Rural or urban, good water is fundamental

Otago regional councillor and chairwoman, Gretchen Robertson. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Otago regional councillor and chairwoman, Gretchen Robertson. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
The need to provide people with good quality water should not cause an argument, yet it does, Otago Regional Council chairwoman Gretchen Robertson writes.

This is a simple story with two very simple themes — people and water.

Good, honest people who all seek the same thing; something very basic, a fundamental of life — good quality water. So very simple, that it is seemingly almost pointless to write about, but the story inflames people.

How is it that polarisation, entrenchment, misunderstanding, righteousness and defensiveness are coming to light?

Good people are mad, hurt and sad.

You may think you know the rest of the story. It’s the one where who is good and who is evil depends heavily on which side of the city boundary fence you reside concerning urban versus rural.

But this is a story we all need to own and reshape with urgency, because the stakes are so fundamentally important.

Our water quality is not good enough and nobody is gaining from finger pointing or blame. We do not need to be told, and we are all aware change is needed.

Whether it is urban stormwater and wastewater or farm and forestry management, change is a given. We are good people who want good water: it is a fundamental of life.

In Otago, 66 of our 196 monitored freshwater sites have at least one parameter in the lower bands; or needing to significantly improve to meet acceptable standards.

When we think about change we tend to focus on rules. Otago’s new land and water regional plan will include rules, but it also includes community visions, the fundamental values we share.

Every single Otago participant identified good water as a priority. The plan creates regulatory pathways to these visions through rules and policies.

But a regulatory plan is a small part of what councils and communities do to make a difference. Change is 99% heart and 1% rules.

Sustained, positive improvement only happens when people understand the need for change, embrace it and want to act.

It is important we think very hard about what will truly drive change because the last thing we want is to lose heart.

While some stand still gazing at change on the horizon and point fingers, there are far more who are embracing change right now and have been for some time. Polarisation, anger and blame may seem the most visible impacts of impending change, but the fact is that 99% of people are acting right now.

Many of you will currently feel invisible, undervalued and alone. You are far from invisible.

You are the farmer spending all your spare time nurturing native seedlings for the pure joy that visiting school children will experience planting stream banks to enhance fish habitats.

You are the person who has drummed up courage to visit that neighbour needing encouragement to change for the sake of the families swimming downstream. Or that forestry worker carefully removing gorse from a cherished wetland.

Or the teacher inspiring city kids into gumboots to extract rubbish from a local stream.

As well as individual efforts, there is a phenomenal surge in community-led groups becoming established in Otago’s water and biodiversity spaces. At least 130 groups are now operating in Otago. There are undoubtedly further under-the-radar initiatives.

Among these are 28 large-scale Jobs for Nature projects and over the past 24 months the Otago Regional Council’s EcoFund has supported 57 community-led projects. Each project requires hours and hours of volunteer skills and labour. These projects create not only on-the-ground difference today, but are also a mind-shift of snowballing positive change.

Change and regulation can be tough to deal with. It can be expensive and needs to be well planned. The big change will not happen overnight, there’s no magic wand. We can’t avoid practical pathways and time. We can’t lose the heart from the 99% while striving for the 1%.

We all have stories. Taking time to listen to each other’s stories and encourage them is important. Use your spare moments, seek out anybody doing good for local water and environments today. A pat on the back will have a huge impact. Only when we recognise, encourage and inspire will our collective stories grow in strength. Only together will we tackle change as opportunity and achieve our shared vision of good water, both urban and rural.

My story in water starts as a Dunedin girl who liked chasing koura in Opoho Creek and visiting family farms in the school holidays. I loved water and sought a degree in aquatic ecology. I’ve worked as a water quality scientist and a co-ordinator of community-led catchment projects; including the first large-scale integrated catchment project in New Zealand in Otago’s Taieri catchment. I’ve been a community-elected Otago regional councillor since 2004. Every day I learn more about people and water. Everybody I meet has a story of their connection to our freshwater.

— Gretchen Robertson is a seven-term councillor and chairwoman of the Otago Regional Council.