Restoring the Mauri of Lower Waikato Lakes

  • Nanaia Mahuta

Speech notes for address to open Tuapapa Putaiao Fellows conference on restoring the mauri of Lower Waikato Lakes. Te Kauwhata Rugby Club

Its always a great opportunity to be home and join events such as this which make a significant contribution to preserving the quality of life we want to have in our communities in the Waikato region. Thank you for inviting me here today.

We are living in challenging and exciting times and the expectation amongst a new generation of young New Zealanders is that we act in a responsible way to preserve the heritage of those who have gone before us for the benefit of those yet to come. Our awareness continues to increase as our population expands, as we continue to consume, and create greater demands on scarce natural resources for our way of life. More people are seeking solutions that urge a rebalancing of priorities that take account of the environment and Maaori values such as kaitiakitanga.

The Government is tasked with setting a strategic challenge towards greater environmental accountability and optimising our collective vision to show leadership for the benefit of the environment. We must all rise to meet the challenge if durable and effective solutions are to be reached.

Let me explain, we have the benefit of learning from Maaori knowledge inherent with understanding about the environment and we are also benefactors of western science based principles. Both bodies of knowledge can add to a unique approach to achieve sustainable decision-making for the future of our natural resources and environs. The integration and collaboration of Maaori and western knowledge is an idea whose time has surely come and for that reason I am particularly honoured to give the opening speech today.

Freshwater is integral to the health, wellbeing, livelihood and culture of Maaori and all New Zealanders; It defines our landscape, sustains valuable ecosystems, and is used and enjoyed in many different ways. It is vital for native wildlife and wetlands and native fish species.

Nearby is the Waikato River, it's many tributaries and surrounding lakes. All have been a particular part of my growing up and I want to acknowledge students and researchers who have added to traditional knowledge in the area through their various disciplines of science, law and resource management and with specific reference to those studies concerning fresh water issues. This combined effort creates a picture, an understanding and awareness of the importance of waterways from a historical, cultural, scientific, economic, socio-political and environmental viewpoint.

The Waikato River has, and continues to, define and sustain the people from my tribe – both physically and spiritually. It's an important feature in the cohesion of all the hapu, and a source of mana and tribal identity for the people as it winds its way through the most fertile lands in the country.

By way of example I want to refer to a description by the late Kamira Haggie when he said:

"Throughout life I have been ingrained with the understanding and feeling that the Waikato River is the mother of Tainui. The river has and continues to sustain the people – physically and spiritually. It's an important feature in the cohesion of all the hapuu, and a source of mana and tribal identity for the people as it winds it way through the most fertile lands in the country. The river's mauri is that of the tribe. It is the greatest resource next to land, and is indivisible from the land in the preservation of tribal life. As such, the river is a taaonga, incapable of being given up by the tribe. The life of the river and thus the tribe's is in it's intactness – no limb from its body or the head separate from its heart".

This definition alludes to an interconnectedness that is both tangible, intangible and esoteric, each builds upon itself and co-exists in a way that makes absolute sense. Its this inherent perspective of the river that will motivate our vision to restore the health of the river for future generations.

Instinctively communities like this have their own stories and perspectives to share also. Today provides an opportunity for the communities that surround Lake Waikare to hear the results of research conducted on the lake and its surroundings and also to share ideas about how we can all contribute to restoring its mauri. They way in which you approach this can provide valuable lessons for other lakes in the area.

The 2002 Wetlands Accord for the lower Waikato Lakes brought together Environment Waikato, the Waipa District Council, Fish and Game, Department of Conservation, hapuu and iwi. I am keen to hear more about progress on this work today. The Government has various projects going on around New Zealand to repair some of our most degraded lakes and is committed to a national action plan for preventing more damage and implementing better management processes for water as the demands increase. Can I note that an important element of the recently agreed Te Arawa Lakes Settlement was the desire to see the restoration of those special lakes that for so long have been a popular attraction to domestic and international visitors.

I am particularly mindful (and so is the Government) that different approaches are needed for different regions. Insofar as Maaori interests are concerned, I am also mindful that co-management solutions via joint management plans are increasingly being sought. Society at large should not fear such an approach but embrace an opportunity to integrate two distinct approaches that will result in a unique "New Zealand model" for sustainable resource management.

The issues surrounding water both in terms of managing its quantity and quality, is something that the government is taking very seriously. The Water Programme of Action and the Cultural Health Index are two components that serve to inform the Governments thinking in going forward. Both initiatives include opportunities for Maori to have their research and perspectives fed into regional plans for various fresh water lakes and rivers. Notwithstanding that I am also mindful that the ongoing negotiation of Treaty Settlements such as the Waikato River will also have a subsequent impact on the way in which the Government works through issues of water allocation, transferable interests, water quality standards and management decisions at a regional level also.

I want to take a moment to outline the main thrust of the government work programme over the next term.

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 use, different values and needs for freshwater is pushing the resource to its limits in many places.

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 and 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.

The main challenges facing the Goverment include:

  • The demand for freshwater exceeding availability
  • Climate change affecting availability (more droughts)
  • Water quality declining in lowland streams due to land use
  • Protection of water ecosystems and biodiversity
  • Fairly managing the competing interests for water.

In most parts of the country there appears to be a decision-making regime that manages the challenges outlined, but there are areas - like Canterbury, Waikato, Rotorua and Taupo - where there are still, despite 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.

It must be noted that progress is being made to work with industry to clean up direct discharges into waterways. However, non-point source discharges that come from many diverse and indirect pathways are still difficult to manage. The result is increasing amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in our water bodies (in most cases 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. This of course is the major issue for the Lower Waikato Lakes.

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.

These challenges require engagement with Maori, community and industry stakeholders, local and central government to work through these issues. But we cannot let this process be a glorified 'talk shop'. I am aware that by embarking on this journey in good faith (with Maori especially), the expectation of positive tangible benefits must be realised and supported by the Government.

For sustainable management of water the key outcomes sought by Government are to:

  • improve the quality and efficient use of water by building and enhancing partnerships
  • improve the management of the undesirable effects of land use on water quality
  • provide for increasing demands on water resources and encourage efficient water management.

This means, for the most part, our greatest challenge will be to balance our competing priorities of resource use, resource management and conservation.

The government approach is that water will continue to be managed as a public resource yet it recognises that there are local solutions that are better suited to manage prior appropriation and riparian interests that can deliver positive outcomes that balance the varying interests of users.

The actions are a mix of scoping and drafting national priorities for water, improving the existing tools for water management, and looking at new ways of achieving more efficient use of water and improved water quality.

In understand that already a range of local solutions have been progressed including:

  • voluntary sector-led agreements such as the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord between Fonterra and central and local government to change land practices
  • the innovative ‘cap and trade’ approach to safeguard and improve the water quality of Lake Taupo
  • on-farm management plans to reduce the level of nutrients entering water bodies, and
  • grass-roots programmes to plant riparian margins and restore waterways.

The government has proposed options for a national policy statement for water quality. This would set national outcomes and goals for water quality but still leave room for a mix of tools and solutions to tackle the issues around water quality. Targets are also being developed for land uses that impact on water quality. Such a statement could work in conjunction with voluntary mechanisms and local solutions. We also recognise that 'at-risk' catchments are increasingly under pressure from urban and rural run-off and leaching of contaminants, so the setting of priorities to act are fundamental to local decision-making.

Allocating water is becoming increasingly challenging in some parts of the country and decision-making will need to ensure a level of consistency while balancing competing, customary and collective interests of our ever expanding population. Allocation frameworks need to include protection of environmental values for all water bodies – including surface and groundwater. Thinking needs to shift from setting minimum flows to setting environmental flows, to take into account the range of environmental and ecological values associated with water bodies this will be a useful way of bringing together the knowledge systems I spoke about earlier.

The first step will be to establish a Leadership Group that will advise on the priority that should be accorded to various water management issues and methods to address them. National policy statements, national environmental standards and criteria for identifying nationally outstanding water bodies are to be scoped and drafted. To make the best use of water and to provide councils with flexibility to manage over-allocated catchments, the Government is also interested in exploring ways to enhance transferability of water consents and develop a robust framework for considering water allocation interests.

Working with both local authorities and Industry is a key imperative for the Government as those sectors grapple with decisions about water allocation, water quality standards and the consequent effects of production from lands.

In my view, local solutions and decision-making regarding the health of waterways, their use and restoration can be enhanced with good collaboration, leadership and shared decision-making of all stakeholders and tangata whenua. The Huntly community is well aware of the pressures on local resources for the benefit of the nation. I would hope that such an example would deliver greater investment from the two resident SOE's – Genesis and Solid Energy back into the community. Resource extraction (of coal and water) has had a huge impact on both the environment and residents of our 'Tiger' town. Any investment would future-proof that community and provide it with the necessary resources to plan beyond a power station and coal-mines. Time will tell and the only way to move beyond the "think Big" projects of the 90's will be to think global, act local and take account of the environmental consequences going forward.

The Cultural Health IndexCultural Health Index is a new tool for monitoring the health of rivers and streams. Developed in Ngai Tahu, the index recognises Maaori values and links cultural knowledge to western scientific methods in a way that serves to balance the needs of tangata whenua with the needs of council resource managers.

The index produces a cultural health measurement – that shows the status of the site, mahinga kai values and the health of the stream. Maaori can use the index to begin their own assessment of the health of local rivers and streams and incorporate these freshwater values into planning and monitoring systems.

The Cultural Health Index enables cultural perspectives to be incorporated into water management and for hapuu and iwi to be involved in decisions about the management of their waterways. The index provides a score of the biological and cultural health of a stream. The index is made up of three parts;

  1. an assessment of the traditional significance of the site to tangata whenua;
  2. a score out of 5 of the mahinga kai values at the site; and
  3. a score out of 5 of eight visual signs of in-stream and near-stream health.

It also presents a meaningful way that cultural perspectives and values can be incorporated into current water management decision-making. It is merely a tool and can provide a helpful resource to Maaori as a starting point to measure tangible health indicators.

The Resource Management Act requires local government to recognise and provide for the culture and traditions of Maaori relating to water, sites, waahi tapu and other taaonga. They must also have particular regard to kaitiakitanga and take into account the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. The Cultural Health Index is a tool that supports both tangata whenua and local government to work to fulfil these and other requirements. It also provides a way for iwi and water managers can communicate to promote the understanding and integration of Maaori values and perspectives into the resource management process. I have brought copies of the Index with me for you to have a look at.

The Maruwhenua team at the Ministry for the Environment is working across the country with a number of councils and iwi/hapuu groups to support and assist iwi engage more effectively with environmental management issues. Through this work, Maruwhenua will be promoting and supporting the use of the index by iwi and councils.

No Reira Teenaa Koutou Katoa.