Plenty of work still to do to address environmental and climate issues

Steve Lowndes

The job of being a regional councillor is both rewarding and frustrating. When I confess to friends that I have enjoyed the past three years in this role, initially as an elected councillor and then as chair, they express amazement or they say “God, I don’t know how you stand it!”

One thing is abundantly clear, you can’t please everybody any of the time. There are so many competing interests around what we do that dissent is inevitable.

Our work is varied and complex. As well as the huge job of freshwater management we oversee bus services in Greater Christchurch and Timaru; we manage air quality and the coastal marine environment; our river engineers provide flood protection, and we are focused on biological diversity and security.

We have been a transitional council, moving from the era of Government appointed commissioners to the return of a fully democratically elected council.

New council taking the reins

Following the election on 12 October the Environment Canterbury Act will expire and a new council will take the reins.

In early 2017 we restated our strategic purpose – to facilitate sustainable development for the Canterbury region.

  • We all want to breathe clean air, play and swim in the rivers, gather mahinga kai, benefit from the productive use of our land, and enjoy our biodiversity taonga and landscapes
  • We want to live, travel, and move goods with ease, facilitating work, leisure and tourism
  • We want to have access to the information we need to be resilient in the face of short-term hazards and well-prepared for longer-term change to our region’s natural environment

We can all help shape the future of Canterbury, leaving a legacy for generations to come.

Building strong relationships

The regional council cannot do this work alone and to help us we have forged strong relationships with organisations and communities across Canterbury.

This starts with our special partnership with Ngāi Tahu and we meet regularly with the 10 papatipu rūnanga which keeps us grounded in our Tuia relationship with the Iwi.

We work closely with the 10 territorial authorities across Canterbury which includes regular visits to build understand and trust. We also manage the administration of the Canterbury mayoral forum, who have driven the Canterbury Water Management Strategy which is the New Zealand benchmark for community-led decision making.

As an arm of local government, however, we operate under acts of parliament and can end up as the meat in the sandwich between central government regulations and the communities that are affected by them.

Action for healthy waterways

The Government’s recent “healthy waterways” proposals are a good example of this. While environmental groups have largely welcomed the proposals, the farming sector is concerned about farm viability if the proposals go through in their current form.

Some aspects of the proposals seem to be an attempt to see how far things could go – for instance, the 1 mg/l level for nitrate in rivers. While the science may support that very low level, we must also consider cultural, social and economic matters when setting water quality limits, and it’s likely the limit in the final version of the NPS will change.

Find out more about the Government's Action for healthy waterways.

Achievements in Canterbury

In Canterbury, it has been known for a long time that land-use intensification was causing rising nitrate levels in groundwater (at least since a 1977 report) but practices continued unabated for 30 years and more until matters came to a head.

Over the past nine years, our most significant achievement has been the introduction of a set of Resource Management Act regional plans over the whole of Canterbury as the first step in dealing with nitrate and other land-use issues.

These plans are like a korowai or cloak that provides a measure of protection for the quantity and quality of our freshwater.

The pace has been rapid and the scale of change massive: councillors have exercised judgement in terms of how fast we can push our communities.

We are seeing very good progress with plan implementation – all 1500 farms managed by collectives have Farm Environment Plans in place and 66% of the remaining 1400 individual farms either have or have lodged a land-use consent to farm and prepared a Farm Environment Plan.

Last year 90% of Farm Environment Plans received a compliant A or B grade when independently audited. In the compliance space, we have continued to focus on high-environmental risk consents, again with good results, with 84% of monitored water consents receiving an A compliance grade last year. We lead New Zealand in this sphere.

Changes ahead in planning process

The government’s freshwater proposals, however, are likely to kick off a new round of plan changes.

In large part, the planning work over the past few years has been led by the tireless work of water management zone committees – which despite some poorly informed criticism, have been highly effective in getting community input into council plans and work programmes.

Yes, many of the zone committees have farmer members, but they also have rūnanga, community and council representatives and most decisions are consensual.

The committees are only able to make non-binding recommendations to the council. Our plans are subject to submissions then reviewed by an independent panel of hearing commissioners – who work to a very high standard of evidence and law – to ensure they meet the stringent requirements of the RMA.

On the ground actions

In the meantime, our attention continues with the on-the-ground actions.

Zone committees and Environment Canterbury staff are focusing more and more on fencing, planting riparian strips, restoring wetlands and ecosystems, as well as replanting steep land and conserving soil.

Environment Canterbury has close to 300 projects on the go at any given time aimed at repairing, restoring or improving environmental and ecosystem values across the region. The cumulative effect of all this activity is hugely positive.

All this practical work aligns closely with our focus on biodiversity and biosecurity signalled in our Long-Term Plan 2018-28. This has included a biodiversity strategy, as well as new work programmes in braided rivers and wetlands. Since 2016, more than two million hectares, or 43%, of Canterbury has been searched and treated for wilding pines (multi-agency cost: $8.8 million).

Find out more about restoration and planting projects in Canterbury.

Transport and urban development

Having said that by far the biggest portfolio, measured by expenditure, is transport and urban development.

In collaboration with the City, Selwyn and Waimakariri we have produced a Regional Public Transport Plan which includes a transition to electric vehicles, rapid transport corridors and an on-demand public transport system for Timaru.

We have navigated our way through proposed bus route changes in the Long-Term Plan to reach a solution that helps deal with the financial pressures while still providing for the needs of people who would have been most affected by our initial proposed changes.

Over the past couple of years, we have seen the first growth in Christchurch public transport patronage since the 2010/11 earthquakes.

Many of the Christchurch earthquake regeneration projects are now coming to fruition and we have provided input and worked closely with Otakaro, Christchurch City Council and Regenerate.

Find out more about how er progress in transport and urban development in Canterbury.

Waimakariri flood protection project

Another highlight over the past year was the completion of the 10-year, $40 million, Waimakariri flood protection project which provides a higher level of protection for Christchurch.

The project involved the construction of a 25km system of secondary stop-banks as well as the upgrade of 35km of primary stop-banks.

Air quality in Canterbury

We also manage air quality and made the Canterbury Air Regional Plan operative in October 2017. The welcome improvements we have seen in air quality have come from people changing to cleaner forms of heating and we will continue to support and encourage this through our subsidies for healthy homes.

Addressing climate change

Impacting everything we do are the effects of climate change which are already upon us. In May this year, we declared a climate emergency and were the first council in New Zealand to do so.

The declaration, which has been followed by several other councils, was to highlight both the urgent need to address climate change issues and the work already being done to help the region respond (as an organisation we sequester three times more carbon than we emit).

Big changes are coming, all of us are now being put under pressure to reduce our environmental footprint. While the focus has been on driving improvements in the farming sector over the past decade, it is now the turn of the whole of society to recognise that we must change too.

This includes urgently cleaning up urban rivers, moving away from the reliance on fossil fuel, thinking about what we eat, curbing plastic waste, as well as protecting our elite soils. We need to think globally and act locally.

As a community we are adaptive and collaborative – we have shown that hugely in Canterbury over the past decade – and by working together on solutions, some of which will be difficult, I am sure we will be able to ameliorate the pressing issues of climate change and sustainability confronting us.

Find out more about climate change. Read Steve Lowndes opinion piece on climate change published in stuff