Science and policy merge in water plan

By Waiology 20/11/2013 4


By Paul Reynolds

Un-muddying the Waters : Waiology : Oct-Dec 2013Recently the government released proposals for a national framework for setting freshwater objectives, including bottom lines for ecosystem and human health (for secondary contact). It has had an unusual reaction.

For the first time in my memory, we have had stakeholders from all quarters pretty much in strenuous non-disagreement with one another – in support of the proposal. That is not a common occurrence in the policy world. In particular, it is not common in environmental policy, where complex ‘wicked’ problems predominate and people often have trouble agreeing on the problem – let alone contributing constructively to the solution.

Developing the National Objectives Framework has been a challenge. It was first suggested by the independent group of water users who make up the Land and Water Forum. The government then took it up as a tool to support regional councils with the 2011 National Policy Statement for Freshwater management’s requirements to maintain or improve the overall water quality in their region, and safeguard freshwater’s life supporting capacity. Officials in the cross-agency Water Reform Directorate have worked with a raft of people and organisations from many differing perspectives and disciplines to come up with this first iteration.

Well over two decades ago, philosopher Jerome Ravetz suggested that policy makers should respond intelligently to the imperfections of science in forming policy decisions, but in a way that makes sensible use of the available science in the context of other information. His argument was not to delay or procrastinate on decision-making (often by calling for new or more research), but to have better policy processes with wider engagement, procedures of self-criticism, and quality control.

This is the approach we have taken with the framework. We acknowledge that we do not have perfect information. But this should not stop us from taking action. We especially recognise that policy makers alone cannot solve the challenges that we face. In this instance, the role of the science community has been pivotal.

To develop the framework from just a concept into a practical tool, the government brought together more than 60 experts from New Zealand’s freshwater science community to tell us – from a scientific viewpoint – what defines water quality in our rivers, lakes and aquifers. Estuaries, as many have noted, are not yet included. Neither, for that matter, are several attributes that we all recognise are important indicators of freshwater health, such as macroinvertebrate communities or sediment load. For those, I refer you back to Jerome Ravetz, with the commitment that should Ministers give the framework the go-ahead, work will continue on the science we need to understand further attributes for populating future versions of the framework.

We engaged scientists early in the process of developing the framework to gain consensus on the scientific evidence. The reasons for this are two-fold. The first is to give regional councils and their communities a tool that will help them have the difficult conversations around what they want for their water bodies. This is essentially a value judgement – and competing interests and values for our water is where the conflict usually lies. But good – which means achievable, affordable and lasting – decisions need to be underpinned by an understanding of both the scientific and economic implications that ultimately create the costs to communities.

Secondly, a robust national framework where the science has been settled is an attractive alternative to dragged-out case-by-case disputes in the Environment Court where the focus is the ‘accuracy’ of the science. We want to get agreed science out to our communities, so a collaborative and constructive conversation can occur about the values they hold for their water bodies.

Science of course, is not about what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – it is about the weight of evidence. What we think we know now may change as evidence improves, and as our behaviour changes or adapts. Balancing the need to get the science as settled as possible, and the need to introduce more support for councils to successfully implement the NPS-FM, we decided to take a step-by-step approach to populating the framework. That’s why this version is simply the first cab off the rank. It is the start of the journey, not the end.


Dr Paul Reynolds is the Secretary for the Environment, Ministry for the Environment.


4 Responses to “Science and policy merge in water plan”

  • Dr Paul,
    “A tool to help them with the difficult conversations”. Please please please, think about collaboration and what it means.

    I’ll help tell you what it is not:
    Setting limits before communities are engaged
    Showing a mistrust in councils and communities by doing so
    Pre determining the challenges that collaboration may face
    Believing that scientist have a better understanding of what water means to the community than the community does.

    I’m all for the collaborative process. In fact, I believed and promoted it well before the W&L forum. Some might say I was a precursor/catalyst?

    I reject the undermining basis for which it has begun. By setting limits, with consultation of scientist not communities. It’s wrong in my eyes. It shows mistrust. I realise that a consultation process is open to changing the limits but that is not collaboration. Not collaboration by a mile.

    One thing I have learned over the years is if you want collaboration those involved must own the process from day 1. Not from day xxx?

    I know I can’t change what has happened. I predict you will have trouble getting interest and buy in from communities. I’d suggest you think really hard about how you now face these communities given the mistrust you have already shown. I worry you have just made the councils job a whole lot bigger/harder.

    I can imagine the councils now saying – “Hello communities, haven’t seen you in a while, lets set some limits together, even though the government has beat us too it. But ignore that, we can do better. Come back! Don’t leave! Anyone there?”

  • I think you over-state the relative role of the scientist in the limit-setting process, though I myself cannot speak much from personal experience (having been a part only once), but eavesdropping. The water governance series in Feb/March shed lights on the diverse roles in play in limit-setting. I’ll also publish an article tomorrow on how councils are faring in their limit-setting process. The devolution of decision-making into catchment-communities, as we’re seeing across NZ, seems to be more trusting of the whole community. Indeed, the zone committees in Canterbury have a preference for non-scientists within their rank. [Daniel]

  • Mr E- you are quite right that it is critical to clearly understand and define ‘collaboration’. ‘Collaboration’ is not simply beefed-up ‘consultation’. Officials will work with regional councils and key organisations to establish guidelines.
    Regarding both comments, I should clarify that my post describes the work that scientists are doing to help to develop a National Objectives Framework. This is not ‘setting limits’. The National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management already requires regional councils to establish freshwater objectives and set water quality and quantity limits in their regions. The science community is contributing to a national framework which will help councils and communities decide what values or uses (objectives) they want for their water. If this framework is adopted, councils will use it to set objectives and the limits necessary to meet those objectives. Essentially, council decisions around limit-setting will be value judgements supported by sound science. The scientific consensus we have achieved so far is reflected in the numeric and narrative descriptions in the tables that start on page 69 of the discussion document on the proposed National Objectives Framework.
    The Government is currently consulting on this proposed framework and I encourage people to make a submission.

  • Thanks Paul. Yes, I understand that the NOF numbers are a kin to ecological limits for certain ranges of ecosystem condition (or the same for recreation and health). Which ecological conditions are desired by the community is another matter, and there is more to consider than ecological impacts. [Daniel]