Launch Of The Environment Waikato's State Of The Environment Report

  • Simon Upton

Waikato Museum

The pre-eminent policy conclusion of the State of New Zealand's Environment, which we launched in 1997, was that our environmental information needed considerable upgrading if the state of the nation's environment is to be accurately described and trends - for better or for worse - properly detected. We are awash with anecdotal or fragmentary data but there is rarely enough to say anything authoritative about whether we've stopped the rot, we're making progress or still trading on a reputation that can't be justified.

Two years ago the challenge was laid down. Waikato has picked it up.

To know what is going on in the region's environment is a core business of regional councils. With Waikato's State of the Environment Report Environment Waikato has demonstrated that it knows its job and is getting down and doing it.

I've said it before - I'm pleased Environment Waikato hasn't been seduced by such diversions as building a sports stadium. Producing State of the Environment reports is undoubtedly less glamorous than the erection of concrete edifices, but it's exactly what you're meant to be doing. I urge you to keep it up.

Environment Waikato's work on information management is amongst the country's best. You've got some good indicators right across the board, on air, land, water, terrestrial biodiversity and waste.

Gathering information can be costly but, provided the program is managed efficiently, it is money well spent. We need to know whether our environmental policies are working. We need to know where the gaps are and we need a rational and scientific basis on which to prioritize.

For the first time all the information available on the state of the Waikato environment, and pressures on it, is available in one place. Waikato's SER is comprehensive, attractive and easy to read.

We have a snapshot of the Waikato region today and some guidance as to the issues to consider in the future. It includes a lot of high quality technical information about the Waikato environment and presents it clearly with a lot of graphs, diagrams, figures and pictures.

It makes sober reading in parts:

- there has been a loss of soil through erosion, reduced fertility and drainage due to the massive changes to the region's vegetation over the past 150 years and the way we use it now.

two thirds of Waikato soils need specialised management.
air contamination is sometimes above recommended levels in local areas.
a hundred species are threatened.
75% of our wetlands have disappeared in the past 150 years
we have lost almost all of our coastal forests already, and remaining areas are subject to population pressures.
It seems to me that water quality is a key indicator of the sustainability of what we do. The councils and people of Waikato have made enormous progress over the last decades in improving the water quality of the river. Today, low dissolved oxygen no longer bedevils our main river system. Raw sewage is no longer discharged into our estuaries and rivers no longer run red with blood or change colours depending on the local mills.

This gross pollution does not occur, but today our expectations are a lot higher. People want to be able to swim, fish and gather food from our waterways. We're not there yet.

While point source discharges continue to be cleaned up in Waikato (and there's still more to do), attention has also moved to non-point source pollution. With programmes such as the government's Freshwater Microbiological Research Programme (or "Bad Bugs" programme, as it is known), and regional indicator work, we have new techniques for measuring pathogens. It's clear that the lower Waikato is often not suitable for contact recreation and that farm run-off is the most important source of the contamination.

We've made real advances in dealing with human sewage, and it looks like we'll soon see some significant upgrades to Hamilton's sewage treatment which is currently still pretty crude. Yet, one cow produces the sewage waste of approximately 14 humans. In the Waikato and Waipa Districts alone there are some 680,000 head of cattle (dairy and beef), producing as much waste as nearly 10 million people. It's a big problem, particularly when stock have open access to waterways in 80% of farms nationwide.

In the past, gains have been made largely through regulation. Consents for point source discharges have become progressively more stringent. Cow shed run-off is a prime example. Prior to the 1994 farm dairy effluent rules, effluent treated by the old pond systems would find its way straight into streams and rivers on nearly 70% of Waikato's farms. The latest figures, for 1996/7, show that nearly 70% of farms are now discharging to land. The 30% that continue to use ponds are, by and large, using much improved systems.

Finding solutions to the farm run-off problems will be less easy. They are likely to involve better riparian management, including the fencing off of waterways. These are not changes that can so easily be brought about with the stroke of the pen. It will happen with the help of the community and the desire of landowners to "do the right thing", as well as through regulation.

This will rely on the partnerships. We have to all work constructively together. This process of community involvement in environmental management relies on having good information and empowering people to make informed environmental decisions.

Water quality problems are not solely agricultural in origin. Landfills, (a number of which continue to operate without consents), transport and urban stormwater run-off generate problems that will only become more pressing with time. Consider what gets washed off the roads with every downpour: toxic substances ranging from oil productions and contaminated dust from vehicle exhausts to industrial chemicals. Contaminants that are stripped from streets, construction sites, industrial sites and other surfaces include sediment, organic matter, nutrients and disease causing micro-organisms. Much of the litter you see on our beaches is transported there via our stormwater systems. Litter is just the obvious visible effect of a much more subtle, insidious and invisible problem and Waikato people might think their relatively low population shield them from having to worry about it. Not so.

I note that in today's Independent Tainui are talking about targeting major corporates and councils to generate a clean up fund for the river. I'd point out to Tainui that, although it is easy to target big corporates, they are frequently subject to rigorous controls over their point sourced discharges. As I've just pointed out, the most significant pollution now is generated by the whole of the urban population and by farmers. Taxes and levies are more difficult instruments to impose on such a large and diffuse group.

To return to Waikato's State of the Environment Report: it gives me great pleasure to launch this excellent report today. From the national point of view, it is most welcome. The success of environmental monitoring at the national level - the ability to place a finger on the national pulse - depends on the willingness of region councils to link into national practice. National environmental performance indicators only make sense if they are agreed measures to track changes in the environment throughout the country.

New Zealand's national system for reporting on the state of the environment, the Environmental Performance Indicators Programme, is being developed by the Ministry for the Environment in collaboration with other agencies like Environment Waikato. The Ministry intends to have a tool-box of core environmental performance indicators available for use by the year 2000. Environment Waikato has a strong commitment to working with the Ministry for the Environment in its indicator programme and I'm grateful for it. In it's State of the Environment Report Environment Waikato has generated an admirable publication. It is important to use the information from this SER to make good environmental decisions. Can I urge the councillors and those interested in the quality of the region's environment to use it to gain the support of the community for taking the next steps.