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Morgan Foundation trio wade into the water quality debate again; want scientists 'separated' from the policy issues

Morgan Foundation trio wade into the water quality debate again; want scientists 'separated' from the policy issues

By Gareth Morgan, Geoff Simmons and Susan Guthrie*

The Government’s recently announced approach to fresh water is indeed a step forward and Ministers are to be congratulated for that.

But don’t be fooled by Environment Minister Amy Adam’s effusion – we still don’t have a water management policy that will stop New Zealand’s rivers, lakes and estuaries deteriorating further, and we certainly don’t have a policy that will deliver swimmable water. 

The policy announced last Thursday provides a set of rules for what regional councils must do when it comes to fresh water (regional councils have the job of approving activity that affects freshwater).

The rules define upper limits for water pollutants like nitrates and bacteria like E Coli. Regional councils can’t allow these limits, known as ‘environmental bottom lines’, to be exceeded. 

There are two big problems with what the Minister has delivered. 

First, her ‘environmental bottom lines’ are so inadequate as to be barely relevant.

It’s like announcing that age 6 is too young for a person to consume alcohol. She’s right, but it’s hardly relevant to whether the drinking age should be 18 or 20. 

Amy Adams is proud that at least there is now a limit to the tolerance for pollution in our waterways. So what?

The limit merely states the extreme we need to avoid.

Take E. coli, for example. The upper limit is set so that you won’t get sick boating and wading but you may well if you’re swimming or gathering food – there is a high risk of infection if you try those.

There are similar issues with other water quality indicators. The upper limits for each indicator are set to prevent some toxic catastrophe, but at levels well below that the water will still be in poor health and not great at sustaining natural ecosystems, particularly when two or more indicators interact in unpredictable ways.

There are also indicators that are relevant to water quality but are not included in the rules (there is a plan to add them, we have to hope it will happen quickly).

Second, buried within the rules are three words that scuttle any guarantee that the policy will prevent any worsening in water quality from here.

Government says regional councils must “maintain or improve the overall quality of fresh water…” – so far so good. We know that means no worsening from here in any stretch of water. But it then goes on to qualify this by saying “ …within a region”. That opens up a can of worms – it implies one waterway in a region can be sacrificed (not maintained or improved) as long as there is another one that is improved. 

This is a cop out, political spin to deliberately fudge the commitment to environmental bottom lines.

Further it’s not needed – as the Minister claims – in order to deliver a workable, community based water management regime.

Actually it would be far easier for regional councils and their communities to work out water management strategies if they had greater clarity – i.e. if they knew that no waterway could be sacrificed, that all waterways must be maintained or improved.

Now they have the added burden of grappling with the possibility that one river can be traded off against another.

Not only does the fudging undermine the commitment to environmental quality, but it thwarts the community management process itself.

How are you going to compare the damage done in one river with the improvement done in another and ensure no overall deterioration? Impossible.

The Minister made a big noise about the fact that “more than 60 scientists” were involved in setting the environmental bottom lines. However, scientists can’t tell us what goals to aim for, they can only ever tell us how to achieve our goals.

Both of the fudges in these rules are political choices, not questions of science.

The Minister chose to keep the toxic three word qualification – “within a region” – which undermines the commitment to the environment and complicates community processes. The Minister decided that safe boating and wading is all we want, rather than swimmable rivers.

All the scientists have done is tell her what such an un-inspirational target implies in terms of E Coli levels.

The reason behind the fudges is clear – they take the edge off the stark reality that unless we’re willing to accept even more deterioration in our waterways, farming can only continue to intensify if practices are improved. 

New Zealanders need to separate the science from the policy, to separate meaningful bottom lines from political spin.

That’s the only way the policy can be truly understood and assessed.

To that end, earlier in the year we convened a panel of scientists and, like the Minister’s super 60, ours came from public and private sectors, and academia.

We have been exploring the panel members’ views on the rules and our aim is to report the results in coming weeks.

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The authors are economists at the Morgan Foundation. This opinion piece was first published on the blog garethsworld.com and is reprinted here with permission.

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10 Comments

Totally, utterly, disagree with their comments about community management. It is arrogant to assume that by giving power to communities to decide what they will choose to be the priorities/bottom lines, environmental quality will be undermined.  
 
Don't tell my community what we have to do, and I won't tell yours what to do.  My community is quite capable of deciding what its priorities are with its waterways, and is capable of working as a community to achieve those goals.
 
Water quality is a very complex subject - soil types play a huge part in how water/nutrients travels to aquafiers and surface water.  
 
 

The problem is that some of the elected members of these communities have vested interests in these decisions which is why they went to the trouble of getting elected in the first place. The Ruataniwha storage scheme is a good example: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/hawkes-bay-today/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503462&objectid=11291971

That vested interest was as a member of the Council making a decision that affected their business as a voted in rep on the Council.  They should have declared a vested interest and stepped aside but despite that, they were only two of a council of ?  
 
Everyone has a vested interest in water quality, that is why it is important that the community affected can make the priority on what safeguards they want for their waterways, not some bureaucrat in some far off glass tower.  

Personally, I am uncomfortable in Amy Adams involvement in Canterbury water as it affects her farm, particularly as the involved government appointments clearing away elected people. 

thats why border tests are the only equitable way to manage such actions.

This proposal does not mean that regional councils are required to offset improvement in one river with deterioration in another.   If regional councils and their communities want water management strategies to deliver swimmable rivers and to ensure that "all waterways must be maintained or improved", then they are free to develop and implement such strategies - and if, as you say, that would be "far easier" for them, then that is what they will do. 
 
What you actually mean is that it is "far easier" to govern when you are free to ignore the opinion of people who don't share your priorities.  Well, that's undoubtedly true.  I'm sure it is very easy to govern North Korea, where nobody is allowed to oppose or even question the decisions of the leadership, and probably the leadership there is convinced they're doing a great job for precisely that reason.  
 
What is the point of convening a panel of scientists when - as you've just explained -  the choices which need to be made are political, not scientific?  I have no doubt that any scientist will tell you that if money is no object, you can achieve any level of water cleanliness you want.  
 
I'm immensely respectful of the amount of his own money that Gareth has spent on environmental causes.  But that doesn't give him the right to decide how other people should spend theirs.  If that's what he wants, he needs to put himself up for election and persuade people to give him that mandate.

Perhaps a few pointers could be had from the (appointed, so it got the job done without the two-decade long urban/rural split which complteley paralysed the former Elected) Ecan...
 
The region is divided up into Zones, and each Zone has a committee, drawn from a diverse range of groups: from the site:

"Zone committee membership
Each zone committee will have between seven and 10 members made up as follows:

  • An Environment Canterbury appointee
  • A local territorial authority councillor
  • A Ngai Tahu Runanga appointee
  • Between four and six local members nominated from the community who come from a variety of backgrounds and interests.

The committees will be selected for balance of expertise and perspective across a range of stakeholder interests.

Regional Committee membership
The Regional Committee was established in mid 2010 and includes:

  • Two Environment Canterbury appointments
  • Three territorial authority appointments from each of north, mid and south Canterbury
  • A Christchurch City Council appointee
  • A Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu appointee
  • Three runanga appointments from each of north, mid and south Canterbury
  • The chairs (or other member) of each zone committee
  • Six members selected from a number of sectors (fisheries; energy; environmental/biodiversity; primary production/agriculture; recreation; regional development including tourism.

 The zone committees are expected to work collaboratively to develop water management implementation programmes, taking into account programmes in other zones, as well as the work addressed by the Regional Committee."
 
In fact, the question of water quailty is inherently linked to the question of how to measure what, where, at what intervals, and with what precision.  Roger Dennis (Sensing City) and a host of others point to a 'trillion-sensor' future:  where Big Data is used to map nutrient gradients, warn of spikes, and allow land uses (farms, towns (which, in case folks weren't aware, tend to concentrate problems in a small physical area) to mitigate and control their externalities.
 
But first, to Measure.  No measures, no real management possibility.....
The GM authors don't appear to be aware of Big Ag Data (BAD) , not are they cognisant of the sterling work, under the radar, taking place in Canterbury.

measuring is expensive. who pays?  

consumers want it all for free.  business have to pass on costs.

There is no point measuring stuff you can't or won't pay to control.
And I'm talking real control, not just take random shots in the dark like anti-farming lobbies have been doing for decades.
 

Waymad,
In theory the Canterbury Water Management Strategy sounds like a great idea. What you have pasted above gives the impression that a representative range of people are involved in zone committees and that there is good balance between those people who prioritise environmental protection and those who would like to see further development. Having a good balance of views in this regard is vital in my mind. Without it you are bound to get decisions which favour one thing over the other, even if the evidence is contradictory, just through weight of numbers.
So in theory the CWMS sounds good but as with all things the devil is in how the strategy was implemented on the ground. Do you have any idea how this has been undertaken Waymad?
I have only had limited exposure to the implementation process with friend of mine being involved in one of the committees and through hearing bits and pieces about how other committees have gone. I think I have heard enough to get a pretty good picture of how implementation has been handled. Shonky to put it mildly and deliberately so in my mind because the outcome of the whole process was decided by the National Party before it even begun. And achieving this outcome was the main reason for the sacking the council.  The pre-ordained outcome is obvious, more growth, and lo and behold, the process is allowing just that, even in situations where it is evidence indicates that further development will have serious impacts on the environment.
So how have they done it? They have basically stacked the deck. Now lets take a look at the committee list provided above by Waymad to get an understanding of what sort of balance is being struck between those who value environmental protection and those who value economic development.

  1. An Environment Canterbury appointee (provides an important neutral point of view but will not go against the majority of the committee)

 

  1. A local territorial authority councillor (Predominately pro-development because in rural areas economic development is a greater priority than environmental protection for both the council and a councillors’ constituents. I have worked with a number of district councils who demonstrate this time and time again)
  2.  
  3. A Ngai Tahu Runanga appointee (Normally pro protection. However, Runanga have very limited experienced personnel and resources. They, in a lot of cases, do not reside in the zone and have to travel long distances to go to meetings. All of this affects the ability of runanga to be a strong voice for environmental protection)

 

  1. Between four and six local members nominated from the community who come from a variety of backgrounds and interests. (Being a constructive Zone Committee member takes significant amounts time and money. Only a fraction of this is compensated. As many zones are a long distance from where a lot people reside who have an interest in a zone significant time might also be required to travel to and from committee meetings. Because of these factors, individuals who have nothing to gain economically from committee decisions find it very difficult to justify being a committee member over their personal commitments. Adding to this is the fact that Environmental NGO’s, the only bodies who are currently willing to speak up against unsustainable development, are stretched and aren’t able play much of a part in this process. All of these factors have the effect of limiting the potential pool of interested parties to those who live in the zone and who have an economic interest in the committees outcome. So, not surprisingly, the majority of the people who apply to be in a committee are pro-development. ECan has not put anything in place to overcome these obvious issues to ensure a more even balance of views. They just choose from the list of candidates who apply. I myself think this is a conscious decision.

Actually there is no problem consuming alcohol at age 6.  they do it in France, and in Africa it's safer than drinking the water......  perhaps that's what we need to do is sent some Greens folk to Africa to tell them the waters too dirty to swim in...

Just because some NZers abuse the ability doesn't mean everyone needs to be treaty unreasonably.