No lower environmental standards by compulsion

Changing attitudes to water regulation. PHOTO: MARJORIE COOK
Changing attitudes to water regulation. PHOTO: MARJORIE COOK
Central government should not trump local government when it comes to managing local environments, Phil Murray writes.

I was immediately relieved and grateful to read that the Otago Regional Council had voted to continue with the current proposed regional land and water plan (RLWP).

A great deal of work has gone into the plan to date by council staff and the community, and it broadly expresses the direction the community wishes to head with regard the management of our physical environment.

To delay the process simply because we have had a change of government is to say emphatically that central government trumps local community, which ironically is what National is claiming they’re saving us from.

My next thought was, how bad have things got that I am grateful to be continuing with a plan that sets the minimum flow for the Manuherikia at Alexandra at 900 litres a second, less than a quarter of its natural mean annual low flow, until 2030 when it rises to a paltry 1200 litres a second for a decade before its returns a flow that stands any chance of restoring healthy ecological function in light of the nature and intensity of farming within the catchment.

Well, I rationalised to myself, change happens slowly and at least we’re making a start. Here we are dealing with how we perceive the natural environment and our relationship with it. Those things don’t change quickly.

The prevailing attitude we have towards our environment came from our Christian colonial past, a view of the environment that it is something to be exploited for immediate personal benefit.

Tangata whenua have a different perspective, but the European perspective dominates.

The rights to extract water from the Manuherikia for irrigation that the council had been granting hell for leather in the absence of any comprehensive science on the effects of such extraction on the ecological health of the river had, until recently, been in the form of rights attached to mining rights.

What was unwittingly transferred with the mining right permits was an attitude in the council to the use of natural resources that exists with mining. That is that water is simply a resource and not an essential component of a wider ecosystem which, when functioning properly, we all benefit from, in clean drinking water, rivers to swim, fish and kayak in.

What I was grateful for in the current RLWP was that it broadly acknowledges that we need to operate our economy within the biophysical limits that exist and that we can’t treat our rivers and our soils as resources to be mined. There is no sustainable future in that perspective.

Despite being disappointed that the minimum flow noted for the Manuherikia is to be set at less than a quarter of the natural mean annual low flow when the science is telling us it needs to be much higher to avoid further decline in the ecological health of the river, at least the science has been gathered in which to make decisions on the river in the future.

That is a major improvement in the situation than previously.

Why did this change happen? The answer is clearly because the current NES-FM (Te Mana O te Wai) establishes a hierarchy which puts ecological health of rivers and streams at the top before rights can be granted for other uses such as irrigation. Without such compulsion the focus on the ecological health of our water bodies would not have occurred.

This piece of legislation, the NES-FM, marked a change in the mindset towards the relationship between our economy and our natural resources. Under this hierarchy we would no longer have industries that exist at the cost of the ecological processes that support us. This marks a change from an extractive economy to a sustainable economy. That is a profound change that was well overdue.

And yet the current government proposes scrapping the current NES-FM and replacing it with one that gives councils more power to find a balance between extraction for economic development and environmental quality, unless of course the community doesn’t agree to lower environmental standards in which case we may replace your representatives with commissioners.

Lower environmental standards by compulsion would break new ground in the realms of environmental governance.

Balancing ecological health with economic gain is a dangerous business. You either have healthy ecological function or you don’t, and the road back usually costs more than the profit you made from degrading the system.

In my view the threatened government action would be unwise and short sited. Otago’s future is in understanding its environment and knowing the limits within which healthy ecological function can exist. That is the future for any industry that expects its goods to be received by modern economies that can afford to pay the prices we need.

We have spent the last decade building such knowledge on our rivers and waterways. For the current government to pressure our locally elected council into delaying its RLWP so that it can meet lower environmental standards is to condemn our farming industry to being low-cost food producers, not producers of quality food that it is worth paying premium prices for.

Furthermore, it condemns Otago to being a region not known for its quality living environment but for its degraded water bodies and environmental problems.

I urge the ministers to allow our council to pursue the role we elected it to do, that is to manage and protect our environment for generations to come.

Our economy’s future will be based on a well-managed and quality environment, not on continuing with industries and practices that degrade it.

Our futures depend on the ecological health and wellbeing of our Otago environment. That is what will sustain us.

— Phil Murray is the chairman of the Central Otago Environmental Society.