Anger and unease remain in Canterbury, despite the looming return of local democracy. David Williams reports.

It was the silent, unnoticed objector.

Last Friday, placard-waving protestors streamed into Christchurch’s Cathedral Square in a protest aimed at making politicians take the threat of climate change more seriously. Meanwhile, in front of the broken cathedral, an unacknowledged cairn – an iron-framed cylinder filled with river stones – stood resolutely, marking the 10th year of the loss of regional democracy.

The cairn was erected on a bitterly cold June day in 2010, a few months after the John Key-led Government sacked Environment Canterbury councillors, replacing them with appointed commissioners. Ostensibly the regional councillors were dismissed for mismanagement, but it was widely seen as a water grab – a chance for the Government to take control and promote irrigation schemes.

A plaque on the cairn says it “marks the river of unease that presently flows through our community, a river whose turbulent waters threaten to divide us”.

The cairn is barely noticed as The Wizard, Ian Brackenbury Channell, holds court in Cathedral Square. Photo: David Williams

This year’s local government elections marks the return of full democracy in Canterbury – the public’s first chance since 2007 to vote for all their councillors. (Seven of 13 “councillors” were elected in 2016; six were appointed. David Bedford, whose appointment was renewed in 2016, left because of ill-health in 2017, and died early last year.)

So will the cairn be removed? Probably not, artist and activist Sam Mahon says.

Mahon, who lives in Waikari, North Canterbury, has been prominent in the province’s water protests. He famously delivered a massive statue, depicting former Environment Minister Nick Smith squatting over a glass, to ECan’s offices in 2017. He was behind the Cathedral Square cairn’s installation.

“What we want to do is make a new plaque,” Mahon says. The feeling among fellow protestors is that ECan gerrymandered by adding an extra seat in South Canterbury for this election – making it eight city seats to six rural. (The move was criticised by former Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer but ultimately approved by the Local Government Commission.)

“We still don’t have the democracy we should have,” Mahon says. “The idea was we don’t take [the cairn] down, but we leave it there till we have fair representation.”

He adds: “We don’t care if all the farmers get voted on – as long as they get voted on fairly.”

So, while democracy has been restored in name, Canterbury’s river of unease over water issues remains.

Climate protestors arrive in Cathedral Square last Friday. Photo: David Williams

If history is written by the winners, then a voice from the “winning” side, if you like, is that of ECan commissioner David Caygill.

The six-term Labour MP was part of a troika, with Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble, that ushered in the 1980s economic reforms known as “Rogernomics”. Caygill was one of the original ECan commissioners appointed in 2010. By the time he leaves in a few weeks, he would have earned more than $1.2 million from Canterbury ratepayers.

He starts out as a reluctant interview subject. But by the end, Douglas’s details man spends an hour trying to explain – and justify – what has happened over the last nine years.

He firstly points Newsroom to fellow commissioner Peter Skelton’s comments at last month’s meeting. According to Stuff, Skelton, a retired Environment Court judge, said: “Our appointment was not popular, because it involved dispensing with the services of the elected councillors, several of whom were known to us personally. Contrary to a view that continues to be expressed to this day, the commissioners were not appointed to increase irrigation and intensify farming in Canterbury. Nor were they appointed simply to do the bidding of central Government.”

In terms of achievements, Caygill mentions establishing limits on the amount of nitrate that farmers in Canterbury are lawfully allowed to discharge. “That’s easily the single most important thing that we’ve put in place in the last nine years.”

Before commissioners were appointed, ECan had worked on a large, complex natural resources plan – “for the thick end of 10 years”, Caygill says. While its water quality and quantity chapters were largely completed when councillors were sacked, they weren’t going to limit nitrate losses, he says.

Under commissioners, ECan’s Land and Water Regional Plan became fully operative in 2015. A phalanx of appointed zone committees have thrashed out environmental thresholds. In recent years, plan changes have lowered limits in particular areas, like Hurunui and Selwyn. Only last month, ECan notified plan change seven to the regional plan, which includes catchment limits for the Waimakariri and Orari-Temuka-Opihi-Pareora areas. (By notifying the plan before this month’s election, the plan still falls under temporary legislation that restricts appeals to points of law.)

Caygill says several thousand farms are covered by the new, nitrate-limiting rules, maybe as many as 5000. “All dairy farmers, for sure.”

But has it made a difference? Maps from April’s Environment Aotearoa report paint a concerning yellow stain over the Canterbury plains, a sign of heightened nitrate-nitrogen in groundwater and total nitrogen in rivers.

And a Danish study linking nitrate in drinking water to an increased risk of colon and rectal cancer has worried many Cantabrians – especially those drinking from private bores.

Caygill: “Whether water quality is continuing to get worse – as I suspect it may well be – because of the length of time it takes to change in particular the composition of groundwater … we had to make a start on nitrate in particular in Canterbury and ECan has, we have to keep going and I’m sure the council will.”

Farm practices are changing, he says. While there hasn’t been a reduction in the number of dairy farms, there’s been a levelling off in the rate of dairy conversions. “That is undoubtedly because of the rules that we’ve introduced.”

The upper Waimakariri is a typical Canterbury braided river. Photo: David Williams

Critics of the commissioners might compare some of Caygill’s statements to the muck dripping from the rear ends of cows, which helped Canterbury’s rivers get into this mess.

(Since 2003, dairy cattle numbers in Canterbury have more than doubled to about 1.3 million. Over roughly the same period, irrigated land in the province almost doubled to 478,000 hectares – almost two-thirds of the country’s irrigated land.)

Sacked ECan councillor Angus McKay, who went on to serve two terms as Ashburton’s mayor and is standing for its council in these elections, says a water plan was close to being finished when councillors were sacked. “The commissioners finished that.”

Nicky Snoyink, lobby group Forest & Bird’s Canterbury West Coast manager, admits the regional council is well ahead of other parts of the country by imposing limits. “Where those limits have been set are not anywhere close to what’s required for ecosystem health.”

The nitrate limits are too high, she says. And while there are minimum flows for some rivers, “just what underpins them is questionable”.

The most concerning aspect of ECan’s plan is “grandfathering”, Snoyink says – using what happened between 2009 and 2013 as the baseline. While plan change seven proposes greater reductions from higher polluters (out to the year 2080), the baseline is inequitable, she says – “rewarding” farmers that were in a mad rush to intensify.

“It just perpetuates the current polluting regime that we’ve got,” Snoyink says. “That’s the baseline that the next 10 years of plans are underpinned by.”

It’s too little, too late, she says. “We need the changes immediately.”

Decade-long trend data released last month by multi-agency monitoring programme Land, Air, Water Aotearoa, paints a poor picture of total nitrogen in rivers across the country. At 315 of 626 sites the trend is likely degrading or very likely degrading, compared with 204 sites that are likely or very likely to be improving. (Data are indeterminate at 107 sites.)

Canterbury has experienced declining water quality in recent years, the LAWA website says, “with lowland streams having the poorest quality”.

Former ECan chairman Sir Kerry Burke, who was ousted as chairman after a no-confidence vote by councillors in 2009, takes issue with Skelton’s interpretation of the 2010 sackings.

He says the former Government sacked the elected council “because it was very worried about the pro-water environmental movement that was gathering steam”. Several Labour-aligned councillors were defeated at the 2007 elections, and replaced by water activists, says Burke – a five-term Labour MP and former Parliamentary Speaker. “That panicked some of the farming/irrigating councillors and some people in the [National-led] Government.”

Ministers justified dismissing the council by saying it was dysfunctional and had mismanaged water. But reporting by The Press, including by this reporter, pieced together the forces – and the premeditation – behind the ECan council’s sacking.

Canterbury’s 10 mayors wrote to Local Government Minister Rodney Hide in 2009, complaining about ECan. Papers released under the Official Information Act showed the Government sought advice about diluting water conservation orders, in order to accelerate irrigation, in 2009.

After the councillors were sacked, then Agriculture Minister David Carter told an irrigation conference that the Government had to act “if we are going to seriously make progress in delivering this irrigation”. He added: “I would have thought what happened … would be a signal to all regional councils to work a bit more constructively with their farmer stakeholders.”

Last year, former Environment Minister Nick Smith said that since 2010 ECan had gone from the worst-performing regional council to the best-performing.

A more common sight in Canterbury’s high country. Photo: David Williams

South Canterbury dairy farmer Jason Grant, the provincial president for lobby group Federated Farmers, says ECan’s water zone committees are a good concept. “Whether they’ve actually worked very well, and achieved a lot, is something that’s quite hard to tell.”

(Artist Mahon’s in favour of scrapping the committees because of the “very careful” appointment of members. He compares having a community in charge of river to a farmer claiming they can plough State Highway 1 and plant potatoes because it runs past their front gate. “The river is the property of our nation, not of just one community.”)

Grant says the majority of rules in ECan’s plan change five “aren’t too bad”, but of the most recent plan change seven, about which he was involved in writing a submission, he’d like to see changes. “Some of the water quality rules are quite tough. Some of the minimum flows were quite tough – too tough.”

Water quality and nitrates in groundwater “wasn’t even on the radar” just over 20 years ago, Grant claims, when he studied at Lincoln University. “In the last 10 years we’ve learnt a lot as farmers, understood some of the impacts that we’ve had, and we’ve really come a long way to try and rectify some of those issues. And we’ve still got a fair way to go from now on.”

(Water pollution from agriculture was certainly on the radar of the Government. Catherine Knight’s book Beyond Manapouri says the OECD reviewed the country’s environmental policies in 1980. Its report said increased stocking rates of sheep and cattle would inevitably lead to increased leaching of nitrates and damage to waterways. The report warned: “In the medium to long-term, nitrates present a potentially serious problem for some of New Zealand’s drinking water supplies.”)

Mahon says of farmers: “Of course they knew what they were doing. To say, ‘Give us a chance, give us another 10 years’, it’s just rubbish. I have no sympathy whatsoever with them.”

Farmers who intensified their operations in the face of public disquiet and signals of greater environmental regulation were gambling, Mahon suggests. “It’s like somebody going to the casino and losing all their money and saying, ‘I didn’t realise I was going to lose all my money’.”

Grant fires back that everyone in society has benefited from intensification and the use of irrigation, not just in South Canterbury or Canterbury at large, but all over New Zealand. As a farmer, hunter and fisherman, water quality’s important to him, he says.

“I suppose the difference between a farmer who considers themselves an environmentalist – which is most farmers – and extreme environmentalists that have got nothing to do with agriculture or farming, is that we understand the importance of a balance between the economy and the environment.” Fixing environmental issues “in a hurry” will put people out of business and hurt the economy, he argues.

He doesn’t defend the bottom “three or four percent” of farmers who are willingly doing things wrong. But he warns that limits that are too strict will affect farmers with good management practices. “Agriculture and primary industries are still the biggest export earner for this country. We don’t want to do too much harm to that, otherwise we’ll find unemployment going up – yeah, it could be dire.”

Useful conversations rather than court action

Stricter environmental rules will likely be taken out of ECan’s hands.

The Government is consulting on changes to the national policy statement on freshwater – tightening on-farm land intensification to improve the quality of streams, lakes and rivers.

Federated Farmers’ Chris Allen said last month if they’re adopted as proposed, the targets for nitrogen reduction will end pastoral farming in some areas – something Ministers have called absurd and ridiculous.

Caygill says with the exception of proposed limits on dissolved inorganic nitrogen, ECan’s well-positioned to meet the rest of what’s planned “fairly easily”. (Forest & Bird’s Snoyink, who unsuccessfully ran for ECan in the 2016 election, isn’t so sure, saying the proposals have some “pretty hardcore limits”. “That may usher in a whole suite of new plan changes again to comply with those, if they deem they have to.”)

Like Environment Minister David Parker, Caygill says there are many things farmers can do, other than reducing stock numbers, to reduce nutrient losses. He suggests feeding cattle plantain, collecting effluent from herds, and using nitrous-oxide inhibitors (although DCD was withdrawn after traces showed up in milk).

Caygill proudly states ECan has introduced “enforceable limits” of its own – but bristles when asked what enforcement the regional council has done.

ECan’s two-page, graphics-heavy 2018-2019 compliance monitoring report says it’s focusing on high-risk consents or those with a poor compliance history. The main response to non-compliance (11 percent of the 3315 consents monitored) was “advice and education” (479 occasions). It issued 24 infringement notices, 40 abatement notices, and, of three prosecutions initiated, one was completed.

Caygill says the regional council has been “focused more on other aspects of its rules”, beyond nitrates. He adds that “the most effective sanctions” come from irrigation companies, that are in a position to cut off water, or from dairy companies, like Fonterra and Synlait.

“The thing that we’re trying to do above all here is change people’s behaviour,” Caygill says. Its nitrate limits are taken seriously by landowners and dairy companies, he says, as well as banks and real estate agents. He disagrees that without enforcement, rules and policies are empty. “The notion that enforcement is to be judged by the actions of the regulator, I think, is to display an inadequate understanding of what’s going on.”

But by definition shouldn’t a regulator regulate? No, Caygill says – punishing transgressors isn’t the place to focus.

“The useful conversations aren’t conversations to be held in court, they’re conversations, probably around a kitchen table, where experienced farm advisers work with farmers to help them understand the changes that they need to make. And I can’t count on the fingers of one hand the number of conversations like that that are taking place, I know them to have taken place in their hundreds in recent years.”

Predictably, Waikari artist Mahon doesn’t agree. He says ECan’s biggest contribution to the environment would come from “simply enforcing regulations”. The council could take the money it spends on public relations and marketiing – and the thousands it spent getting an injunction to stop him plonking his Nick Smith statue on their “front lawn” – and use it for consents enforcement, he suggests.

“That’d be a hell of a good thing.”

“I would say that they should ignore all of that hyberbole coming from the farming sector and get on with the job.” – Sam Mahon

What of the new council? What are they walking into?

“Challenging but interesting work,” Caygill says. “Public perception that we have serious water quality challenges, with which I don’t disagree, and a very active programme from ECan to address that – which they will, I’m sure, review and extend.”

Do former councillors have advice for the incoming councillors?

“Listen – and move at a pace that will achieve the best results,” says former Ashburton Mayor McKay.

Burke, meanwhile, the former ECan chairman, says councillors should be sure it’s the politicians that are running the show. Local government staff have far more control and influence than the political arm of the council, he says, so elected members need to ensure “it’s their agenda that’s going onto the council table and not a staff agenda”.

There are differing views of whether there’ll be an urban-rural divide after the election. The issues are greater than any political split, McKay says, dismissing the supposed divide as a myth. Burke, however, suspects there will be such a split. “There’s nothing wrong with that – that’s the way most political systems work.”

Federated Farmers’ provincial president Grant says: “I just hope that whoever is elected, they all come together and make decisions that are really trying to take the region forward, and a lot of politics doesn’t come into play.”

Mahon, the activist and artist, says after 15-to-20 years of “people talking in small rooms”, people have lost faith in consultation or talking. He prefers to put his energy behind people of action – like the group Aotearoa Water Action, which took court action against ECan over water consents, and Greenpeace activists.

He saves his advice for central Government. “I would say that they should ignore all of that hyberbole coming from the farming sector and get on with the job.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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