Troubled Water

The Environmental Defence Society (EDS) and Fish and Game (F&G) are challenging Horizons Regional Council in the Environment Court. The environmental groups are frustrated that Horizons’ consenting process is not fulfilling the legal requirements of the One Plan.

Whatever the outcome, in the midst of an election, Horizons incumbents need this like a hole in the head.


Dreadnought Cows.jpg

Cows near Ohakune. 2013. Photo frmo Water Action Initiative (NZ).

Horizons is responsible for a large region from Horowhenua in the south to Waitomo in the north, a span of almost 300km. It also extends the entire breadth of the North Island, between Manawatu in the west and Tararua in the east.  It includes Palmerston North, Whanganui, Tongariro National Park and part of Taupo region, connecting a lot of people, a lot of farms and some very delicate native forest.

When the One Plan was first ratified about ten years ago, it was celebrated as an innovative, forward looking document that put agricultural requirements in the context of environmental needs.

CEO of EDS Gary Taylor commented: “we are concerned Horizons hasn’t been implementing its regional plan lawfully, particularly when dealing with resource consent applications for intensive farming and dairy conversions.”

Horizons responded with a PR of their own, here, in which they catalogue numerous improvements in the region’s water quality since the adoption of the One Plan. They also point out that EDS is “small” and “Auckland based” and – somewhat redundantly – that Fish and Game is a fishing and hunting group.

I think Horizons should be worried. Even if the Environment Court throws out the challenge, it’s a very clear demonstration of the standard of water quality management New Zealanders expect. This isn’t new. What’s new is the deplorable state of New Zealand’s rivers.

Fish and Game are custodians of imported species for the pleasure of hunters and fishers. You can’t actually get a more conservative group of environmentalists than that.

And Gary Taylor isn’t exactly an environmental wall flower either. He’s previously run Watercare, Auckland Regional Transport Authority, and the Hobsonville Land Company, a sub of Housing NZ. Unhappy with the Greens’ perceived left wing bias, in the 90s he joined forces with other right wing environmentalists to form The Progressive Green Party.

EDS and F&G are being coy about whether they think it’s the right plan with the wrong roll out, or whether the plan itself is at fault. Certainly, there are others who believe the plan is inadequate.

One such is John Chapman, a candidate for Horizons in the Ruapehu constituency. A large part of Chapman’s campaign has been drawing attention to discrepancies in the One Plan, chiefly, that it does not list all the rivers in its own region.

For instance, the Makotuku, which is the primary water supply to Raetihi, is excluded*. In a recent Facebook exchange, Bruce Rollinson – who currently sits on Horizons in the same seat contested by Chapman – told me:


Which – translated – means that, despite his “correction”, he agrees with me: the One Plan does not include all watercourses. I’d also have thought that regardless of the permanent width of the river, if it feeds a town of a thousand people, then it would warrant the highest level of protection possible, and  inclusion in the One Plan.

There is of course the smaller Ruapehu District Council, and perhaps it is up to them to manage the smaller watercourses in their rohe. But that is meaningless unless they also have the power to approve or decline agricultural permits.

Regardless of the extent of rivers within the plan, economist Geoff Simmons points out  some more, deeply problematic aspects (with the help of a spectacularly honest farmer, Andrew Day): the nutrient levels at the time the One Plan was set have all been grandfathered, which means, as Geoff put it, “the amount you leached in the past is the amount you’re allowed to continue to leach in the future.”

And the trouble with that is that – with a cap on the total nutrient level available to everyone – it’s effectively first in, first served: the opposite of any kind of reasonable management system. Says Day: “It actually incentivises people to pollute more, rather than less … I’d say [the plan] has been hijacked by vested interests in the most intensive parts of the dairy sector.”

Rollinson is of the view that regulation should be a last resort. Which is all very well, but just how bad would it have to get before he took up that last resort? Further north, the farmers in Waikato are complaining that their council is being too aggressive in cleaning up the country’s largest river. The time frame? 80 years.

Regardless of how the EDS/F&G challenge in the Environment Court plays out, this is an issue that does not look like going away any time soon.

*Update: John Chapman has advised that technically, the Makotuku is nominally included in the One Plan, but it is not a “priority catchment”, which it would need to be for Horizons Regional Council to monitor and manage its nutrient levels. Currently, Ruapehu Distict Council filters the greeblies at the point of extraction, and would still need to do that even if the river was pristine. But that doesn’t remove the taste of algae. Nor does it do anything whatsoever for the river’s ecology. More likely, it discourages positive action.


3 thoughts on “Troubled Water

  1. James,

    You seem to except info from councils that suggest the water is “deplorable”, but frame council recognition of improvements as “PR”.

    Is that fair?

    Is it possible that Councils paint a dim picture of water quality because it makes it easier for them to get rules through the RMA process? When you have public support rule change is so much easier.

    Is it possible that this legal pressure will ensure that the Council paint a balanced picture of water quality?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Mr E.

      PR = press release, as posted in the link. As such, it’s nothing more or less than public relations, so either/or. It’s not my framing: it’s solely their claim, made entirely in their press release.

      I think deplorable is fair, yes. It represents my opinion that most of our rivers are polluted, that the current cost of remedying that is climbing through tens of billions, and that central government, many local governments and the majority of farming polluters are doing nothing about it.


  2. James,

    I am guessing your view of water quality being deplorable is also partly based on PR.

    I don’t think deplorable is fair. Relative to OECD countries our water quality is great. As an example the last time they reported our water quality (2004) lake Taupo was ranked as the best lake in their analysis for Nitrate. The same lake Taupo that is viewed dimly for Nitrates in NZ.

    I am interested in this claim “the majority of farming polluters are doing nothing about it.”
    Do you care to qualify that?

    I see farmers undertaking a lot of actions. Take dairy farmers for example who have spent millions on fencing off waterways, and containing effluent.

    You are wrong when you say Central Govt and many Local Councils are doing nothing regarding pollution. That claim indicates a high degree of ignorance. I am a little shocked that anyone would make such a claim. I would be happy to hear why you would think such a thing.


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