Monday, October 14, 2019

Gerry Eckhoff: Submission on Freshwater

NZ is the only 1st world country that relies on our primary industries for this designation. In order to achieve the “omelette” for health, education, welfare, indeed all of the social needs of our country, there needs to be an industrial base that can provide for these essential needs. In NZ , that requires use of our natural capital – especially land and water. 

I note the Ministry for the Environment have called 16 public meetings and a similar number with iwi. As for the directly impacted - rural NZ – there are 5 meetings. Just 5. That sets the tone for the outcomes of this so-called consultation. 

After my reasonably extensive time engaged in the politics of the environment, I continue to be amazed at the paucity of real knowledge; but most importantly understanding ; of how to achieve the kind of results we all seek. The issue is not whether but how – how to we achieve the results that enable us all to be engaged in better outcomes as we are all of us - responsible. Given the massive variation to our geographic aspect, soil types even within a district, rainfall, length of winters, fertility - it is impossible to address the problems with a generic plan that can’t possibly allow for and understand of each and every farm, plantation, orchard, vineyard, and market garden in NZ’s diverse production.

It is widely accepted the RMA has not delivered environmental outcomes by using a top down - we know best attitude - of most if not all Regional Councils. If this approach had worked, the MfE would not be trying to reinvent this failed system. What is it that makes the Government and officials believe this further top down - we know best - will work? History tells us it will not work. There is however a solution.

There must be an independent river and or catchment authority comprising people with hands on, practical experience who buy into community requirements and who have widespread local community backing. This authority would then pass on to a Regional Council, their recommendations for implementation.

We are asked by councils about what it is we personally value about a water body – lake, river, stream. It is a wrong question. The real question is - what is the definable value to our wider society of this important asset of fresh water - from an aesthetic, recreational to economic value. A value is entirely subjective opinion depending on one’s personal perspective and economic status. We hear very little about the state of rivers from those who cannot afford to go trout fishing or camping in the back country but who simply want a good job so that they can pay the rent or mortgage .

Most of life is all about trade-offs: production vs conservation; child poverty vs new highways; sports stadiums vs a place to live for the homeless. The trade-offs and issues around water are no different. It is all about achieving a balance between need, use rights (industrial use) and recreational, aesthetic enjoyment, off set against the vast economic contribution water makes to the well-being of us all. But especially to those who rely on good economic use of water vs those who simply want the water for recreational opportunity during the summer.

I have recently submitted against the plan to allow the Queenstown Lakes Council to discharge into pristine lake and river waters for another 35 years. One assumes this is to allow a transition period for councils to comply – meantime? This really is unbelievable in this day and age. It begs the question of how many consents to discharge into water bodies have been issued by one council to another all over NZ. Are there really 32 consents for local authorities to discharge into the Manawatu River?

I felt compelled to make this submission after listening to Minister Parker on the Nine to Noon show on the 20th of September 2019. I heard the Minister say that there are some very good farmer examples of very good water quality management standards. He said all farmers need to reach that standard. Really, Minister? Do all professional people meet the high competence and ethical standards needed? Do all lawyers/doctors meet a similar standard of competence and ethical behaviour - indeed that question can be asked of politicians and their parties in light of recent scandals and indeed of people in all walks of life. Yes of course we should all contribute to better outcomes but let’s see our local authorities set the standard in the first instance.

Questions being asked at meetings of MfE officials are, where tile drains are used to remove surplus water from paddocks, what technology exists to stop nutrients from flowing into a stream at the point of discharge from the drain? Southlands productivity is whole reliant on tile drains. What is the alternative ? What is the trade off? MfE have no answers.

No two farms are the same. The profitability of even well-established farmers is too often so poor that they cannot meet what is seen as discretional spending. For so many, discretional spending does not exist. It is just nonsense to say that all must meet a high standard of environmental care when the physical characteristics of a given property simply cannot meet the required standards demanded. Low lying land at or near sea level makes low level nutrient discharge an impossibility especially during winter when soil microbes are not active.

And what of fencing where flooding is prevalent. Who is to replace such fences when they can end up well down stream or so entangled with debris that they are simply not capable of being restored? Who pays for the new fence? There is never any help/labour from the environmental lobby who demand increasingly high standards of water quality. I recall fencing off an area of river frontage in the 1970s – well before most had even thought of excluding stock from streams but then I’m not an ‘environmentalist’ so that doesn’t count.

Is the Minister aware that his fully fenced and planted marginal strips along rivers are a haven for rabbits and gorse and broom? Who pays for that control and responsibility? Again - where does the money come from? In my experience - as a farmer - a good financial year occurs once every 8-10 years. I do agree that some areas/rivers need a greater level of environmental protection – again the question is how is that to be achieved? I would advocate for Government to purchase these properties, especially those around pristine lakes. I also believe that some or indeed many light soils cannot sustain a high stocking rate which is self-evident. How do we achieve a re-set in these areas?

Rural NZ is the whipping boy for the failure of us all to achieve the necessary standards but especially urban discharge. How many are prepared to drink directly form the Avon River in Chistchurch?

Is this Ministry even aware of the impact willow trees have on summer flows in Central Otago and beyond? A mature willow tree can uplift 350-400 litres of water per day per tree. Consider then the impact on a low flow streams where willows line both sides of the river for many, many kilometres – perhaps 20 kms on the Manuherikia River. Neither MfE nor the Otago Regional Council even comment on this massive water loss. In most areas of this river alone, the willows create an impenetrable wall. I cannot even begin to estimate how many willows – beyond 100,000 - remove water daily in this catchment.

Is this an issue and if so, who is responsible for control of this wilding tree?

Answer: Government agencies; therefore nobody.

And please Minister Parker, stop the nonsense of criticism of artificial fertilizer. Such applications are mechanized and are therefore easily controlled. That is not the problem. The urine discharge patch from dairy cows is.

It is a matter of profound regret that the Government has embarked on a command and control aspect of our natural capital. Constant changes to the rules will not allow for the vital and ongoing investment so necessary for environmental successes. The banking system will likely slow capital flows needed for investment in NZ’s major industrial earner especially when the decisions needed for success demand a deep understanding of the land and water. The message the Government has sent is - we can and will destroy value for our political purposes with changes to land management rules.

It is not unreasonable to now compare those countries with high environmental outcomes. The authoritative 3rd world regimes are the worst of all as poor environmental outcomes are the default position for those Governments. The best outcomes are those where local people make decisions and take responsibility for those decisions in 1st world countries.

The Ministerial appointments carry no weight when assessing credible understanding of all the many factors needed to bring forward recommendations that are essential for buy-in. People who can resolve complex inter-related environmental problems are never asked to do so.

No analysis has been published as to the impact of the MfE proposals on rural/small town NZ? Why is that? I recently attended an Otago Regional Council meeting on the future flows on the Manuherikia River (St Bathans to Alexandra) which was a waste of everyone’s time until one comment at the end that caught everyone’s attention

A woman in the audience said that a man she knew was very worried about whether he would be re -allocated enough water to produce enough income to survive on his small block. He was struggling with the uncertainty of it all - with constant changes being made. He recently committed suicide.

Public feedback on the Government’s proposed regulation of freshwater closes on Thursday 17 October – full details including the schedule of public meetings can be seen HERE.

Gerry Eckhoff is a former councillor on the Otago Regional Council and MP.

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