Items of interest from this week's meetings of the Taranaki Regional Council's two key committees, Consents & Regulatory, and Policy & Planning.
The Consents & Regulatory Committee and Policy & Planning Committee generally meet every six weeks, on the same day. Each of the Committees is made up of Councillors and external members.
Swimmability not cut and dried
The Council remains concerned about the assumptions behind and limitations of the Government-imposed swimmability target, which Taranaki and other regions with similar rainfall patterns cannot expect to meet. The Policy & Planning Committee was told that according to modelling projections, 39% of the region’s rivers and 97% of lakes currently meet national criteria, compared with the Government’s target of 80% compliance in each category by 2030. The modelling suggests that riparian fencing and planting, and the switch to land-based disposal of dairy effluent, will boost Taranaki’s river compliance to 67.4% by 2030, though the Committee was told the Council’s own scientists consider 50-55% is more realistic, based on measured observations. Taranaki’s current swimmability rate is higher than most other North Island dairying regions and our projected gains from existing programmes and investments are the highest of any region in New Zealand, the Committee was told. But the Council is concerned that the swimmability requirements take no account of when people actually swim or the degree of public access to waterways, that swimmability gains may be at the expense of other values such as agricultural use or mahinga kai, and that the focus is firmly on E. coli when other contaminants might realistically be a greater priority. The Committee was also told that more detail was awaited on new Government measures to improve freshwater quality, and its proposed reforms of the Resource Management Act, outlined in broad detail in past two months. Much of the fine detail is expected to follow next year.
Maintenance message to farmers
Poor maintenance of dairy effluent treatment ponds has again emerged as a major reason for breaches of resource consent conditions. As usual at this time, with the annual dairy inspection round in full swing, these were prominent among the non-compliance cases reported to the Consents & Regulatory Committee. Council inspectors are finding that the ponds in question are becoming overloaded because they have not been looked after appropriately, the Committee was told. Of particular concern is non-compliance by those who have received abatement notices and infringement notices in previous seasons because of maintenance issues – they can expect further breaches to be regarded as serious. The Committee was told that the inspection, sampling and other costs arising from non-compliance would further encourage the move to land-based effluent disposal, which in any case the Council is requiring when current consents expire.
Taking the temperature – millions of times
The Council records river water temperature more than 2 million times a year, spread across 60 sites in the region, the Consents & Regulatory Committee was told. The data is used in consent compliance monitoring and state of the environment monitoring, and to feed into decisions on conditions to set for new resource consents, and to input into broader climate change and global warming databases. Data from half the sites is automatically relayed back to the Council (and uploaded to the Council website) with telemetry. The remaining sites are visited monthly for data downloads. The technology has evolved over two decades-plus. The early days of analogue drum loggers, which were bulky, inaccurate and required manual processing every seven days, have given way to today’s tiny, robust and accurate Bluetooth loggers, barely a quarter the size of a cellphone.
Poorer summer for swimming
The wet summer resulted in more run-off and greater pressure on waste treatment ponds, which led to higher than normal bacterial levels at popular freshwater swimming spots monitored by the Council, the Policy & Planning Committee was told. Around 20% of samples exceeded the “Action’ (non-swimmable) level set out in national guidelines, compared with 13% to 16% in recent years. However, more than half were from two sites, at the lower Waiwhakaiho River and lower Te Henui Stream in New Plymouth, where DNA tests have established that wildfowl are the main source of contamination. Of other sites, three had only one exceedance during the year and another three had two. Five of the 16 sites in the summer programme remained clear for the entire season. Cyanobacteria blooms were recorded at Lake Rotomanu and Lake Rotokare at various stages, but in general waterways remained comparatively clearer of benthic cyanobacteria (slime mats). The Committee was told that variations in results from year to year reflected weather and the state of river flows as much as the influence of farming and land management practices.
The coast remains clear
A wetter-than-normal season and cyclone-generated turbulence also led to higher bacterial counts when the Council monitored seawater quality at popular coastal beaches over summer 2017-2018, the Policy & Planning Committee was told. But overall, Taranaki’s coastal waters remain well within national guidelines. Four of the five highest bacteria counts occurred in the aftermath of Cyclone Fehi in early February 2018. These included the season’s only exceedance of the ‘Action’ (non-swimmable) level, which occurred at Wai-Iti, North Taranaki. Across all 13 sites monitored from November to April, 89% of samples were classed as ‘Acceptable’ (green), and apart from the Wai-iti samples, the rest were in the ‘Alert’ (amber) category. The best results for the season were at Urenui, Fitzroy, Opunake and Oākura.
First things first for biodiversity
The Council believes a national strategy for biodiversity needs to be developed to define issues and goals that can be addressed with material policy directives. The Government’s Biodiversity Collaborative Group recently released a Draft National Policy Statement (NPS) on Indigenous Biodiversity, an analysis of which was presented to the Policy and Planning Committee. A core issue is that it is not clear what the Draft NPS is trying to achieve, the Committee was told. “A clear understanding of the problem and what the desired outcomes are for New Zealand’s biodiversity are certainly needed … The regional sector is of the view that these questions first need to be addressed as part of a national strategy.” The Ministry for the Environment had indicated that further work on the NPS will await progress on a current review of the NZ Biodiversity Strategy. The Draft NPS was prepared by a Government-appointed Biodiversity Collaborative Group and a Council director had observer status on behalf of local government biodiversity managers.
Wetter winters, drier summers
Latest climate modelling suggests Taranaki can expect wetter winters and drier summers, the Policy & Planning Committee was told in a briefing on four recent Government papers on climate change. One includes the first findings from a detailed New Zealand regional climate model run on the NIWA supercomputer, allowing an ‘unprecedented’ level of detail and robustness. It indicates more winter and spring rainfall in the west of both islands, and drier summers in the west and central North Island. Another report studies the potential impact of climate change on 20 river mouths, including that of the Waiongana Stream in Taranaki. It suggests that although flows will generally reduce in all the other North Island rivers studied, the Waiongana’s seasonal flows and annual mean low flows will increase. However, this report’s authors stress that the data needs more statistical testing and assessments. Two other reports propose changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), and to the way forestry is treated under the scheme. The Committee was told that in its current work programmes, the Council meets its statutory duties and obligations to address climate changes issues, particularly around adapting to its effects. “Many of our statutory functions have co-benefits – that is, they are carried out for a range of reasons while also having climate change benefits.”