The legitimate use of science in managing water

By Waiology 18/03/2013

By Ian MacKenzie

WaterGovernanceWaiology2013The Government has just released the discussion paper “Freshwater Reform 2013 and beyond“. It has three main recommendations: establish a national objectives framework, allow for collaborative community planning, and manage within quality and quantity limits using best industry practices.

All three of these need sound information, preferably undisputed, and based on sound interpretation of the underlying science.

Interestingly, we are not in a position yet to implement a national objectives framework as we need more information on the values and water body types (p29 of the report).

Similarly, for communities to develop their own water plans, they will need a huge amount of information. In Canterbury, where collaborative governance is being pioneered through “zone committees“, support staff are struggling to provide the information required to enable sound decision-making. This is especially evident in the areas of economic and social consequence, which highlights how little information our regional councils have had to go on. A little frightening really.

In terms of managing for quantity and quality, farmers have known for a while that all is not well with the information being used to make decisions. This is all too obvious when members of the same consultancy argue both sides of a dispute over water availability for allocation. Or when the regional authority sets allocation limits assuming that layered aquifer systems are linked, but then requires a consent applicant to conduct aquifer tests for the degree of linkage.

So where to?

The Government has gathered many of our top water scientists into the National Objectives Framework with undisputed parameters. Some subjective judgements will be required to set values for thresholds between bands of water quality, but given the clear intent of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, that does not have to be too contentious.

But providing information around managing to water quality and quantity limits has further to go.

The Government’s “Freshwater reform 2013 and beyond” discussion paper identifies a need to strengthen our science, research and information around water quality, and that industry, scientific institutions, councils and Government need to work together to develop good management practice (GMP) toolkits.

That is good stuff because too many people believe GMP is unable to meet community water quality aspirations. I find this counter intuitive for two reasons. Firstly, in most cases communities have not decided on their water quality aspirations in any detail. Some regional authorities have done this on their behalf but with limited consultation and even less supporting information. Secondly, no one has a clear idea of what GMP is, let alone what it could deliver.

This is where the agricultural industry bodies, our best farmers, and our smart scientists need to be working together: to develop a template for GMP. It would provide advice on what the farmer should or shouldn’t be doing.This could also be linked to financial benefits derived from more efficient resource use, which should alone provide motivation for farmers to use this technology. Industry requirements to comply with GMP as part of that industry’s quality assurance system could be used to provide further motivation.

Furthermore, Industry Audited Self Management could then be used to measure and report the modelled improvements (say 37% reduction in N loss, 80% reduction in sediment loss, 95% reduction in faecal contamination in 10 years). The regional authorities could measure how that translates into improved water quality, and then and only then determine whether GMP was making sufficient progress.

What we do know is that we all want better water quality. It is clear to me, and apparently also the Government, that GMP is the best way forward. Let’s stop arguing over that. Let’s work together and get on and articulate what it is we expect from GMP, what technologies we can use and what science we need, and start delivering better quality water.

Ian MacKenzie is Federated Farmers Grain & Seed chairperson and is an arable and dairy farmer in Canterbury.

0 Responses to “The legitimate use of science in managing water”

  • Two points strike me, as a research scientist, as particularly poignant. The first, that many steps still seem to be information-limited. Partly scientific, technical and social. And yet from a scientific point of view, we will never have perfect knowledge: uncertainties will remain, analysis may be incomplete, and more research can always be done. So the question becomes: When do we have *enough* information to act?

    The second point that strikes me is that the same consultancy can argue for two competing sides of a resource use debate. I’m sure you have a specific case in mind. If it were conflicting information, that’s one thing; if it were different parts of the bigger picture (e.g., yes long-fin eels will be okay to go ahead, but no salmon won’t be so don’t go ahead) it seems fine to me from a science point of view. [Daniel]