I started out as a water quality scientist in Hauraki in 1986. We were focused on discharges from pipes back then, not on the effects of land use on water. Now we’re more focused on the interrelationship between land use and water quality.
The effects of land use take time to show themselves. We’re setting up a legacy for the future. There are still lots of effects of land intensification yet to show through. In some cases it could take multiple generations to see the flow-on effects.
The more contaminants entering our waterways via the land, the greater the volume of clean water needed to assimilate them. We haven’t regulated land use. It’s the permitted activities that we don’t have a clear knowledge of, and even less information about the volumes of water required to absorb seepage from land. We are just starting to understand that. It’s all related: climate, topography, soil types and land use.
I had responsibility for the Waikato Freshwater Strategy. It’s an unusual document. It’s out there, beyond what the organisation can do at the moment. We’ve pushed the current regulatory tools we have to the limit of their usefulness and now we need to start looking for alternative tools.
Water is New Zealand’s most important asset. Our economy relies on it – we turn rainwater into exports and experiences for visitors. It takes 900 litres of water to produce one litre of milk; beef is about 15,000 litres per kilogram; and it’s what tourists come to New Zealand to enjoy.
We don’t really know how much water there will be to service our demands into the future. We may have already exceeded the capacity of our rivers! We don’t know because we don’t have sufficient information.
That’s where we want to go, into the future. We need to understand past use and what we are doing now and factor in projections of climate change. We are expecting longer periods of drought, but then we will also see rainfall that’s pretty spectacular – tropical cyclones, things like that.
The fresh water strategy has the potential to be disruptive, but in a positive and value-added way. We need to look at incentives and education to encourage better use of fresh water. At the moment, we have regulation – that’s a stick. We need carrots.
There needs to be a price for water, based on what extraction or discharges do to the quality of a body of water. When you have to pay for the volume of water you use, you use it more efficiently, and do more to store it.
I’m driven by the recognition that our whole lifestyle depends on the quality of our natural resources and how we manage them. Water quality is a function of how well we have managed quantity. To me, it’s all about making sure our streams, rivers, lakes and estuaries continue to be our playground too, like it was when we were kids.