After years of fiery debate over what should be done to reverse the degradation of New Zealand's freshwater estate, the Government is about to decide on a raft of proposals it's put to the public. They include new environmental standards that would effectively put the brakes on further intensification of dairy farms; a requirement for farmers to have "farm plans" by 2025 and more stringent rules around fencing and nitrogen loss, with some catchments facing having to cut rates by as much as 80 per cent over the next few years. Councils would have to put the health and wellbeing of water first in decision-making, adopt tougher rules for wastewater discharges, use more monitoring indicators, and ensure swimming spots were at higher standards over summer. People have until the end of this month to have their say on them . Are these measures realistic or fair? Do we know enough about how our rivers are faring? And is it too late to ever make them truly "swimmable" again? Science reporter Jamie Morton asked Waikato University freshwater scientist Professor Troy Baisden .
Successive studies and reports have given us a general picture of New Zealand's freshwater quality: that being that levels of harmful E. coli and nitrogen have been worsening at more areas - and that waterways are faring much worse in our pastoral countryside and cities than in other areas. How have we ended up in this situation?
As a nation, we've tended to think of ourselves as being economically dependent on agricultural exports.
Efforts to rebalance this dependency in favour of a knowledge or technology driven economy have fared poorly compared to efforts to grow our primary exports.
The dairy sector has led the charge through intensification and expansion, and this has had environmental consequences.
While announcing the freshwater action plan, Environment Minister David Parker highlighted that successive Governments didn't foresee the dairy boom.
Answering a question, he remarked that hindsight showed the boom was a result of rising dairy prices from the Uruguay round of free trade agreements.
Just as the outcome of the dairy boom was unforeseen, so was the collapse of the process intended to maintain balance between production and the environment.
This effort was called the Land and Water Forum (LAWF), and matched leaders from agricultural sectors, Māoridom, environmental non-government organisations (NGOs) with top researchers.
When major environmental organisations including Forest and Bird and Fish and Game pulled out of the LAWF, it became clear there was problem.
There were 218 recommendations across four LAWF reports, yet only 21 were fully implemented – less than 10 per cent.
Worse, more than 50 per cent of the recommendations were not implemented at all.
When we look at the consequences, we often focus on the dairy sector, but issues have spilled out widely.
As many like to point out, this goes beyond the primary sector into urban areas and even the management of waste from popular freedom camping areas.
As result, we've learned that both central government and some regional councils didn't act on clear messages predicting the impacts of ongoing agricultural expansion and intensification.
The current government claims a mandate to act as a result of the last election, where the environment became a major issue and doesn't appear to be one that is going to go away.
How good is our knowledge of our freshwater estate? What are some of the crucial pieces of the picture that we're missing here – and why has it been such a challenge for scientists to get them?
We didn't get into the current situation mainly as a result of a lack of knowledge.
We know the scale and scope of the problem fairly well. Yet our knowledge is far from perfect, and there are two problems with gaps in our knowledge.
First, knowledge gaps and uncertainty are easily exploited by vested interests, including industry, to justify business-as-usual activity.
This is a common theme in environmental science, and well documented for climate change issues.
This is difficult for scientists to counter, and more difficult when knowledge is place or catchment specific.
Second, we don't have the knowledge that points to solutions.
Much of the science so far has succeeded in documenting the problem, but not documenting solutions that can be implemented, particularly on farms.
If we want to reverse degradation of our lakes and rivers, what do you see as the priority areas to tackle first?
Focusing on solutions, the single most important area for progress isn't in the water. To socialise the means of protecting Lake Taupō, by managing the whole catchment, there was a simple message: "The problem is in the lake; the solution lies in the landscape."
Taupō has been saved by measures resembling those in the Action Plan for Freshwater. There, it was easier - but not easy - because the process started nearly 20 years ago and was confirmed in 2008, just before the dairy boom.
However, Lake Taupō was the one body of water considered important enough to protect by just buying farmland and converting it to forests.
Everywhere else, the first step should be better understanding how much we can reduce contaminant losses from farming.
Reducing losses of valuable resources like soil or nutrients can and should be a win-win, maintaining or enhancing productivity while reducing impacts on water.
This may mean changing how farms work, just as households have learned to compost and recycle.
Regenerative farming is a buzzword catching steam describing how this redesign might work to improve sustainability while maintaining production.
The Government proposes widening the range of indicators that regional councils use to monitor waterways. Scientists have been calling for ecosystem measures like the macro-invertebrate community index (MCI) to be incorporated for a long time. But are we at the point where we can accurately use these new indicators?
By and large, we have the tools we need to monitor our freshwater.
MCI is now well developed, and the biggest challenge is slightly different ways of calculating results that can be chosen based on purpose and place.
We also generally know the sensitivity of fish - like trout or whitebait - and taonga species - like kōura, kākahi, and tuna – freshwater crayfish, mussels and eel - to poor water quality, such as low dissolved oxygen levels.
Areas we need to know more about include the reproduction of native fish and shellfish – including where harvesting or habitat loss in spawning areas threatens local populations or whole species.
And we need a better chain of evidence that helps us understand how excess nutrients cause too much algal growth, which then causes oxygen to be consumed, killing fish, shellfish and the invertebrates they eat.
Scientists refer to this as ecosystem metabolism, and haven't agreed on a single way to measure it.
The rural sector has also aired concerns over the cost that these reforms might bring – potentially $1b over the next 10 years – while arguing that good policy needs to be backed by good information. Do you feel these concerns are justified, or that we know enough to do what these reforms suggest?
New Zealand exports over $40b per year from the land-based primary sector, and this amount grew by $8b in the last two years.
The growth is taking a toll on our environment. Economists call this an externality, because the costs are external to the market and not seen by the industries that earn profits.
There is global interest in addressing this problem, with the global cost of environmental impacts associated with food production system was recently valued at $12t US.
Undoubtedly, industries will try to resist paying the costs of externalities, but $1b over 10 years does not seem like a lot.
Compare it to profits already made on exports ($40b per year), or the potential value we can develop from our environmental image overseas, or to the $16b international tourists spend in New Zealand each year.
Farming groups have also advocated tackling the freshwater problem through a catchment-by-catchment approach, rather than a national, one-size-fits all one. Given we know that some of our regions are faring much worse than others, isn't that a logical idea?
This idea is indeed logical because New Zealand's landscapes vary dramatically.
In fact, it was a key driver of the reform of local government 30 years ago.
Regional councils were set up along catchment boundaries, so decisions could be tailored locally while avoiding the problems of having different governments controlling headwaters and lowlands in the same catchment.
These problems remain in most of the world, and environmental scientists from overseas are amazed when I explain that New Zealand already did this.
Similarly, the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management, first introduced in 2011, revised three times, and redrafted for the current consultation sets up Freshwater Management Units (FMUs), which are generally catchments, within each regional council's area.
Thus, we've been trying to do this region-by-region and catchment-by-catchment.
Unfortunately, neither regional control of environmental policy, nor FMUs have completely solved our problems.
A big challenge is that rural electorates often favour economic development more than the nation as a whole, which is dominated by urban voters.
Another challenge has been the number of separate catchment-based FMUs.
They create a process of having essentially the same process not just in 16 different regions, but typically within five or more FMUs in each region.
Clearly, a firmer overarching framework, or at least a set of rules from central government is needed, to clarify what regional councils must protect and what they can balance in each catchment.
That's the aim the pieces of the action plan currently under consultation and upcoming changes to the Resource Management Act.
Do you feel for some catchments – faced with cutting nitrogen loss rates by as much as 80 per cent over the next few years – the proposed measures are unrealistic?
I feel for everyone with a stake in this, and some catchments in particular.
The costs, complication and changes in direction are all painful, and take time to understand.
For areas that now need to make 80 per cent reductions, it seems like the obvious point is that it was the farming model in those catchments that was unrealistic.
Many areas of the country are looking at much smaller reductions - 20 to 40 per cent - that will still be challenging.
On the upside, we have processes under way for more than a decade to achieve 20 to 40 per cent reductions in nitrogen reaching the lakes in the Taupō and Rotorua catchments.
These are still on track despite having many challenges, and should therefore be seen as successes we can learn from.
Given that clear messages have led to progress in many regions, but appear to have been ignored in others, we might ask how we should frame simple, clear messages on this topic.
I helped lead work published in 2008 showing that industry targets of three to four per cent growth pointed to more than a tripling of water pollution by nitrogen by 2050, and much more in some intensifying regions.
The implications of more than tripling nitrogen pollution seemed unlikely to be acceptable to the New Zealand public, since existing levels were already problematic in many areas.
An alternate scenario focussing on capping nitrogen and enhancing the value of exports seemed more realistic in the long run.
This was consistent with the schemes in Taupō and Rotorua, and seemed to be built into planning nationally and in many regions, particularly Horizons' OnePlan.
Should the farming community have been better warned?
The recommendations of the LAWF implied that the situation was well understood. Agricultural leaders held strong roles in the LAWF, and were well represented in the current process, including chairing the Leaders group that recommended the reforms MfE is implementing now.
As a result, my assessment is that current proposal is well-balanced, and that the areas that have overshot by 80 per cent are clear and not widespread.
I also suspect they're mostly recent developments and include few, if any, multi-generational family farms.
Thus, we need to be careful not to take these numbers out of context, and understanding that this is currently mainly designed to halt further overshooting.
A major aim of the reforms seems to be putting a halt to, or at least slowing, further land intensification. What impact might this intervention have? And are we effectively too late, given what's happened to waterways over the past few decades?
It seems there has been confusion.
From the standpoint of environmental science and complexity, the single most important thing to do first is resolve the current confusion in a way that stops the problem from getting worse, even if there's no way to completely predict how possible solutions will work.
Therefore, as a first step to resolve confusion, the message needs to be clear that limits are being set.
And indeed, limits have been proposed on further intensification where this is needed, on further loss of wetlands, and on further expansion of practices like winter grazing.
It may not be exactly clear what happens next, but in this case there is a clear message about what is or might be halted, and why.
There are many impacts of doing this.
The first is an improved sense of business certainty.
It is easy to forget this is bigger for lenders and investors looking at future development than for current operations.
Preventing inappropriate development is the first impact of the signals.
From there, we get into a more difficult process of figure out what can be done.
Science can run the numbers on this, but progress ultimately has to happen through real action by farmers.
Therefore, the second big impact of signalling caps, limits and regulation is that, once these are accepted, farmers will innovate.
Some are already are doing so, and I expect many are planning to if the process seems fair.
Science can help, and measure which changes to farm systems achieve the most, so we can do more of those.
There has also been worry from environmental groups – and also the collaborative Freshwater Leadership Group - about the value of farm plans to mitigate pollution. Do you see any issues here yourself?
Most of the action to achieve better results for freshwater has to be done on farms, and I don't see how that can work without documented plans.
The challenge is making the plans meaningful, rather than tick box exercises.
These plans could become an ideal way for leading farmers to share ideas and demonstrate what works under what circumstances.
Plans will also be valuable if they build trust, so that the process seems fair when farms look across fence lines to their neighbours, and communities investing in downstream wetlands, lakes and estuaries can get a sense that farmers are doing their part.
This could mean having information audited, with a limited amount publicly available for transparency and trust.
Are you concerned that these reforms don't look to tackle another major issue in this space: allocation?
Yes, few problems get resolved without understanding fairness around the details of who gets what – and that's what allocation is about.
When it started over a year ago, the Government's work package originally included "Fairly Allocated" in its subtitle.
Allocation has been put on the back burner, seemingly because the issue of "who owns water?" has proven difficult politically.
When most people think about water allocation, they think mainly about water quantity.
Yet, there's an equally challenging allocation problem that emerges from setting limits on intensification or water quality. Who gets to release contaminants into water within the new limit, and how much?
Allocation for water quantity and quality raises real questions of fairness.
Imagine you own a sheep farm next to a recently intensified dairy farm in a catchment where there is both undeveloped land and headroom for further dairy intensification, but the proposed limit won't allow all farms like yours to develop to the extent of your neighbour's dairy farm.
Would you accept a process that lets each farm keep its existing level of development, and therefore prevents your farm from ever being developed to match your neighbour's farm?
If each farm is entitled to maintain its current impacts on the environment, this is called grand-parenting.
It effectively rewards this who have already developed and penalises those who feel they've shown environmental stewardship.
From developing limit-setting processes in existing catchments, and also the similar process internationally related to climate change, it turns out to be difficult to get acceptance of limits and action to achieve them without understanding how allocation can be seen as fair.
An often unseen consequence of this is the science to support the process gets done almost entirely to set the limits, and not to support fair allocation.
There's a need for better science and multi-disciplinary research to support allocation related to water quality.
Might it be better if we approached the freshwater problem like we do climate change? Responding to that challenge seems to have been more guided by the bottom-line facts as scientists have laid them out.
There are two important aspects of the science addressing climate change that I think would clearly have helped.
The first is a high level recognition that science frames the problem, and that policy or legislation poorly matched to how the world works is unlikely to work smoothly.
In the freshwater proposals, a clear accounting framework for the mass balance of nutrients, especially nitrogen, is missing despite the application of these frameworks in the Rotorua and Taupō catchments.
The frameworks are similar to the way we relate national emissions inventories to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
This doesn't solve the whole problem, but is simpler and far less prone to confusion or manipulation than relying mainly on indicators and trends.
A second missing element is a regular scientific assessment process that allows progress, updates in knowledge, and unexpected events to be evaluated against the framework and objectives.
The IPCC Assessment Reports on climate change are highly successful examples.
Similar processes occur on 5 and 10 year intervals in Rotorua and Taupō, respectively.
Thus, where there is frustration is that the proposals out for consultation from MfE contain a dizzying array of detailed mechanisms, we can draw on climate change for frameworks connecting these or putting them in perspective.
This would also be useful because some aspects of agricultural greenhouse gas accounting depend on very similar data on animal numbers and agricultural practices to estimates of nitrate leaching.
Farmers won't want two different systems operating, especially if they don't make sense relative to one another, or double the paperwork.
Further: is the Government and regional councils investing enough in freshwater science to get the information we urgently need?
The Government announced in excess of $200 million to support freshwater in the last budget, but it remains somewhat unclear how much is for science, information management and policy development, and how much is for real action on the ground.
Regional councils won't have budgeted for additional work, and will be asking if this work should be funded by regional ratepayers or by central government.
Let's also not forget that iwi authorities, industry organisations, environmental NGOs will need to interact with the relevant workstreams as stakeholders, and potentially also lead their own research relevant to being able to properly engage with the policy and decision-making processes proposed.
This will be costly and time consuming for them.
Furthermore, the new science needed is not yet clear, and unlikely to deliver outcomes neatly and smoothly.
It usually takes at least five years and often 10 to 20 years between the time science steps into an area of uncertainty and the time it delivers insights that lead to efficient or effective outcomes.
Much of the lack of clarity we face now comes from two related challenges.
The first is the need to understand what reductions in contaminant losses can be achieved within existing farming systems through innovation.
The second is what research is needed to ensure innovation on farms and in land use is connected to value in supply chains and overseas markets.
Both really matter in the long run. Just for example, the payment per kg of milk solids is higher from Synlait than Fonterra, but also comes with a requirement to meet environmental standards.
The difference, in terms of cash surplus, can make a big difference in terms for fencing, wetland restoration, or other measures to meet and improve on the higher standards.
Yet, what is possible by really capturing the value of a combined environmental sustainability and health branding is perhaps five or ten times greater, especially if linked to the iconic catchments where we most want to protect freshwater.
I'd prefer to see us thinking more about how to get research under way that is matched to these goals.
One of the most intriguing options left open to consultation is whether Te Ao Māori perspectives previously incorporated as Te Mana o Te Wai will be given compulsory value related to Mahinga Kai (culturally significant food gathering practices), or will be given different consideration place-by-place by individual iwi and hapū. What kinds of issues does this throw up?
I find it intriguing that this was posed as an either/or proposition. Both questions options seem useful in most framework-driven approaches.
The recent WAI 2358 report from the Waitangi Tribunal, as well as the report from the Kahui Wai Māori advising MfE, suggest that an overarching framework, and likely one consistent with Te Ao Māori, will be needed.
If such a framework is successful, it could have the following widespread benefits.
First, Māori corporations are increasingly engaged, and recognised, as innovative leaders in the primary sector, and therefore have sophisticated views and strategies on how to manage the trade off between economic potential and Te Mana o te Wai within their rohe.
These are well worth considering.
In addition, Te Ao Māori also sees freshwater and health within a single concept, waiora, in a manner that resembles the conflation of environment and health by consumers in our key markets, especially Asia.
In contrast, frameworks for science and policy in western democracies tend to keep these ideas strongly separated, even after events such as the drinking water incident in Havelock North demonstrate strong parallels across the two issues.
Failure to resolve these issues has tended to fragment Te Ao Māori into pieces underneath the proposed policy package, just as the science describing how the world works also seems fragmented.
We might do well to fully consider what Te Ao Māori offers, with potential to offer insights as well as resolve confusion around rights and interests and allocation that must be resolved to fully enable large-scale investment in a future of sustainable land use.
We often hear talk of making our rivers swimmable again, or somehow restoring waterways to a pristine state. Is it more probable that we'll never be able to "undo" the damage?
In general, restoration is possible, but not necessarily everywhere.
The hardest part is getting started.
Switzerland provides an example of a relatively similar landscape that reversed massive declines in lake and river water quality, restoring a nearly pristine state over decades.
Rotorua is our best example in a large, iconic lake of reversing algal blooms that were common 15 years ago. These blooms ended in 2010 through a combination of interventions.
Achieving a long-term healthy state for Rotorua will depend on catchment management, and is a case where this is expected to have delays due to groundwater ages.
But these delays now appear to be less important than originally thought, and across much of the country interventions that make freshwater safe for swimming again require years, not decades.
What do we risk if New Zealand gets these reforms wrong?
My analysis, based on understanding complexity and environmental science, is that we're at a tipping point.
It's not just about exceeding the limits of freshwater ecosystems to cope with pollution from agriculture.
New Zealand seems to be at risk of losing the attractiveness of "clean, green" branding, because the world has become so connected.
More tourists than ever before are roaming our landscapes, and messages and video on social media spread around the world in viral form.
Alternatively, we have great potential to build on statistics showing we are among the most sustainable agricultural and horticultural producers in the word.
On one path that we're now trying to avoid, we find ourselves increasingly unable to explain away unsightly algae filling our iconic rivers and lakes.
On the other path, we may not have a perfect record, but can explain when and how we protected the water appropriately in each catchment, and how we pulled together the science and investment to do so.
If we're successful on the latter, we'll have developed durable, multi-faceted, and proactive solutions to complex challenges, and remained flexible and innovative.