the Heretaunga aquifer.
Land uses are mixed in the areas adjoining the upper Ngaruroro – dairying, sheep and cattle, and cropping.
The HBRC has concluded that water takes from the Ngaruroro are overallocated. The current level of abstraction is damaging to the river ecosystem at existing minimum low flow standards.
HBRC sets standards and measures minimum flows at levels ‘available science’ indicates are needed to ensure the health of each river’s ecology. For the Ngaruroro, the minimum flow at Fernhill is now set at 2,400 litres/second. However, more up-to-date science as indicated the environmentally-safe flow should be raised to at least 3,400 litres/second.
Consequently, HBRC has announced a policy of clawing back the water as existing consents expire and must be renewed. Naturally, this proposal has generated vociferous opposition from irrigators, who have indicated they will appeal this policy.
To deal with the Ngaruroro’s supply deficit for the long term, the Regional Council is exploring the feasibility of building two dams upriver on two streams feeding into the river, and creating storage capacity for 32 million cubic metres of water. The objective would be to create a more secure and increased water supply for both existing and additional irrigation, as well as ensure the higher minimum flows required to protect the river ecosystem.
The study process and rationale for this proposal are the same in concept – and raise the same issues – as the water storage scheme proposed in Central Hawke’s Bay for the Ruataniwha Plains, but lags that study by 6-12 months. Since the issues are more developed for the CHB scheme, we will look at those in our discussion of the Tukituki.
As noted earlier, the state of the Tukituki River has been especially controversial, probably given its visibility to the urban centres of Hawke’s Bay and the presence of a high profile point of sewage discharge into the river – CHB’s oxidation ponds at Waipawa and Waipukurau.
CHB’s existing consent to discharge effluent into the Tukituki requires that tougher standards for nutrient content in the river water must be met by late 2014.
The Regional Council has boasted of a plan it devised about two years ago that would put approximately 49% of CHB’s effluent onto HBRC-bought afforestation land and accelerate the clean-up process. However, CHB has delayed and delayed submitting an actual application to do so. A recent CHB Council memo suggests the application will be submitted before the year is out.
When ultimately submitted, the plan will face hurdles in the consent process. CHB acknowledges it will not be treating its wastewater to a higher quality. Instead, the plan assumes some discharge onto land, some storage, but also continued effluent discharge into the river when the flow rates are three times the median
flow (normally in winter), with HBRC claiming “science advice” says discharge at such times will have no adverse impact on the river ecology. That’s a claim some environmentalists will contest; they want no discharge into the river.
Moreover, it is not clear that the land purchased and planted by HBRC can in fact absorb the effluent quantities that could be pumped onto it, without a significant amount of seepage back into the river. Presumably CHB and/or HBRC will table their “science advice” during consideration of the resource consent. Until the details are furnished, the verdict is out on this scheme.
In any event, so-called ‘point discharge’ into the Tukituki is only one part of the river’s problem.
Tukituki water storage
Nutrients flow into the Tukituki from farms throughout the catchment (diffuse discharge), not only from the CHB sewage discharge. In addition, the Tukituki is also over-allocated in terms of water takes, which lowers river flows.
As a result of discharges and low flows, the downstream sections of the river suffer regular periods of noxious algae bloom and stench in the most highly desired recreational months.
As with the Ngaruroro, to maintain the higher river flows that newer science indicates are required, the HBRC would need to begin clawing back water takes from Tukituki consent holders. This is not a position the Councillors wish to be in.
The consents will expire in 2013, and so the Regional Council must prepare a strategy and Plan Change that provide a suitable regime for management of Tukituki water supply and quality.
Mãori water policy adviser Morry Black hopes to see “more judicious use of the seasonal irrigation restrictions that are built into the resource management plan but that are continually being ignored, and also more rigour given to the crop water requirements and soil moisture assessment criteria.” The Plan Change is expected to be notified in July 2012.
However, at the same time, the Regional Council has hatched another ostensibly win/win water storage scheme, ultimately affecting the entire Tukituki catchment, which extends to the ranges adjoining the Ruataniwha Plains.
After investigating some sixteen sites, the Regional Council proposes to build a single dam on the Makaroro River (see map on left). The dam would create storage capacity for 75 million cubic metres of water, providing more secure water for existing irrigation (6,000 hectares), enabling an additional 22,500 hectares to be irrigated, and in theory providing augmented water flow to maintain minimum river flows in dry months.
Arguably, a winning proposition for farmers and environmentalists. Plus, advancing the scheme wins the HB Regional Council a gold star with the current Government, which is avidly pushing irrigation.
However, the scheme must still address many issues during its present ‘feasibility study’ stage. For example…
Given the projected cost of $100-200 million for the scheme, exactly what kinds of intensified farming
will be undertaken that can generate the economic returns required to justify the investment? And is this too big or risky a financial and economic ‘bet’ for a single dam scheme?
Who will pay for the scheme?
What would be the environmental impacts of this intensified farming, and can they be mitigated? How would agreed-upon farming practices be monitored and enforced?
What amount of water must actually be stored to achieve the stated dual goals of the project – more irrigation and higher river flows? Will ‘new’ water simply be absorbed through the river beds into the Ruataniwha aquifer, already depleted by some 66 million cubic metres of water, as opposed to augmenting low flows in the lower reaches of the Tuki?
Given geotechnical challenges, can the dam be safely built at the location identified?
What are the environmental impacts of the dam on the catchment above it and on fish and eel migration and spawning? Does the scheme adversely affect Mãori values and, if so, can these concerns be satisfactorily addressed? Says Morry Black: “I haven’t heard of a co-management option for the dam scenario yet. Maybe if Mãori invest in the dam they can sort of buy part of their river back that they never sold in the first place. Rivers have never intentionally been sold by Mãori.”
Could better management of existing water supply (including on-farm storage), combined with better on-farm nutrient management, satisfy the water security and environmental goals … and at less cost?
Of course, within each of these broad questions lie many subsidiary ones … and again, the devil will be in the details. The Regional Council has already invested $2 million in its feasibility study, recently committing about $800,000 to a series of reports that will explore environmental issues.
Senior HBRC staff say the official go/no decision for the project is expected around June 2012. That said, the scheme appears to be a fait accompli. As presented by the Regional Council to public meetings and in the media, the scheme will solve most of the Bay’s problems from economic stagnation to global warming-induced drought to downstream ecological stress. All these claims always hedged, of course, with … “If the feasibility study confirms the case.”
As the last remaining site option, HBRC desperately needs the proposed Makaroro River location to work!
As Regional Council chief executive Andrew Newman said recently to Hawke’s Bay Today: “We are working on the assumption that we will be able to make it work.” Indeed, the Regional Council is already planning a ‘Waterco’ as a unit in its newly-approved investment company to manage the scheme, and has already lodged an application with the Government’s Irrigation Acceleration Fund for scheme funding.
Perhaps these steps should simply be considered prudent advance planning, but they do not give comfort to environmentalists and others who believe the scheme has yet to satisfy key questions. Comments Pete McIntosh: “Currently the Tukituki is not a healthy river and potentially irrigating another 22,500 hectares on top of the 6,000 currently irrigated could cause major ecological damage to these nationally significant rivers. We could end up in a situation with worse water quality than we currently have.”
Regional Water Strategy
HBRC hopes to reconcile many of its freshwater issues in a Hawke’s Bay Water Strategy, now being formulated behind closed doors by a ‘reference group’ of stakeholder organisations.
The strategy paper has been drafted and shared with the reference group, and should emerge from behind the curtain in September, hopefully for broader public consultation. Once adopted by the Regional Council, the strategy will offer guidance, but have no legal standing. Its prescriptions must be codified in a revised Regional Resource Management Plan, a process that will carry into 2013. BayBuzz awaits the grand unveiling … you can expect our analysis in a future edition.
Clearly, numerous balls are in the air simultaneously with respect to Hawke’s Bay’s freshwater management strategy. A range of decision timelines are involved, easily stretching into the next year and beyond. All stakeholders – non-resourced environmentalists and Mãori especially – will be severely burdened to participate
meaningfully in all this decision-making, which will determine the region’s water future for decades.
Mãori adviser Morry Black follows water issues perhaps more closely than anyone in the Bay. BayBuzz asked him to react to just a few of the issues raised in a draft version of this article. He replied with five single-spaced pages of concerns and alarms, confirming those expressed in this article … and more.
But asked how well-prepared and resourced Mãori were to advocate their concerns, he replied: “In Hawke’s Bay there are not many Mãori that have a full understanding of planning and water policy stuff. Many know what they would like to see happen, but it’s being able to express that vision through a suitable policy framework amenable to all, or maybe to most Mãori. Mãori are catchment-affiliated as well, so that would be one way to handle it.”
“Ngati Kahungunu is running a series of Wai (water) wananga to garner the views of our people so that we can clearly identify and express the key essentials that can then be included in the higher level regional policy statement. Then the specific hapu affiliated to each river will need to paddle their waka through the
statutory landscape. The difficulty lies in getting the mandate, the consensus, the resources in terms of skill and capacity, the political will and the resources to take it to the limit.”
As for BayBuzz, we’ll continue to track and report progress (or not) on a catchment-by-catchment basis. Whether regarding the overall strategy or specific catchment plans, BayBuzz, will inquire into the toughness of any standards set, the sufficiency of carrots and sticks proposed to influence behaviour, and the timeframes for meaningful action.