From our Chair: Te Mana o Te Wai - Valuing our water

Jenny Hughey

Environment Canterbury Chair Jenny Hughey

The freshwater reforms announced recently by Environment Minister David Parker have left us a lot to think about.

As well as vindicating the direction Environment Canterbury and the Canterbury farming community has been moving in during the past decade, the Action for Healthy Waterways package has introduced some thought-provoking new measures and approaches.

While the Government has indicated its keenness to strike out in a new direction, it has, somewhat controversially, exercised pragmatism in wanting more time before it issues a nationwide limit for dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN). It has also reduced from 5m to 3m the setback distances for stock from waterways on flat land. 

Freshwater -  The region’s biggest and enduring issue

Before the earthquakes overshadowed everything, freshwater was the hottest topic in Canterbury.

It’s not that the quakes suddenly meant water was less significant, but its true importance was masked. Now it’s fair to say water has re-emerged as the region’s biggest and enduring issue.

At Environment Canterbury we have kept our foot on the accelerator through the past decade of upheaval.

The work of the Council and staff, alongside considerable community effort, has given us a head start on managing our water resources. But we cannot rest easy, and these reforms give us the clear direction which allows us to double-down on our successes to date.

Recognising the Te Mana o Te Wai concept

One of the most interesting things in the reforms package is the strong recognition for the concept of Te Mana o Te Wai – that the health of our people and communities relies on the health of our water.

This is basically about putting the river first, and Minister Parker is requiring councils, the farming community and urban dwellers to come to grips with that. He wants to put that strong focus on water and tie it to the health of people.

Te Mana o Te Wai is not that far divorced from how many people in Canterbury are already thinking about water. A lot of people who’ve grown up and live here have learnt to value water because we live with rivers close by, and many of us regularly experience nature in them. We value our fresh drinking water, we water our gardens and we swim.

We have always valued water. The responsibility to protect and improve it is incumbent on all of us, whether in rural or urban communities.

When I talked to people in the lead up to the local body election last year, I couldn’t believe how connected people felt to their water. They don’t want the water ruined and they are very passionate about it.

It’s not because they think it’s being sold overseas and it’s not because they think farmers are misusing it. It is purely because they value water. And all the polls show that water is a big political issue nationally.

New funding to sustain water quality 

Another aspect of the package I welcome is the millions of dollars for riparian plantings and ecosystem health improvements. This is the way to help sustain not only the quality of our water but also what lives in it. Basically, if we don’t sustain nature, we can’t sustain our lives as human beings on the planet. How much more important could this be?

The Minister’s cautious introduction of input controls aimed at reducing the amount of fertiliser you are allowed to spread per hectare is a very significant move. Ultimately though, if we are going to protect our environment, we need to be thinking about the outputs, ie. the amount leached into waterways. This is what really matters at the end of the day.

When it comes to the dissolved inorganic nitrogen issue, probably the Minister made a realistic decision for the meantime. Many scientists want to get it down to around a maximum of 1mg per litre of water – what they are saying is you have to see the environment through the eyes of the fish. Tightening the nitrate bottom lines for nitrate toxicity and introducing compulsory measures around fish passage certainly helps with this.

Acting now for better water quality in the future

Parts of our environment are certainly in a bad state, according to the Environment Aotearoa 2019 report, so we really have to welcome whatever restrictions the Minister has put on and continue to fine tune for the Canterbury environment in the years ahead.

Unfortunately there’s only room for me to mention a few of the reforms in this long-anticipated package of measures which will give us greater strength and certainty in our work to improve the water in our region.

We are already on that pathway, but it is a long-term game. The planning for these needs to be in place by 2024 with hearings finished within two years after that. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do it before then.

I strongly encourage people to think how that pivotal concept of Te Mana o Te Wai is going to apply to them.