I've been asking myself recently whether we have the right environmental governance model in Hawke's Bay.
Few people would agree that it is right and fewer still would claim to know just how to fix it.
I am not claiming perfect insight but I do believe I have a missing piece of the jigsaw.
Over the past 5 years, 30 or so dedicated souls called the "TANK Group" have met together at least monthly to chart the future for local water quality and quantity regulation on the Heretaunga Plains.
TANK Group has been working diligently, with the support of HBRC, to come up with a consensus position to recommend for implementation by the Regional Council. This work is likely to be completed in a few months' time, after which a Plan Change covering the 4 catchments will be publicly notified.
TANK has a broad mandate but this does not extend to include the environmental governance structure. That limitation is appropriate for TANK but it leaves the wider question of fixing the governance structure unresolved.
HBRC last week announced a plan to restructure around an Integrated Catchment Management model, including the intention to build staff numbers to improve community liaison and deal with the necessity for increased regulation.
At least in theory, this will sharpen HBRC's focus on addressing priority environmental issues and improve its effectiveness in driving necessary behaviour change and in communicating their progress.
But it has become obvious to me through the work of TANK that there is something missing in the governance mix and that is the need for broader representation of public interests in the ongoing governance of regional environmental matters after TANK finishes its work.
The existing leadership of nine elected regional councillors and nine iwi representatives who constitute the regional planning committee and jointly govern regional environment policy is a sound structure and not one that necessarily needs to change.
In recent times the council has become highly politically charged and some would argue that this is inappropriate and unhealthy. I do believe we should aspire as a community to seeing less politics and more good governance at this level. The politicking though is the natural outcome of a groundswell of public and special interest group dissatisfaction with recent trends in the state of our regional and national environments.
Success in regional environmental stewardship will be when our regional council elections go back to being dull boring affairs where nobody gets too exorcised about anything because by and large the public is happy with the state of the environment.
Meanwhile right now, the lack of opportunity for broader ongoing input into HBRC governance risks derailing the good work to come at the catchment level from the implementation of consensus-driven changes being developed by the TANK Group.
It is generally accepted internationally that the best environmental outcomes are achieved when an adaptive management framework is employed at the catchment level to allow a flexible approach to the solution of complex environmental problems.
This approach is also strongly endorsed by the Land and Water Forum. Adaptive management allows policy flexibility to focus on problems that are catchment-specific, incentivises landowners to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem and allows experimentation and innovation over time in a process of continuous improvement.
TANK members generally accept the principle of adaptive management but even within TANK there are varying levels of confidence with the approach and this comes down to lack of confidence and trust in the regional council to administer a flexible policy effectively.
Successful environment policy needs a flexible approach to deal with the myriad of uncertainties that lie between cause and effect in natural systems.
Science plays a part but natural systems are so complex that science often raises as many questions as it answers. One of the key challenges in catchment management is to encourage land use change in the face of incomplete information about cause and effect, in other words with incomplete proof.
This requires working co-operatively with landowners as a first preference in an adaptive management continuous improvement process, rather than writing prescriptive rules that inevitably cannot account for all situations and only set minimum standards that do not improve over time and generate expensive legal battles.
Note though that this does not mean an absence of regulation. On the contrary, it is inevitable that more environmental regulation will be required and there is no doubt that the threat of additional regulation plays a critical role in incentivising environmental improvements.
Achieving a balance between regulation and enlightened self-interested co-operation by landowners is the goal.
Integrated catchment management and adaptive management go hand in hand. HBRC has just adopted the former in their recent restructure and the TANK Group is working to see the latter incorporated into their Plan Change. However, the biggest challenge is to persuade a sceptical public that HBRC and landowners can be trusted to deliver acceptable rates of environmental improvements.
This is where re-introduced and re-invented community catchment management boards offer a solution. Hawke's Bay needs flexible and adaptive environment policies to achieve the best and quickest environmental improvements.
But that requires the community to have sufficient trust in HBRC to delegate some flexibility into the Regional Plan. This will only happen if HBRC raises its standards of public disclosure on catchment management performance and only if more of the community feel they have more direct input into HBRC's policy implementation.
We don't need more regional councillors and more politics to do this, we just need a system that allows for more grass-roots oversight at the individual catchment management level. Community catchment boards will deliver that. The public has a chance to influence this when HBRC releases its new draft Long Term Plan later this month.
* Xan Harding is a grapegrower and member of TANK