The incoming National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management

In 2014, a National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management was introduced. It was the first serious attempt to use the N.P.S. as an instrument to prescribe freshwater policy in New Zealand. The N.P.S.-F.M. which was amended in 2017 will be superseded by a new one this week. But how keen are politicians on improving our freshwater resource?

On the centre-right, National, whose voter base is dominated by farmers and business owners is not keen and National leader Judith Collins initially said that the reforms would be “gone by lunch time”. Although Ms Collins has since back tracked somewhat, the overall support in the party for improvement of the resource is low and generally viewed as unnecessary red tape.

On the centre-left, the Labour Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is supporting the new N.P.S.-F.M. which seeks to broadly overhaul the checks and balances on use of the resource by farmers. The broad aims are to reduce the presence of livestock in freshwater bodies including lowland streams and smaller rivers, to require farms to have management plans and data loggers recording their water takes from groundwater and surface water sources.

New Zealand has a long and deep association with its freshwater resource. We use it for electricity generation; a multitude of water sports; farming; industrial and domestic uses. It supports an array of fisheries, some of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Maori iwi have ancestral linkages to the freshwater, its use for transportation, as a source of kai, and as ancestors the strength of the mauri (life force) is an indicator of its health. In the central North Island, Tainui whose ancestral lands cover much of Waikato are strongly linked to the river of the same name, in the same way that Ngati Tuwharetoa are linked to the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park and Ngai Tahu to Aoraki/Mount Cook.

Causes of the decline in fresh water quality can be traced to excessive nutrients going into freshwater, mainly from dairy farms. If waterways are not appropriately fenced off cows will urinate/defecate in the water. The break down of this introduces high levels of nitrogen which is bad for aquatic life in the streams, which in turn impact on the fish. In urban areas a failure to adequately treat runoff from roofs, road surfaces and industrial sites means a range of heavy metals find their way into water bodies such as the Avon or Heathcote Rivers in Christchurch.

The 2020 N.P.S.-F.M. takes effect on 03 September 2020.


Water shortages affecting parts of New Zealand

Across New Zealand, and in particular the South Island, as the summer bites, many rivers are struggling to supply enough water to meet demand. A near complete lack of rain in many parts across February and below average rainfall in January has left West Coast, Canterbury, Nelson, Tasman among others facing increasing restrictions as rivers fall below their minimum flows – the point at which those with consents to take must cease.

In Nelson, the Waimea River has virtually stopped flowing and a bund has been built across its riverbed in the lower reaches to stop salt water intrusion by make freshwater pressure build up. With high demand still being placed on it to provide water for fighting the fires that broke out over a week ago. And despite a tropical cyclone tracking towards New Zealand possibly bringing rain, only a prolonged period of wet weather will be sufficient to recharge what are now depleted aquifers.

Similarly the famously wet West Coast is drying out as well. Whilst occasional heavy rain warnings are being issued, for a province that has rain recorders known to receive in one instance over 500mm on rare occasions, the amount that has fallen is well below normal. The Whataroa River is normally about 1.00 metre deep where it passes the flow gauge. As of 18 February it’s depth was 0.45 metres; at the same time the Grey River at Dobson which can get to as low as 0.20 is about 0.04 metres, and thereby probably unreliable.

The river catchments in Canterbury that have their headwaters in the Southern Alps are also heavily affected. Many are now on minimum flow restrictions, meaning because the flow in the river at a particular point is below a minimum level set, irrigation and other water takes must cease.

One example is the Waimakariri River, which has a minimum flow of 37m³/s-¹, but which is (at the time of writing this article)currently running at 31m³/s-¹ at the Old Highway Bridge and 45m³/s-¹ at Otarama, upstream of Waimakariri Gorge. Because the Old Highway Bridge is in a tidal zone recording station it is not subject to water take restrictions as the water is not fresh.

Upstream though, at sites on tributaries of the river, the water takes tied to those sites are subject to restrictions. The restrictions depend on how close the flow at that site is to the trigger level, with some being on partial restriction and others being on full restriction. The Waimakariri is not the only river with partial or full restrictions placed on water takes from it. More information is available at the Environment Canterbury website irrigation page.

In a rapidly changing environment, where water supplies are fully allocated in many catchments, issues with supply are only going to get worse during future summers. Some of the flow sites monitored by Environment Canterbury are currently recording levels below the trigger level at which consents are triggered. They therefore have restrictions imposed, and more will join them if there is not significant rainfall in the near future.

Government to end irrigation funding

Last week it was announced that the public funding of irrigation projects is going to be wound down. The move, which has elicited complaints of a “kick in the guts” from some farmers, and National, has also drawn widespread praise from pro-environment groups and Greenpeace.

I support this move entirely. I do not believe that it is in New Zealand’s interests to have public funding redirected towards irrigation.

New Zealand is at peak dairying. The industry is as big as it is going to get. The environmental cost will be like mining into an unstable slope – one wants the gold to show investors, but are completely oblivious to the danger of dairy herds. One animal may produce as much as 10x the output of a human being in excrement. Vast tracks of the Mackenzie Basin have been or are being converted to dairying. The cost to ratepayers to maintain water quality standards is increasing and tourists are becoming aware of the problems that dairy farming is causing.

Do not get me wrong. Irrigation has its place in New Zealand. However the extent to which it appears to influence economic policy is not proper and nor is it practical. Many rivers are completely allocated in terms of available surface and ground water. No matter how one reallocates the water it will not change the fact that it is 100% allocated and that reallocation is simply re slicing the pie.

Nor will it change the fact that the high intensity usage of water for dairy farming has had a substantial impact on the environment.The effects of this range from a widespread decline in water quality to potential salinisation of aquifers in coastal areas.  In the aquatic environment of fresh water courses such as lakes, rivers and streams, water quality has degraded significantly and this is shown in the reduction of the number of water bodies where one can physically the water. Cyanobacteria forms more readily in water courses whose low flows in summer have been exacerbated by increased water use – it presents as a green-blue algae and is deadly to dogs if consumed.

I also have concerns about the welfare of animals. Not normally something I comment on, but wish to point out with relation to South Island high country. In a harsh sub alpine environment with intense winter cold with large open spaces, grazing stock would find it a challenge staying warm, whilst in summer there would be little shelter from the sun and temperatures which can reach 40°C. Keeping them adequately protected protected when shelter belts that double as wind breaks against northwesterlies have been removed to enable K-line irrigators to work, is a significant concern.

This move, whilst welcome is just the first step, as a comprehensive programme will be needed across New Zealand to undo the potential damage and keep the tourists coming.


The Government’s looming water fight

There is an issue simmering in the background of New Zealand politics that threatens to split the Government. For all the scenes of unity and co-operation coming out of the Beehive, a combination of an ideologically divisive issue, indigenous claims to ownership and fears of a gravy train is threatening to erupt into a major three way water fight.

There are several major issues with the way the use of fresh water is governed in New Zealand, not least:

  1. Iwi have significant claims vis-a-vis the Treaty of Waitangi to how water is used, and the aesthetic properties of fresh water bodies such as the mauri or life force
  2. Everyone by biological default needs clean drinking water – which makes this a medical issue, as well as a planning issue for councils
  3. The rate of use in New Zealand is not sustainable – the known fresh water resource in many catchments is 100% allocated
  4. On numerous waterways, the minimum flow set by regional councils is too low and subsequently the creeks, streams and rivers in question are not able to perform its natural functions as well as they should

The politics of water became complicated long before the Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took office. Having a minority Government with two significantly smaller minority parties propping up a larger party and all of them having significantly different views of water as a resource, has only served to complicate the picture further.

So, why do I say a fresh water fight is looming? Simple. The Green Party is categorically opposed to further irrigation projects siphoning off more of New Zealand’s precious fresh water resource. New Zealand First’s drive for the rural vote might intersect this. But it will not be that which starts the water fight. It will be the Government attempt to address water rights with Maori and the potential – as New Zealand First believes – to start a gravy train of other claims.

I am of the belief no one person, company, party, country or other entity can claim ownership of water as a resource. Its common physical properties mean everyone needs water to survive. Everyone needs it for hygiene, drinking, cooking purposes at the very least and that the totally fundamental common nature of this resource means that by default if a claim can be made at all to ownership, that claim is made by all people. All people have a common responsibility to ensure the stewardship of water is sustainable.

I agree with New Zealand First that Maori should not have ownership rights per se. One reason is the potential for a gravy train of other claims to form in terms of natural resources. The slippery nature of the slope and where New Zealand might end up as a result of being on it, suggests to me that this is an issue that might be best avoided altogether.

And so, New Zealand First and Labour’s first big scrap is looming. Unavoidable, but perhaps too big to want to try to avoid. Before anything happens in Parliament, a lot of water is going to flow under the proverbial bridge.

Perceptions and reality of water loss two different things

Yesterday a report came out suggesting that New Zealand wastes 100 billion litres of water a year. Whilst  the amount seems massive to a single human being, after reading this article and noting the example in it, would you still believe 100 billion litres per year to be such a massive amount?

If we took the 100 billion litres of water lost each year, my guess is that quite a bit would go missing through poorly maintained or derelict pipes that are simply not fit for purpose any longer. Some would be lost because of poor counters, inaccurate records. If attempts to track water loss around individual homes are made a whole range of issues pop up ranging from leaks behind walls, poor pipes between the council monitored counter and the dwelling.

Sometimes natural events such as earthquakes, flooding and landslides destroy pipes. In the time it takes to notice the breakage, report it to the council and have someone come out to fix it, thousands of litres of water would have been lost. And we do not know if it accounts for water pumped out from around the pipes so that repairs could be effected?

But would councils have the money necessary to overhaul their water infrastructure? Would people be willing to have all of their roads ripped up to replace the obsolete piping underneath, never mind the disruption it would cause?

To put the figure into perspective. Right now, running higher than normal because of heavy rain, the Waimakariri River is running at 240m³ per second or about 240,000 litres per second. It can in a 1-in-100 year return period flood discharge 4,000m³ or about 4 million litres per second.

I believe based on other complaints about misuse of our fresh water resource, that the real problems lie with water quality, paying royalties for large scale fresh water takes. The problems also lie with the extent to which we have developed our fresh water resources already and that unless we prepared to scale back future applications for fresh water takes, the problem with public perceptions about fresh water may be also about how much we know as citizens about it as a resource.