‘Grim’ outlook for region’s freshwater ecosystems spurs call for change


Human activity is threatening freshwater ecosystems — and the outlook is “grim” for Otago.

This week the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ released ‘‘Our Freshwater 2020’’, a report that shows the amount of water taken from New Zealand rivers, lakes and groundwater is not known —“and neither is the amount of water available”.

Forest and Bird Otago Southland regional manager Sue Maturin said the report highlighted trouble for the South.
‘‘The report is fairly grim reading for Otago as our waterways are often singled out to expose the extent of over-allocation largely for irrigation, being one of the worst regions for unhealthy freshwater ecosystems, and worsening trends in nitrogen pollution,” she said.
‘‘We really have to change the way we use water in both urban and rural areas. It can’t be business as usual as our freshwater ecosystems are at breaking point. The need to reboot our economy is an opportunity to also shift our primary industry to move away from ever-increasing dairy cows and irrigation to more restorative agriculture producing high-value and high-quality products and upgrade sewage and stormwater management.’’

However, the report notes the lack of data on the availability and use of water makes it difficult to know if freshwater resources are over-exploited “and how long they will continue to meet our needs”.
“Given our economic reliance on agriculture, especially dairy farming, this isa significant management issue,” it says.
It calls for a catchment-by-catchment approach to managing freshwater but shows in general water is polluted in urban, farming and forestry areas — and changing water flows can have a range of impacts on freshwater ecosystems.

Otago Regional Council strategy, policy and science general manager Gwyneth Elsum said the report showed the complexity inherent in freshwater management in New Zealand, “and on the regional variations that exist”.
“A case study in the report on the Manuherekia River draws attention to the compounding hydrological challenges in that catchment; the competing economic, ecological and cultural freshwater values; and to the work [the council] is doing to set minimum flows with the community.”

Federated Farmers released a statement in response tothe report, saying it provided “powerful backing for the case for greater investment in water storage”.
Soils at one quarter of monitoring sites were drier than in 1972; rainfall was below average in nine of the years between 2000-14; and river flows were predicted to decrease in the north and east of the country.
‘‘When the Government recently called for ideas for stimulating employment as we move down the Covid-19 alert levels, we raised the economic and environmental benefits that would come from a ‘Taskforce Farm’ approach —meaning boosting investment in pest and wilding pine control, and in riparian planting and catchment action groups,” Federated Farmers environment spokesman Chris Allen said.

Environment Minister David Parker said the Government had work under way to address the issues presented in the report, but noted other priorities at present.
“The Government’s primary focus at the moment is responding to Covid-19. As we move through our response to Covid-19, we will revise and reconsider the wider priorities and the timing of work streams,” he said.
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