Anderton on New Zealand's Sustainable Water Programme

  • Jim Anderton

Thank you all for attending this meeting today. Your presence is proof of the high interest that water issues generate throughout the country.

We have recently announced a comprehensive package of actions to improve the management of freshwater. My colleague Environment Minister David Benson-Pope and I both feel that it is vital to inform you about this package.

Both the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry for the Environment are responsible for getting this discussion on fresh water out as widely as possible, which has at its heart, the ecological and economic development future of New Zealand.

You will no doubt have read about this over the last couple of weeks in the media. We think it is appropriate you hear directly from representatives of the Government. We want this discussion to take a partnership approach, where people, sectors and key stakeholders can make a real contribution towards the future outcomes of water use in New Zealand.

These meetings are taking place in all the main centres and David Benson-Pope and I are going to most of them to hear what is being said in heartland New Zealand. We are here because we know this discussion is of greatest importance and the fact you are here almost certainly means you know it is too. These talks could have happened years ago but they didn't - and for a country that sells itself as "clean and green with an abundance of lakes and rivers" we certainly need this dialogue and follow-up action plan to get moving.

There was an extensive public consultation process undertaken early last year, which has helped shape the government’s priorities and actions on water. I would now like to present you with our findings.

Pressure on water

In New Zealand, freshwater is fundamental to our way of life. Our rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands are among our most valued natural assets and we expect, hope and plan that they will be there in perpetuity.

Freshwater is integral to the health, wellbeing, livelihood and culture of all New Zealanders; it is the lifeblood of "Papatuanuku", the earth mother of Maori legend. It defines our landscape, sustains valuable ecosystems, and is used and enjoyed in many different ways. Water is the fuel that fires the engine of our primary industry-based economy, and water provides the bulk of our energy generation for manufacturing and services. Water is arguably our most important economic resource.

We expect a high quality resource, and we expect to use it for many things. We strongly value our freshwater, and use it for all sorts of things including irrigation, generating energy, conservation, recreation, and industrial as well as domestic use.

Up until now, most New Zealanders have taken water for granted. It is true that we have an abundance of freshwater in some parts of New Zealand, but we are finally reaching the point where pressure to satisfy our different values and needs for freshwater is pushing the resource to its limits in many places.

Therefore, we all need to recognise that water is not an unlimited resource. It is one of the country’s most valuable assets, and we must manage it efficiently and sustainably.
In most parts of the country we are doing this pretty well, but there are areas - like Canterbury, Waikato, Rotorua and Taupo - where there are still, after many years of central government, local government and private sector investment, significant water issues that need to be addressed. Many of these issues are simply an indicator of an emerging national trend.

Let me talk further about this. Water for electricity generation for instance, is in high demand. Although we are looking at a range of options to increase our energy generation capacity, hydroelectricity has always been and will continue to be a significant energy provider in New Zealand.

To illustrate this point, in 2001 hydro-generation contributed over 5000 mega watts from a total generation capacity of 8500 mega watts – nearly 60% of our total generation capacity.

Clean and abundant water is also important for our tourism industry. As one of the largest contributors to the New Zealand economy, it is vital that we have effective freshwater management systems to support our international reputation and the growth in tourism numbers.

Another example: irrigation, accounts for 70-80% of water extraction excluding hydro electricity, and the area of irrigated land in New Zealand could potentially double within 20 years if we can find the water required.

Using figures from the Canterbury Strategic Water Study, and using Lynton Dairy as an example of a large dairy farm:
On an annual basis one 1000 hectare irrigated dairy farm uses 1/10th of the water used by Christchurch City
On a peak day in summer, the peak abstraction by one 1000-hectare dairy farm is 1/5th of the peak take by Christchurch City.

But while pointing out to you that irrigation is a large water user, at the same time I would like to acknowledge the value of this activity. The net contribution of irrigation to GDP at the farm gate is estimated to be in excess of $1 billion per annum. This is over and above the GDP that would have been produced at the farm gate without irrigation. The productive capacity of an irrigated farm versus a dry farm unit ranges between 4 – 10 times – more than just a minor driver of productivity.

And the contribution of agriculture itself to the New Zealand economy is significant. In 2005, the agriculture industry contributed 52% of total export receipts. The industry also employed 82,440 people (over 2 percent of the total population).

All these sectors use water but what about you and me? In fact, we are all using quite a considerable amount of water on a regular basis ourselves. On average, each New Zealander uses 160 litres of water per person per day. If we include the big users (hydro-electricity, irrigation, industry) we use 82,000 litres of water per person per day!

After hearing all this, you will probably agree with me that we are now at a point where the competitive and conflicting values and needs for irrigation, generating power, recreation, living in towns and cities, tourism not to mention ecological and conservation issues mean that we have to make some hard decisions we have been reluctant to face up to before.

Water quality

We face another challenge as well: the quality of our freshwater, however good by world standards, is declining in many of our lowland streams as an unintentional consequence of changing land-use, such as agriculture, subdivision, storm water systems and run-off from roads.

We’ve been working on protecting water quality since the 1950s. In particular, there has been significant central and local government investment in cleaning up iconic areas such as Lake Taupo and the Rotorua Lakes. We’ve tried a number of approaches, for example, the Lake Taupo and Kaituna Catchment Control Schemes, yet there are still significant issues to deal with.

And while we’ve made good progress in working with industry to clean up direct discharges into waterways, we’re still grappling with discharges that come from many pathways – known as diffuse discharges. The result is increasing amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in our water bodies (in most cases lowland streams). We’re not alone of course – many parts of Europe, as well as Australia are struggling with similar problems.

I will give you some specific examples where things have been going in the wrong direction:

Contamination of lowland streams

Most regions (including Northland, Waikato, Canterbury and Southland) are experiencing increased levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in lowland streams. Rivers and streams in low elevation parts of the country (where agriculture and horticulture are most intensive) have nutrient levels between 2 and 4 times the average for all rivers.

Environment Southland’s State of the Environment report shows that contamination in the lower reaches of the Mataura, Oreti and Apirama Rivers in Southland poses a health risk for swimming.

Contamination of ground water

Generally our ground water is good. However, there is concern about increasing nitrates in parts of Waikato, Southland and Canterbury. In Waikato, more than 9% of 198 sites monitored for nitrate concentrations in 2004 failed the acceptable standard for drinking water quality. These sites are mainly shallow aquifers near market gardens and intensive farming.

Rotorua Lakes

There are twelve major lakes around Rotorua. Several of the lakes have suffered water quality problems for decades but the water quality in Lake Rotoiti has declined rapidly in recent years. The problem is excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) - from septic tanks, lakebed sediments and farming - stimulating algal growth, cyano-bacteria blooms and weed growth making the water unsafe for swimming and an unsuitable habitat for trout and native fish.

Municipal sewage was discharged directly into Lake Rotorua for nearly one hundred years. This ceased after Rotorua’s land-based sewage scheme was commissioned in 1991. But the legacy of nutrient-rich lakebed sediments remains.

Lake Taupo

Problems with Lake Taupo's water quality are due to excess run-off of nutrients particularly nitrogen, from land-use activities in the catchment. The amount of nitrate nitrogen in the lake’s bottom waters doubled over the past 30 years. In the ten years up to 2004, more phosphorus and nitrogen were recorded in its surface waters. This quality is likely to get worse as more nutrients come to the surface over the years.

To keep rivers clean, we need to improve the application and use of the range of land management and tools available to reduce the amount of nutrients and effluent reaching our waterways.

Increased intensification of land-use is a contributing factor to declining water quality. There are 27 million hectares of land in New Zealand. From 1986 to 2002, land use for agricultural purposes decreased by 27 percent because of forestry planting and urban sprawl. During this time, the total amount of land used for dairy farms has increased by 47 percent. In contrast, the total area of land farmed as sheep and beef farms has decreased by 18 percent.

We are also dealing with other impacts on water quality. For example, erosion (which occurs naturally or is a result of human activities) is increasing the amount of sediment some rivers carry and this can affect water quality.

And please bear in mind, it is not just rural areas where we find poor water quality in lowland streams. Urban land-use activities such as subdivisions and not giving enough space to riparian margins. All have impacts on waterways in urban areas. Storm water systems that once provided an outlet for excess water now provide a conduit for pollutants into streams and estuaries.

I think by now you will have understood my point: our water resources are under pressure and it is time for action. New Zealanders expect enough clean, healthy water for everybody. We are all being challenged to improve its management to ensure that we can fulfil this expectation.

The Sustainable Water Programme of Action seeks to build on the strong relationships we have developed with local government. We are already responding through central/ local partnerships to demands for water, and threats to water quality through initiatives such as the Waitaki Catchment Water Allocation Regional Plan, the Lake Taupo Water Quality Protection Programme and the Rotorua Lakes project.

But we can’t afford to keep working on an ad hoc basis on individual projects like we have over the years. We need a coherent national framework. Government leadership and direction is required to ensure that freshwater management keeps pace with growth in industry, changes in land-use activities, climate change and community development. In short, it is about facilitating the sustainable management of our freshwater.

There is a substantial work programme across Crown Research Institutes, universities, industry and sector organisations, agribusiness, regional councils and individuals that specifically targets water quality. Industries are taking initiatives themselves and are to be commended for that. Specifically, the Dairy and Clean Streams Accord and the recently launched Sustainable Industry Environmental Management Strategy. A strategic and co-ordinated approach would enhance all these collective work programmes, and their linkage to water management.

Some people have suggested this is a step towards privatisation – and a regional council in the south has even promoted this view. I don't know where they have got their information from but nothing could be further from the reality of what is proposed by the Sustainable Water Programme of Action. Water is a publicly owned resource. We are talking about strategic management in partnership with industry, local government and local communities.

We are looking at all these issues from a nationwide perspective, which has never been done before. For the first time, we will have the big picture on water use and a national approach to manage freshwater in New Zealand. This is good news for us all.

I would now like to invite my colleague Environment Minister David Benson-Pope to talk to you about the proposed suite of actions under the Sustainable Water Programme of Action.