Be Bold: Ideas for Freshwater

Water is interwoven into every aspect of our lives. We can’t live without it, and at Boffa Miskell, it’s integral to what we do. It's time for more holistic thinking about how we care for this most precious resource.

Landscape architects design a public space alongside a river, collaborating with ecologists to incorporate features that restore water quality and habitat value. Technical service consultants fly drones over wetlands so GIS specialists can analyse the data and create maps to enable planners and designers to make appropriate development decisions. And these areas of expertise work in partnership with cultural advisors who collaborate with mana whenua to apply Te Ao Maori values.

With that perspective, and in light of the many recently-released freshwater reform packages here are some bold ideas about new ways that New Zealand could change how we care for this most precious resource.

Connect the dots. There are a lot of dots.

Imagine you’ve just driven off the Interislander in Wellington, and decide to head towards 90 Mile Beach, but with no map or GPS. You know where you want to go but have no idea how long it’ll take. Should you take the short route or the scenic route? What do your travelling companions say? Some want to go via Taranaki, stopping along the way and seeing the sights; others argue that SH1 will be faster, with little disruption. Which choice is best? Does it matter? Will any route do as long as we get there? Why can’t we choose from a variety of routes?

Just like getting directions from helpful Kiwis, the good news is, there’s willingness to work across sectors to change New Zealand’s freshwater outcomes. We just need to coordinate these efforts, and maybe change the questions we ask.

We’re starting on the back foot though. Strategic documents and high-level policy statements are not always backed up by comprehensive planning or implementation guidelines. Some of the science is contradictory. While scientists and iwi generally agree on what needs to change, there is disagreement about how best to do it while balancing economic, community and cultural outcomes.

There’s no shortage of stakeholders in the freshwater space and many have produced their own guidance documents, research findings, and sector approaches. Along with the Government’s recent packages of national Freshwater Reforms, the Primary Sector Council has just released a document that outlines a Vision and Strategic Direction towards 2030. Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu have developed a methodology for assessing the cultural health and mauri of a freshwater environment. District Councils and Regional Councils all have policies that are locally focused, and there’s the RMA sitting on top of it all.

Just as no one will say “Ahipara doesn’t exist; you can only go to Kaitaia”, no one denies that the state of our freshwater needs to improve. However, we need to acknowledge that the guidance and regulation can be confusing, complex, and not always appropriate to the property or catchment in which it is being implemented. Despite best intentions, if your map is outdated or doesn’t apply to local roads, you’ll end up in the wrong place… or worse, go backwards.

Do the same thing, but different

Ironically, the issues we are having with freshwater quality in rural environments can be traced back to government initiatives to improve farm productivity and increase export earnings. We are living with the legacy of policies from the ‘70s ‘80s and ‘90s when Governments subsidised or funded (yes, they paid) people to drain wetlands and remove riparian vegetation as part of flood control schemes and to boost farm yields.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the consequences are a generational legacy of degraded waterways and lakes. While noticeable in rural areas, the same degradation of freshwater qualities also occurred as cities expanded and intensified. Floodplains were filled, streams were channelised, piped or diverted, and polluted with discharges of sewerage and stormwater.

Despite this, there’s an expectation that the rural sector is (perhaps solely) responsible for delivering better water quality outcomes to turn back the clock on freshwater, at their cost. This expectation generally involves changing land use away from intensively farmed livestock.  While cropping and intensive vegetable production is a known contributor in degrading water systems, changing this is rarely mentioned — how else will we get our 5+ of fruit and vege a day?

If delivering improved water quality depends on land use changes, do we know how much of the catchment land use needs to change, what the land use should change to, and if the catchment has critical areas where these changes will result in disproportionately large improvements?

Also, how will affected people earn a living? Should landowners be reimbursed if the income from the new land use is less than they earned previously? Are Māori disadvantaged if they are denied the opportunity to improve productivity using conventional agriculture? And given the Government’s role in creating the problem, what should the Government’s role be in helping solve it — beyond more guidance and more regulation?

Let’s investigate, and invest in, production of food, fibres and timber using methods that work with nature, revive natural systems, support rural communities, and make a measurable connection between productive land and freshwater outcomes.

We must carefully consider how change will happen. When land is retired from production, there is a direct impact in lost jobs, reduced incomes, reduced spending, and declining community vitality. Rural communities that don’t make money can’t invest in improving freshwater outcomes. The Primary Sector Council recognises the potential of regenerative agriculture to fundamentally change ecological and freshwater outcomes while maintaining (or even increasing) productive yields. How much investment is needed to demonstrate freshwater and ecological benefits, develop a toolbox of proven methods, and determine which land is inappropriate for regenerative production methods?

Let’s invest in understanding the options and market value for production from non-pastoral land. What economic value can be derived from indigenous tree crops? Mānuka honey is a fantastic example of non-pastoral land giving economic returns, but relying on a single product is risky (remember Mycoplasma bovis and Myrtle rust?). Is there market potential for indigenous essential oils and teas? Have we consolidated the research into the medical and/or healthcare potential of indigenous fungi, lichen and plants? Private enterprise has a role to play, but with Government support we can find the answers more quickly and scale up production.

We also need to consider ‘retiring’ some land, and provide an economic incentive for doing so beyond the limited value obtained from carbon farming.

Get over the idea that “not producing something” = “doing nothing”.

Some will argue “You’re subsidising landowners for doing nothing with their land” – but that’s where our collective thinking needs to change. The land is not “doing nothing” – the land and the catchment is doing exactly what we need it to do: hold water and disperse it slowly, sequester carbon and normalise local weather patterns, provide habitat for indigenous biodiversity, support resilient production systems and vibrant rural communities, and revive beautiful landscapes for us to enjoy.

Just as the market assigns a monetary value to what farmland produces (meat, dairy, vegetables, fruit, fibre, timber) we need to assign monetary value to the eco-system services that retired and altered catchments will provide. And if farmers are contributing to improved freshwater ecosystem services through production systems and/or land retirement, then shouldn’t they be reimbursed for that?

Imagine designing the land uses in a catchment to achieve a healthy waterway, revived cultural values, dynamic rural community, resilient food production systems, and a sound financial outcome for landowners. What would that look like? We already have many of the tools needed; where’s the incentive?

Bridge the rural-urban divide

While there’s no missing the Otakaro-Avon River as it winds through Otautahi-Christchurch or the Waikato River passing through Kirikiriroa-Hamilton, residents of Tamaki-Makaurau are far more ocean-oriented and over 95% of the waterways in Wellington are piped underground. Most of the urban community is unaware of the connection between surface water and groundwater, between a river and its catchment, how land uses and water quality and quantity are intertwined.

We’ve seen that daylighting urban streams not only mitigates stormwater issues and flooding, it brings about a new awareness of these long-hidden ecosystems, and an appreciation for the broader benefits to the community and the wider environment. Freshwater is not just a rural issue, and the more we can increase the visible presence of freshwater streams in our cities, the greater the likelihood of garnering wide support for measures to protect and restore riparian environments.

It’s essential that urban communities understand the role they play in improving water quality, not only through their own actions but also in supporting rural landowners and developers in making positive changes.

Our cities are built in freshwater catchments, so why not incentivise developers for methods that enhance or revitalise freshwater systems? Or use development models that allow freshwater ecosystem services to continue functioning? Can we offer density bonuses for urban developments designed to reduce flooding, erosion or pollution downstream and revive aquatic ecological function, and incentivise urban private enterprise to produce positive outcomes for water?

This outside-the-box thinking is often constrained by existing codes, planning regulations or lack of experience. It would take holistic planning and strategic thinking to implement; but it’s worth considering. Some rural councils have offered financial incentives for the protection of native forest and wetlands for decades; urban councils might consider similar incentives to incentivise market-driven restoration of our aquatic environments.

So how do we arrive at a monetary value of those ecosystem services in both a rural and an urban context? There’s been a lot of work internationally in this area so an agreed value for a measure of improvement shouldn’t be too difficult to arrive at.

Take a holistic view

We’re back to where we started.

Water stretches across all our disciplines – and with that we’re able to have robust discussions both internally and with our clients. Despite the myriad of values and uses assigned by individuals and communities to water and aquatic habitats, it is universally appreciated.

We need to develop bold policies and take bold actions to revive New Zealand’s freshwater with all values in mind – cultural, ecological, aesthetic, economic. We all agree on the destination for Aotearoa’s freshwater, we need a far better understanding and acceptance of the different routes we might take to get there.

Let’s take on that challenge. Aotearoa New Zealand is an inclusive fair-minded country with a long history of innovation and world-leading enterprise. Surely this task is within our reach if we ask the questions differently: which road will we choose?

Photo by Te Akatea on Unsplash

22 July 2020