24 Oct 2014

Managing freshwater: from simple slogans to seriously informed decision-making

This week we invited James Palmer, Deputy Secretary for Sector Strategy at the Ministry for the Environment to share his thoughts on where freshwater management in New Zealand is heading.

"Over recent years it has been just about impossible to miss the fact that fresh water and the impacts of farming have been gaining profile. Just about every New Zealander now has an opinion about fresh water quality but very few have much depth of understanding of the issues. Our economy and our wellbeing are based on our rich natural capital base and the ecosystem services this provides so we need this to be a major focus in our national discourse. But as the saying goes, a little bit of information can be a dangerous thing.

From the media coverage and the views one hears out and about in the community, it seems that the focus is almost solely on dairying, nitrogen and periphyton. The role of water flows, takes and temperature gets limited attention - where in many places this is the main driver of water quality. In many other parts of the country the main issues are erosion, sediment and phosphorous, often long standing issues that have been in motion since the first forests were burned. Urban impacts on water quality, particularly storm water runoff from roads and roofs, gets very little attention but is a major driver and one that is very expensive to fix. In some parts of the country water quality is very good, either because it has always been so or because of the great efforts on farmers, landcare groups and councils, which also gets little attention.

Over the next few years the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand will be seeking to change this. A bill before Parliament legislates for the first time independent and regular environmental reporting across the full range of our natural environments. The first 'synthesis' report will be released in the middle of 2015, giving a picture of the national state of our environment. This online tool will allow everyone from school children to researchers to understand the states and trends, as well as pressures and impacts in our environment.

As the National Objectives Framework for Freshwater Management is implemented, communities around the country will have to confront the very real state and trend of water quality in their region and consider the costs and benefits of doing things differently. For this process to work effectively sound information and data, including economic and social data, will be crucial.

Debates around environmental management in coming years will move from simple slogans and positioning by groups to seriously informed decision-making. And this is as it should be. We will be witnessing the move from binary debates based on little bits of information to sophisticated management based on good information and pragmatic, outcomes oriented decision-making. New Zealand will be all the better off because of it."


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