Recently HBRC Councillor Martin Williams suggested that a committee be formed to consider strategic issues for Hawke’s Bay. Personally I don’t think this would be such a bad idea depending on what such a committee’s terms of reference would be. This is because we have many issues which would affect the strategic direction of each of our five separate councils, and we need to be thinking as one.
To my mind a case in point is that of rising nitrogen levels in our aquifers. Scientific studies have linked heightened nitrogen levels to bowel cancer, blue baby syndrome, and recently premature births. All of these health issues have been proven to occur at nitrogen levels far lower than the current drinking water standard of 11.3 mg/L used in New Zealand.
So why would a regional strategic committee be important in this case? If we consider the case of water security for Central Hawke’s Bay, and all it’s associated challenges that brings, we need to first look at what is happening currently. To put it simply the Ruataniwha Aquifer, for whatever reason, has been over-allocated. It also is well documented that there is insufficient water security for landowners, and that there are increasing nitrogen levels in the Ruataniwha Aquifer. On top of these issues we are also faced with the challenges presented by Climate Change.
Given that a handful of landowners use a majority of the water you do not have to be a rocket scientist to link past allocation practices ie allowing intensive dairying on the Ruataniwha Plains, with the challenges being faced in Central Hawke’s Bay today. Of course a solution offered in the past was the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme, something which turned out in the long run to be an absolute lemon.
The solution being offered now is managed aquifer recharge. This may resolve the water security issues in the short term, but does it resolve the issue of rising nitrogen levels in the Ruataniwha Aquifer? Rising nitrogen levels can be linked back to (you guessed it) changes in land use ie intensive dairying over the last 20 years or so. Personally I don’t blame landowners for dairying on the Ruataniwha Plains. After all dairy conversions were allowed by the government at the time, encouraged by the banks, and facilitated by HBRC. They were simply following the rules.
The question for me is how do we turn land use around so that we no longer have to face the risk of poor health outcomes which are a consequence of increasing nitrogen levels? This is no longer just a question of the heath of our rivers. It has, or will soon become, a question of the health of our people regardless of what current drinking water standards are.
So this is where a strategic committee may be of some use. It was my experience that as a Councillor you spend so much time dealing with the day-to-day issues of running council that often you don’t get the time to sit back and consider the big picture. A strategic committee could well be the regions ‘think tank’ where some of the deeper issues are explored from all points of view before a particular pathway is invested in, both in terms of time and money.
And that’s what concerns me about the proposal to plow ahead with managed aquifer recharge for the Ruataniwha Aquifer. I believe that not enough thought has been put into all of the challenges faced on the Ruataniwha Plains, and why they have occurred. Perhaps stopping what is now known to be poor practice in the first place would be a better solution than some mechanical fix.
If we are going to spend $40m on managed aquifer recharge why not just buy out the intensive dairy units instead? That way the landowners in question are not financially disadvantaged, water security issues would be resolved, and we would see a real reduction in nitrogen leeching. With ever increasing compliance burdens I also believe this would be an attractive proposition for these landowners.
Once these farms have been converted to more sustainable systems they could then be sold. My guess would be that this would, in the long run, cost far less than managed aquifer recharge which is designed to maintain the status-quo and not to improve our environment. I have to admit though, that this is solution that would only be possible in Hawke’s Bay and could not be used in say Canterbury where that numbers and challenges involved are just mind boggling compared to those that we face.