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Water focus . . . Manuherekia River (Maori spelling) is the focus of one of this week's Protecting Our Water columnists. PHOTO: GARY KELLIHER

In a two-part Protecting our Water series, Galloway resident Nick Loughnan reflects on issues surrounding the Otago Regional Council’s plan change 6A, and council chief executive Sarah Gardner talks about work in the Manuherekia (Maori spelling) catchment.

Otago Regional Council chief executive SARAH GARDNER

As part of our work on fresh water, the Otago Regional Council (ORC) wants to find out how people use the Manuherekia River, what they love or value about it and how they want it to be managed in the future. Feedback from the community will help us develop a Manuherekia rohe plan framework as part of our review of the water plan.

As well as public consultation online and in meetings, we’ve formed a Manuherekia reference group, with representatives from Kai Tahu, the Department of Conservation, Forest and Bird, the Central Otago District Council, Fish and Game, the Central Otago Environmental Society and irrigators.

The reference group meets monthly to facilitate discussion about community and stakeholder interests and aspirations for the Manuherekia, and to assist the ORC with the development of community objectives for the catchment. The group aims to produce an intergenerational vision for managing water in the future, and will be asking the wider community for their input.

The reference group has an independent chairman, Alec Neill, whose role is to facilitate discussion. At the last meeting in Alexandra, Mr Neill commented that each member of the group brought an understanding of the Manuherekia catchment to the table, including environmental, social, economic and cultural perspectives, from the past, the present and for the future.

We recognise that this conversation is not starting from scratch – considerable work was done with the community around values-gathering and discussion in 2017. The community itself has also spent considerable time articulating its values through the Manuherekia river strategy process, chaired by Allan Kane.

A key role of the reference group is to identify a range of possible solutions for improving the environmental and economic state of the Manuherekia, including – if necessary – a view on the rate and scale of investment required to progress positive change. Technical information on hydrology, ecology, water quality, farm systems, climate change and future land use is provided by a separate technical advisory group.

The reference group will ensure that the concept of te mana o te wai – putting the needs of the river first – is considered in the development of the Manuherekia rohe plan. This concept recognises fresh water as a natural resource whose health is integral to the social, cultural, economic and environmental wellbeing of communities, and it is required under the Resource Management Act. Te mana o te wai is also an integral part of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2014.

Tell us what you value about the Manuherekia online, at https://yoursay.orc.govt.nz/manuherekia

  • Ms Gardner has used the Maori spelling of Manuherekia for this article.

Pain and relief over new compliance

Galloway resident NICK LOUGHNAN

Perhaps the unintended turning point for awareness around New Zealand’s water quality problems was John Key’s international claim on BBC television in 2011 that “we are 100% pure – in other words, our air quality is very high, our water quality is very high”.

Key’s statement was roundly ridiculed as the science around the monitoring of our freshwater quality was showing a starkly different reality – we were increasingly polluting our waterways from both rural and urban activities.

Some rapid action was needed to arrest these trends and regional councils throughout the country responded. The Otago Regional Council’s (ORC) plan 6A was hatched in 2014, and focused on reducing contaminants and leachates from entering our waterways. This was planned to take effect on April 1, 2020.

However, in August [this year] the compliance deadline was pushed back to 2023, and just last week extended out to 2026 for important rural rulings.

On the face of it, this delay will be both hugely disappointing to some, and yet a great relief to others, depending on their position with the obvious problems around water quality.

The situation is complex, and a brief outline might help explain why.

Freshwater pollution from human activity is delivered from two broad sources.

There is the obvious and often visible discharge of contaminants directly into waterways from a pipe or drain, and [that] is called “point discharge”, as it is from an identifiable location point.

Unless this is consented by the ORC, it is not permitted.

The recent application by the Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) to discharge wastewater and sewage directly into waterways from multiple points for 35 years is such an example. It is presently both unacceptable and illegal. The QLDC wants to change those rules.

Our waterways can also be polluted through “non-point” discharges. These typically occur from our farms and happen when nutrient or bacterial contaminants and sediments enter waterways through runoff or seepage over wider areas, often after rainfall, and are difficult to track, trace and measure.

quality monitoring sites do indicate when those contaminants are present. How do we prevent this pollution while still maintaining farming productivity?

Excluding livestock from waterways by fencing is a good start. So too is riparian planting, where strips of land beside creeks, rivers and streams are covered with vegetation which absorbs nutrients before they reach waterways. These are the visible buffers, and depending on soil type, climate and slope contours, can be effective.

However, many livestock, horticulture and cropping farms are struggling to achieve “nutrient budget” limits prescribed by the regional council rulings as a serious attempt to ensure that fertiliser inputs and, more specifically nitrates, remain on the farm.

The only widely adopted standard for compiling nutrient budgets is a computer programme called “Overseer”, a model originally designed 30 years ago by New Zealand’s two big fertiliser companies to help farmers reduce wasteful applications of their products.

It has been revised many times since, but critics insist that it can be wildly inaccurate, is scientifically unproven, and mathematically flawed. The estimates of nitrate leaching that it provides to farmers can be anywhere from 40% below, to 60% above the actual leaching rates.

This is a serious problem for the ORC when stipulating Overseer’s use for farm nutrient budgeting.

In the same way that inaccurate speed cameras result in speeding fines being overturned, our council would be setting itself up for legal challenges to every regulatory ruling on farm non-compliance. For farmers, it is like trying to keep to the speed limit without having a reliable speedometer inside the car.

Will we be any further ahead in another six years? Certainly by phasing out the widespread use of water-soluble nitrogen fertilisers, and particularly urea, we would start to see the desired outcomes.