Parliament’s environment committee has chided senior government officials over their apparent piecemeal approach to improving freshwater quality.
New Zealand’s freshwater quality, or lack thereof, has been a focus for the government, which in 2020 released a package of standards and regulations for managing and improving freshwater.
At an August 17 hearing, the committee called in the heads of six government departments, including the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) and the Ministry for Primary Industries, for a progress report.
But the committee didn’t get the top-down overview it was looking for. Committee members from Labour, National and the Greens all pushed for evidence that the different ministries were working together and producing measurable results on freshwater quality.
Part of the contention was the politicians’ need to see the results of spending taxpayer money, run up against the slow process of setting up freshwater monitoring systems.
MfE chief executive James Palmer did much of the talking and said wetlands were probably the closest thing to a silver bullet to improve water quality.
Right now, revived catchment groups are working on restoring them in their areas.
“Throughout the world, the value of wetlands has been grossly underestimated. They have typically seen be seen as a nuisance, or unproductive land,” Palmer said.
Wetlands contain up to six times the volume of carbon by area as a native forest does, but 90% of them have gone.
“One of the reasons the challenge that we face is so difficult is that we have unknowingly, probably for most of the development of the nation, removed our most critical infrastructure for improving water quality, and that is our wetland systems.”
There has been some progress, such as in parts of Southland where nitrogen levels have dropped dramatically. But in the Ashburton lakes area, water quality is getting worse, despite having good management practice guidance in place.
Committee chair Eugenie Sage (Greens) said she couldn’t see any type of governance to ensure the same freshwater objectives are being pushed through all the different ministries. She contrasted the apparent piecemeal approach with that of the Jobs for Nature programme, which has a secretariat across all the ministries involved.
Palmer acknowledged that the broader system doesn’t have overall governance. The programme was developed collaboratively across government agencies and is now being implemented at the level of regional councils and others.
In parallel with concerns about co-ordination and governance, the committee wanted to know whether efforts to improve freshwater quality are making a difference.
Committee deputy chair Phil Twyford said the government spent $212 million this year on freshwater quality initiatives.
The environment committee started the process by considering value for money and effectiveness. But given the lack of integration and system thinking, it didn’t have the answer to those questions.
“Given how important fresh water is to the government, given how much money the taxpayers invest, why don’t we have a better system in place for setting priorities [and] measuring outcomes?”
Palmer responded that there is a good understanding at a national level of the pressures on freshwater systems. What is missing now is the knowledge at a local level.
By the end of 2024, every regional council and unitary authority must put a freshwater monitoring system in place, as required by the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.
Twyford pushed back, saying he is a huge fan of the progress made in several areas, and wasn’t questioning the activity level. But the systematic reporting on impact and outcomes wasn’t visible in the information provided to the committee.
“I think that’s a worry, given how much money we’re spending and how important this issue is.”
Asked by committee member Angie Warren-Clark how the ministries could better co-ordinate, Palmer said he took on the points that had been repeatedly raised. “I think we could provide the committee probably with a better picture of how that’s occurring at lower tiers in our organisation.”
Committee member Scott Simpson (National) said freshwater is one of the major issues confronting NZ.
“Although this has been a very useful and pleasant conversation, I don’t think it’s actually getting to the nitty gritty of the issues.”
Very significant amounts of taxpayer dollars have been invested in the various programmes addressing freshwater quality, he said.
“Here we got lots of information about the busyness [and] practically nothing about whether or not it is making a difference. I’m interested to know where we go from here.”
Palmer told the committee it could take a lot of time and research just to measure and establish a baseline.
“The challenges we have with reporting on progress in water bodies is that if you don’t already have long-term, monitoring baseline to measure against, you need to measure for a number of years through multiple different climate cycles.”
That is just the normal round of wet years and dry years. Complicating everything is climate change, which means the long-term baseline conditions are changing, he said.
“It’s going to be a long journey and will be frustrating because we won’t necessarily see instant results from the investment and effort we’re putting in.”
Committee member Stuart Nash (Labour) asked whether the big companies and industry organisations such as Fonterra and Beef + Lamb NZ are on board, both at the member and corporate levels.
He also wanted to know what people thought of water monitoring, especially when the results are “not a particularly pretty picture”.
“Is it your perception that farmers and landowners see what you’re doing is adding value, and they really want to contribute? Or do they see what you’re doing is a little bit of a nuisance, and they really haven’t bought into the vision?”
MPI industries director general Ray Smith said Fonterra is a good example and has taken the lead in introducing freshwater farm planning.
Palmer said there is a low level of understanding in rural communities about the planning needed over the next few years.
The government has imposed several regulations in recent years to mitigate immediate degradation, such as intensive winter grazing.
But all regulation is a blunt instrument and will always produce some perverse outcomes. That has sometimes coloured people’s perceptions of freshwater and other environmental regulations. “I don’t want to paper over that and give the committee an impression that rural communities are entirely happy with the full package that has been rolled out under the Ministry for the Environment with our colleague agencies.
“There have been some rough patches. But overall, I think our rural communities absolutely are seeing the challenge and want to be part of the solution.”