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New report: regional plans could transform freshwater quality

Friday 9 Jun 23 11:45am

PHOTO: Lake Heron, Ashburton Lakes, Canterbury | Shellie Evans.


Media release | A report laying out weaknesses in planning that have seen the deterioration of our high-country lakes should be compulsory reading for all regional councils as they develop their new regional plans according to academics.

In the latest Public Health Communication Centre Briefing, research fellow with the University of Otago, Marnie Prickett, looks at the hard-hitting report from the Ministry of Environment (MfE) Ōtūwharekai/Ashburton Lakes lessons-learnt report . The report presents a list of regulatory failures, particularly by the Environment Canterbury (ECan – the regional council responsible for the lakes).


However, each of these failures highlights its own solution, providing constructive and timely information for councils charged with protecting and restoring waterways for the communities who rely on them, according to Marnie Prickett.

“ECan’s 2015 Land and Water Plan was amended seven times but the building blocks of the plan were flawed. The report found that the limit put on nitrogen loss to the lakes was based on an idea of ‘holding the line’, and not on establishing the nitrogen concentration the lakes needed to be healthy. That ‘line’ was a level of nitrogen loss that was already too high to protect the lakes from further degradation.”


Marnie Prickett says realistic and healthy targets for nutrients in waterways support councils to establish meaningful rules for each catchment to restore and protect the health of waterways and achieve other community goals (like swimming, gathering Mahinga Kai, or protecting a drinking water source).

“The report found if councils set nitrogen and phosphorous limits too high, there is little regulatory impetus to drive the change necessary and waterbodies continue to degrade.”


The report also identified an over-reliance on output-based (or effects-based) regulation. It particularly highlighted the difficulty and inadequacy of farm-scale modelling. “The inverse of regulating the modelling of farm outputs (nutrient losses) is regulating their inputs. Inputs are drivers of losses, such as the amount of fertiliser applied, the stocking rate (animals per hectare) and irrigation,” says Ms Prickett.

“Healthy limits for nutrients and input rules for catchments are just two of the solutions to the failures the report points to. However, there are more critical lessons contained in the report. Councillors and council staff around the country can use these lessons learnt to confidently sidestep past mistakes when drawing up regional plans and support communities moving towards a healthier future.”

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