By Mike Scarsbrook
You’ll have heard this saying before. You may have even used it as an excuse when talking to your boss at the end of the year. It is equally valid in managing our water resources. If we cannot provide clarity on what we are trying to achieve, how can we expect anyone to make effective decisions and change behaviours?
What should a waterbody draining a highly modified catchment look like? Should it be physically, chemically and biologically indistinguishable from a paired waterbody in an unmodified catchment? Should it be swimmable and fishable? Should it achieve environmental bottom lines, but no more? Should it remain in its current state, or move to an agreed, alternate state? Over what timeframes should change occur?
These are not questions for scientists, regional council staff, or economists to answer. They need to be answered through the frameworks provided in law and under the guidance of instruments such as the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (2011).
Communities have been given a more clearly-defined role in water resource management under the NPS for Freshwater Management. Reforms of the RMA, currently under consideration by our government, may even enshrine collaborative processes for community engagement in our legislation. However, the challenge for communities under a collaborative model is no less fraught than the existing Schedule 1 process in the RMA. Drawing the line between what is acceptable, or unacceptable in terms of water quality across a range of values, many of which are conflicting, or even mutually exclusive, is a massive challenge for New Zealand.
From a dairy industry perspective we support the limit setting process set out in the NPS for Freshwater Management and we broadly support the National Objectives Framework that guides the setting of clear freshwater objectives. Having communities more robustly define the water quality outcomes they want is a healthy and desirable attribute of a mature society. Farmers, as part of the community want clear direction on what is acceptable and not acceptable. Furthermore, the dairy industry is fully committed to supporting farmers to meet the limits or constraints a fully-informed community deems appropriate. We are investing heavily in research, development and extension to prepare landowners for farming within limits. There will inevitably be disagreements on the details of methods and pace of change, but the drive to engage all sectors of the community in decision-making is encouraging.
Communities recognise different suites of values in highly-modified catchments versus unmodified catchments. Contaminant concentrations, driven by catchment modification, do underpin the expression of values (e.g. levels of faecal indicator bacteria indicate suitability for recreation), but changes in contaminant levels may or may not change the state of any particular value. To interpret increasing contaminant concentrations as decreasing water quality is unhelpful, particularly in the context of science’s role in informing communities and decision-makers, and especially when the water quality outcomes have not even been clearly defined.
The recent PCE report on land use intensity would have come as no surprise to anyone involved in water quality debates. The report highlighted the relationship between land use intensity and levels of nutrients in rivers. The final figure in that report showed a future prediction of increasing land used for dairy farming and associated increases in nitrate concentrations. The PCE’s analysis provides a very accessible summary of the issues around land use and contaminant loads, but contributes little to the more important debate about what is acceptable or unacceptable in terms of water quality outcomes for catchments where land use is intensifying. Is a 20, 30 or even 50% increase in nitrate loads over the next 10 years acceptable to the community? Science (and economics, matuaranga maori, plus other disciplines) can help inform the community on what are the likely effects of those nutrient increases on the water quality outcomes the community, but the ultimate decision on acceptability rests with communities through the legislated frameworks provided to them.
Let’s not give anyone the excuse of not having clear expectations of what we are asking them to achieve. And let’s not set anyone up to fail in setting unrealistic or unachievable expectations.
Dr Mike Scarsbrook is Environment Policy Manager at DairyNZ.