The report itself was devastating enough.

‘Lessons Learnt’, an investigation ordered by Environment Minister David Parker into the health of the Ōtūwharekai/Ashburton Lakes, detailed a freshwater tragedy in real-time, under the noses of various agencies.

“A legacy of historic decisions, weak national policy, and market forces that incentivised intensive farming have all contributed to the problem,” Dr Tim Davie, science director of Canterbury’s regional council, ECan, said last month, after the report’s publication.

‘Damning’ govt report lays out freshwater failures
In a corner of Canterbury, poor protection starts to bite

Intensive farming was allowed in some areas, Davie said, despite Ōtūwharekai’s sensitive network of wetlands and lakes in the high country. The regulatory system, whether national or regional, wasn’t strong enough to protect the lakes – “nor deliver on mana whenua aspirations for freshwater”.

Mana whenua’s dismay at having their ambitions frustrated is now clearer.

The Ministry for the Environment has released, under the Official Information Act, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu’s feedback on the draft ‘Lessons Learnt’ report. While restrained in its language, the document is a searing account of inaction by multiple agencies, and cultural undermining.

Feedback from Ngāi Tahu, and ECan, prompted changes to the MfE report. (The bigger question is: when will changes make a difference to the lakes’ water quality?)

In 2020, the tribe launched High Court action in 2020 over freshwater, described as: “Decades of Crown mismanagement and ongoing exclusion of Ngāi Tahu from the governance, regulation and allocation of wai māori.”.

Immense cultural significance

Ōtūwharekai’s importance to mana whenua is recognised by the Crown in the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act of 1998.

A cultural health report from 2010 said the area was of immense cultural significance, as an important seasonal mahinga kai (food gathering) area, and a major travelling route – on three main ‘pounamu trails’ – between settlements on Te Waipounamu’s (South Island) east coast, and those on Te Tai Poutini (the West Coast).

(The report also notes: “The area is nationally significant, having some of the best examples of remaining inter-montane wetland systems, high country tussocklands, braided river habitats and is home to a number of rare and threatened native plant, bird, fish, insect and lizard species.”)

Feedback on the draft MfE report focused on Te Rūnanga o Arowhenua, Te Rūnanga o Taumutu and Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri Rūnanga – known collectively as papatipu rūnanga.

Given the importance to Ngāi Tahu of the roto (lakes), and their call for an urgent hui in July 2019, they were disappointed not to be approached for feedback on ‘Lessons Learnt’ at the same time as – or before – ECan.

The sweep of agencies responsible for managing Ōtūwharekai are Ashburton District Council, ECan, the Department of Conservation, Land Information New Zealand, Fish & Game, and private landowners.

But through “process failures”, limited legislation, and scant mana whenua involvement, especially at a governance level, Ngāi Tahu was unable to exercise rangatiratanga (self-determination) and kaitiakitanga (guardianship).

Concerns were raised about the health of ngā roto before the Ngāi Tahu settlement, and again in 2010, and at various times to ECan’s Ashburton water zone committee, which had rūnanga representatives.

“Until 2019, no one listened,” the feedback document to MfE said.

(And it was only two years later, after a story in The Press, that Parker intervened and ordered his ministry to investigate.)

In March 2019, a Department of Conservation briefing to the zone committee said trends in lake and stream quality were concerning, and “changes in water quality pose a significant risk of a state shift in some lakes – i.e. a macrophyte [aquatic plant] collapse”.

At the following committee meeting, Arapata Reuben, of Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri, expressed concerns, and the need for urgent action. It wasn’t the first time papatipu rūnanga had done so.

A hui (meeting) with agencies was called to develop a “preventative emergency response plan”, as fears grew of permanent degradation of the mauri (life force) if an unknown tipping point was crossed.

‘What are you going to do?’

The hui was held in August of that year.

Papatipu rūnanga were disappointed the lakes’ health deteriorated “under the watch of the agencies”. They challenged: ‘What are you going to do about it?’

The agencies met again in January 2020, when they outlined their legislative powers. “For most,” the feedback on the draft report said, “it was either very little or would take too long.”

An action plan was developed at a multi-agency working group hui in December of that year. The plan “highlighted the limitations of what each agency could do on their own, or without buy-in from upper management or other parties”.

Some agencies have “taken a while” to get fully on board, Ngāi Tahu said. Some did their own research or investigations. “Most investigations have shown what papatipu rūnanga have been highlighting from the beginning.”

No wonder rūnanga, who repeatedly called for bold action, were frustrated by slow progress.

But they also made clear no single party was to blame for the mess – though “every agency has contributed”. “The farmers have been operating within the law and they need to be taken on the journey with Ngāi Tahu and the agencies.”

The feedback document to ‘Lessons Learnt’ said agencies were not recognising or complying with Te Tiriti (Treaty of Waitangi), and the importance and value of mātauranga (traditional wisdom) wasn’t always recognised.

“For example, papatipu rūnanga have reiterated for many years that ngā roto are in trouble based on mātauranga. Agencies have relied on Western science only.”

Ngāi Tahu rangatiratanga was undermined, the tribe said. The example given was the Ashburton zone committee, on which papatipu rūnanga representatives were outnumbered by community representatives.

The zone committee’s implementation plan listed the protection of Ōtūwharekai as a priority. As previously noted, Arapata Reuben, of Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri, expressed concerns at the DoC report, in which staff departmental staff suggested actions. Yet, the committee seemingly soft-pedalled, requesting feedback from its zone team, and suggesting a visit in September.

Issues with the lakes occurred because of systemic failures by multiple agencies, the Ngāi Tahu’s feedback said. Contributing factors included the controversial tenure review process for ending Crown pastoral leases, management of the leases themselves, and “RMA plans”.

Agencies weren’t looking at the wider picture and weren’t working together, the document said. Part of the problem is their enabling legislation, which narrowed their focus.

The Resource Management Act had emergency powers but they were too narrow. “There is no ability within these provisions to stop an activity temporarily to allow a review of the situation in order to determine the best course of action.”

Agencies were myopic, looking only at their piece of the puzzle, and data wasn’t shared – even when several agencies were doing the same or similar monitoring.

“They may have been unable to due to processes, roles and responsibilities, internally or within legislation.”

The regional plan failed. As proof, landowners applied for consents and those who obtained them worked within the parameters of the plan and their consent – even as water quality deteriorated.

Triggering consent reviews for environmental reasons is difficult.

Rubbing salt in the wound, studies of the Ashburton Lakes area were undertaken from 2000 to 2010 and recommendations were made “that were never actioned”.

Ngāi Tahu’s feedback led to minor changes to the published report.

ECan boss weighs in

For its part, ECan’s high-level feedback on the draft ‘Lessons Learnt’ report was signed by its chief executive, Dr Stefanie Rixecker – a sign of its gravity.

The draft paid little attention to national drivers of intensification, Rixecker said, pointing the finger at tenure review. “Much of the land in Ōtūwharekai has been subject to tenure review, in particular through the 2000-2010 period.”

She also said the report was silent on the role of phosphorus as a driver of lake eutrophication, a measure of enrichment by nutrients.

Managing nitrogen and phosphorus (N and P) is important for lake health, Rixecker wrote. (Animal urine leaching into water from soil is the main source of excess nitrogen, and excess phosphorus, through sediment and animal waste, is carried into waterways by surface water run-off.)

Phosphorus from farms is regulated through so-called good management practice requirements, farm environment plans, and other rules.

But, as the MfE report points out, those measures “aren’t always sufficient” to improve lake health.

Rixecker said: “We have identified the need for more explicit and better management and monitoring of phosphorus inputs around sensitive lakes as a key learning for future lake management.”

The draft report mentioned phosphorus 12 times; the final report 20 times.

The draft stated: “Without a loss limit being set for phosphorus (P), algal growth is likely to persist as phosphorus continues to enter lakes that already have elevated nitrogen levels.”

The published report said: “A farm level P-loss limit is generally not considered practical. However, without some measure of phosphorus load, it is not possible to know if, or to what extent, these measures are actually limiting phosphorus loss.”

(To meet objectives in the land and water regional plan, large reductions in phosphorus loads were “estimated to be required” for several Ōtūwharekai lakes, ‘Lessons Learnt’ said.)

Another defence ventured in Rixecker’s high-level feedback is that her council’s land and water regional plan “drove action in the absence of meaningful national direction”.

Two bullet points were added to the final report’s ‘Summary of core findings’.

The first was headed: “Managing both nitrogen and phosphorus inputs is important for lake ecosystem health.”

The second said, in full: “A complex set of wider system challenges was influential at the time the planning framework was established for the lakes, including insufficient national direction along with national drivers, such as competing government and economic priorities and the tenure review process.”

Another paragraph was added to the final report, picking up on matters raised by Rixecker. It related to plan change 5, a change to the district plan which made farming in the “lakes zone” a “restricted discretionary activity”.

ECan officers told MfE they prioritised the plains and over-allocated areas first, before Ōtūwharekai.

Regional council staff warned that achieving new targets and limits with currently available tools would be challenging.

“They expect only incremental improvements and consider that new economic tools are required. These could sit alongside the planning framework to support landowners in transitioning to more sustainable land uses.”

Environment Minister David Parker was scheduled to meet ECan officials, councillors, and mana whenua in April. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In early April, MfE provided an update to Environment Minister David Parker.

The aide memoire noted he ordered the ‘Lessons Learnt’ report, in September 2021, so Ōtūwharekai could be “a case study examining why the system currently in place have [sic] failed to protect the lakes’ water quality, including examining the regional plan nutrient limits and associated rules, consenting, farm planning system, and use of Overseer”.

According to the briefing, the main vulnerabilities to the freshwater management system were:

  • ECan setting nitrogen loss limits too high;
  • Farm output controls and good management practices “were not well linked to achieving lake outcomes or targets, and provided little certainty of achieving the limit”;
  • Flaws with tools, such as farm environment plans and Overseer, used to calculate and check compliance with limits;
  • A lack of transparency and access to regulatory data, plus a lack of data on land-use change trends;
  • And, “critically”: “problems with the processes used to implement, audit, and oversee these measures, including the lack of regulatory options to adjust course when outcomes were not being met”.

The ministerial briefing, before Parker’s scheduled visit to Canterbury on April 20 to discuss the report, said work was underway to address the vulnerabilities. It noted ECan and other councils had to update freshwater provisions in their plans by 2024.

“After the Canterbury visit, we intend to make the report publicly available on our website, but without a media release,” the briefing said. The report was published on May 24.

Last week, Parker and his colleague Damien O’Connor, the Agriculture Minister, announced freshwater farm plans would be progressively phased in over the coming years, starting with parts of Waikato and Southland on August 1.

To many, that might sound suspiciously like a similar system to that which has failed in Ōtūwharekai/Ashburton Lakes.

The ‘Lessons Learnt’ report noted MfE officials would share their findings with the national freshwater farm plan team at MfE and Ministry for Primary Industries, to “support thinking” on design and implementation.

The subsequent bullet point said: “Officials to pass findings on to appropriate ministry teams relaying ECan’s concerns around the limitations of the current planning tools in highly over-allocated catchments. This includes the need to explore new tools, including economic instruments, to complement existing planning measures and bring about land-use change at scale and within the timeframes needed to protect water bodies in a managed way that allows for a just transition.”

Before October’s election, it’ll be up to Parker and O’Connor to convince the public these national farm plans will be materially different – and more likely to be effective – than the Canterbury ones.

Parker has another challenge related to timeframes for protecting water bodies.

In August 2018, he said: “This Government is committed to protecting and restoring our freshwater for future generations. We want to see a material improvement in water quality within five years.”

In just a few months it will be five years since those comments were made. It will be interesting to see how the Government defines “material improvement”.

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

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