Canterbury’s Water Pollution – The Politician’s Roll of Shame

An Opinion by Dr Peter Trolove

Recent stories from Wellington suggest politicians enter parliament for gratuitous sex or to increase their personal wealth by facilitating immigration &/or the sale of New Zealand to overseas investors.

Charles Collins, 2015

While that may be true of a few “bad apples”, the one thing that all politicians whether central or local government, have in common is a pattern of disastrous short term policies that have resulted in unsustainable development and an ever increasing level of financial and environmental debt for future generations.

The New Zealand Federation of Freshwater Anglers has been monitoring the groundwater, rivers and streams of Central Canterbury in order to highlight the destruction of this region’s freshwater resources following decades of mismanagement by the Canterbury Regional Council which has adopted the ironic promotional title of “Environment” Canterbury or ECan. The results are simply unacceptable.

ECan has lost control of consenting water allocation in the courts, as well as the “ownership” of thousands of hectares of public land that form the braid bed of Canterbury’s iconic braided rivers. This is due in part to the self-interest of entitled landowners and businessmen elected to Ecan. However the main cause has been the failure of Central Government to pass effective environment laws and set appropriate standards to enable councils such as ECan to deliver their accountabilities.

The following is quoted verbatim from Murray Rodgers Canterbury’s Wicked Water (2009):

“The role of central government

The Water Rights Trust has informed successive ministers for the environment of Canterbury’s water issues throughout the seven years we have been active. Marian Hobbs assured us in 2002 that the water issues in Canterbury would be dealt with under the Government’s Sustainable Water Programme of Action (SWPoA). David Benson-Pope gave similar assurances, adding that it was not his government’s policy to intrude in regional affairs – in other words it was up to Canterbury to sort out its own mess and the SWPoA would provide the framework for that to happen. We are still waiting. A coalition of various concerned groups including F&G New Zealand and F&B, the NZ Recreational Canoeing Association, the Ecological Foundation and the Water Rights Trust co-signed a letter to Prime Minister Helen Clark on 15 January 2007, drawing attention to Canterbury issues. The absence of a response again suggested there was no apparent interest forthcoming to help with the issues. Previous Minister for the Environment, Trevor Mallard threatened to jail polluting farmers for the poor state of Canterbury’s water (The Press, 26 September 2008). This outburst, just prior to the 2008 election was a fair measure of this government’s efforts on this issue.”

Since Murray Rodger’s book was published succeeding governments have exceeded Labour’s woeful performance;

ECan Takeover

In response to the 2008 global recession the Key Government passed the constitutionally repugnant Environment Canterbury Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management Act 2010, under urgency, facilitating irrigation development in Canterbury on an unprecedented scale by the simple expediency of taking direct control of ECan through appointed puppet commissioners.

Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith’s disregard for the region’s freshwater prompted artist Sam Mahon to create a satirical over-sized statue of the minister, trousers down, taking a dump in a bowl of water.

Key’s puppet Ecan commissioners were free to act with impunity creating committees of water users to determine the fate of the region’s water resources in the guise of “leading edge community collaboration”. Unsustainable development and the resulting water pollution continued apace giving Central Canterbury New Zealand’s highest GDP per capita and the worst water pollution in the country.

Enter the Coalition Government elected largely on the back of promises to sort out New Zealand’s freshwater problems and “not kick the can down the road for future generations”.

Ministers Choked

Like the Labour Government before them we saw three years of “huffing and puffing”, multiple committees and promises, before ignoring the advice of the Ministry for the Environment’s Scientific Technical and Advisory Group (STAG) and going with the farming lobby to promote the failed “dairy accord” and limit the use of synthetic urea to a liberal and useless limit of 190 kg /ha. The Government’s “Action for healthy waterways” 28 May 2020 is evidence that David Parker and Damien O’Connor simply choked.

Meanwhile the NZFFA has monitored the increasing nitrate pollution in the Selwyn Water Zone for the past year. Both the Selwyn River and Hart’s Creek, (plus lesser drains such as Birdling’s Brook and Powell’s Road drain exceed the National Policy Statement of Freshwater Management’s “non-negotiable bottom line” with annual mean results above 6.9 mg/L NO3-N. Values deemed to affect more than 20 % of aquatic species, destroy freshwater mussels and kill trout eggs and fry.

This shameful result will be repeated in similar aquifer fed waters across the Canterbury Plains.

GDP v Health

For a bit of added interest the NZFFA have begun testing rural wells finding up to 10% of the wells tested are toxic to babies and likely to cause colo-rectal cancer in adults. Apparently GDP trumps public health.

ECan’s initial response when the pollution of the Selwyn River was formally reported by the NZFFA was to ignore the email. After visiting Ecan in person and getting the report formally accepted, Ecan’s Regional Leader of Compliance undertook to pass on the report to ECan’s science team.

A repeated message from Tim Davie, Ecan’s Chief Scientist is that “We are managing the problem.” “We have a plan.” “The pollution will get worse before it gets better.” These comments were made despite any evidence the sub-region “environment plans” will be effective.

It seems that as long as environment law is fashioned in the crucible of Select Committees balancing the self-interests of political parties and professional lobbyists and  with the implementation of these laws left to councils stacked with self-interest doing battle with high priced lawyers seeking to privatise common resources for corporate profit, the status quo will remain.

Science it seems is just another commodity for sale to the highest bidder or simply to be ignored under such a regime. This approach is itself unsustainable in a world of finite resources.

Happy voting.

Dr Peter Trolove
President
NZFFA

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