Sunday, 12 January 2014

Walking and Talking Water Quality in Horowhenua

The trail from Palmerston North ambles up through a little bush track around Massey University and on up past the Turitea Water Treatment Facility. This is where Palmerston North draws much of its drinking water from. You then walk mostly on the road and end up following the course of the Kahuterawa stream, which winds its way down a long valley, through the hills that rise southward along the eastern edge of the Manawatu and Horowhenua. I decided to camp at the picturesque Kahuterawa Reserve and was, to my surprise, later joined by a group of four other hikers. Laura, Pieter, Johanna, and Emmanuel were all TA hikers as well and it was good to have a chat with them before retiring.

Unfortunately for us, this spot was more popular than we thought and we were invaded around eleven PM (on a Thursday!) by a group of teenagers hellbent on getting absolutely plastered until 5:30 in the morning. I would have gotten up and said something about the noise if it wasn't for the undeniable fact that I've done the same thing myself. We left around eight the next day but not before I played some powerful, yet poor harmonica for our new friends. The Kahuterawa stream is not only subject to noise pollution however and it's lower path is now beset with severe weed and pest issues. Sadly, Manawatu has experienced native biodiversity loss of up to 95%. Apparently there is a joint venture between the Army (who occupy nearby Linton Army base) and Massey University to restore the Kahuterawa stream which was formerly home to large numbers of native fish.

We followed the stream along the road for about forty minutes and found that there was actually another good camping area about 4 km down the track which really ground my gears. I walked on ahead of the others for about three hours of easy road and dirt road walking. When I sat down to see how far I'd come, I was dismayed to see it was a paltry ten kilometers. Still can't understand that one, as I had really been moving. I walked on up through some forestry roads and up to Burtons's track, named for Jim Burton who farmed the area between 1908 and 1941. The area is all regenerating bush now and after about three hours you arrrive at a memorial to Jim, who fell from a suspension bridge that he had built over the nearby stream. Jim broke his leg and sustained other injuries in an eight meter fall onto rocks below. He managed to get back to his whare to feed his dog before making what could only have been an excruciating twelve hour walk along his track for the final time. Jim made it to his nearest neighbour's place but died in hospital shortly after.

That night we camped by the Tokumaru number three reservoir. I found out later that the dam provides water to the Mangahao power station on the other side of the hill which has a pretty impressive white water park nearby. The next day involved a solid bush walk through the Tararua Forest park before emerging onto Gladstone Road. At the corner of Gladstone And Poads Road, Nick Simmons picked me up. I can only describe Nick as a thoroughly good bugger. I have been staying with he and his wife Victoria for the last couple of nights waiting out some bad weather on the ranges. They have been amazingly helpful, friendly and encouraging and I am looking forward to working with them on environmental issues into the future.

Victoria is on the Levin city council and she and Nick have given me plenty of information on the local environment. Also, I got a chance to visit a white water event over by Shannon with them and on top of that Victoria put me in touch with the Mayor Brendan Duffy. We had a chat about local water issues and one of the major challenges in the area is the clean up of lake Horowhenua which is owned by the Maupoko iwi. Between 1952 and 1987 the lake had treated sewage dumped into it resulting in eutrophication. The resulting destruction of the lake's biodiversity is a great shame. Brendan made it clear that the restoration of the lake is a very challenging process partly because there are many parties involved, including Horizons Regional Council, local iwi and the Levin City Council. Another difficulty is that the lake is also being filled by sediment from the surrounding area and in addition, the tributaries that fill the lake have been reduced in flow due to irrigation and other water uses.

It is a shame that we have ruined many of our lakes, but what is more saddening is that many of the processes that have contributed to this type of degradation are still happening and in some cases are accelerating. Based on the Ministry for the Environment's Trophic Level Index for Lakes, of the 134 monitored sites, one third have high nutrient levels or have poor water quality. Some places where people once went on holiday during their childhood such as lake Hakanoa near Huntly ( I believe the Lange family may have holidayed there when David and Peter were kids) are now degraded to hypertrophic levels and are completely unsuitable for any use by humans. While many restoration projects are going on all around the country we are still polluting at an increasing rate in many areas across New Zealand. If you want to change this situation please consider clicking this link to make a submission on the proposed ammendments to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

A Yarn to Dr Mike Joy, Freshwater Ecologist and Water Quality Expert, Part 1

The Horizons region, which incorporates Whanganui and the Manawatu is home to some of New Zealand's most polluted waterways and, seemingly as a consequence, one of our staunchest advocates for clean water. Dr Mike Joy is a Senior Lecturer at Massey University's Institute of Agriculture and Environment and today he shouted me breakfast and answered a few questions about Water Quality. I think that the first time I heard about Mike was after his criticism of the "100% Pure New Zealand" branding. A somewhat annoyed John Key was confronted by Hard Talk's Stephen Sachur, on BBC World, with Joy's views on this slogan, based on his research. Key's dismissal of the facts in this interview were nothing short of astounding. Truth be told, it was after watching John Key flippantly dismiss Joy's research as "his opinion," that I also got annoyed, annoyed enough to walk the length of the country. And now I have reached Palmerston North.

Instead of recording the interview, we had a chat about various issues and a bit of a laugh. I listened and asked questions as I made my way through some tasty mince on toast. While I was in Whanganui I met Horizons regional councillor Rod Pearce who told me that all four major rivers (the Whanganui, Whangaehu, Turakina and Rangitikei) in the region had shown decreased levels of nitrates in the water this year. I put this to Mike and he agreed that this may be true but that this improvement is minimal when you consider that these rivers had extremely high concentrations and had effectively gone from terrible to not quite so terrible. In 2009 the Manawatu quite famously ranked as one of the most polluted rivers in the western world.

The thing about water pollution is that groups tend to deny it is happening or pretend that it is everyone else's issue. I asked Dr Joy if dairy diffuse pollution really was responsible for the majority of the water quality degradation in the area; his response was "yes." He mentioned that he is often criticised for unfairly picking on the dairy industry but asserted "I'm not anti dairy" backing this up by citing some of the other targets of his scrutiny such as the Fielding waste water treatment system, which has repeatedly violated it's consent criteria over the years (so much for 14 times New Zealand's most beautiful town).

When you talk with him, it is clear that Dr Joy's agenda is simply clean water and that isn't surprising given the state of the water where he lives. Now, I'm sorry to quote Wikipedia, and it isn't very scolarly of me, but time is of the essence when you are trying to get to Bluff before Easter. 'In 2011, A report by the Ministry for the Environment ranked 76 New Zealand sites for water clarity and E. coli levels. Using those measures, they found four other New Zealand rivers rate worse than the Manawatu (the Waitara, Whanganui, Waipa and Rangitikei).' That's three of our five worst rivers in the Horizons region.

Much of the Whanganui's pollution problem has arisen from prolific numbers of point source discharges from industry and waste water systems but many of these have been eliminated. What has increased dramatically is dairy intensification in the upper catchments of the river. Removing one source of pollution only to increase another seems ludicrous. We chatted for a while on pending changes in environment law, which will dramatically impact on our environment. While recent moves by Fonterra to fence waterways have been a dramatic step, and Federated Farmers have made big strides to change their rhetoric from "there is no problem" to "there is a problem", the proposed changes to the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management will allow nitrate concentrations to approach toxic levels. This, is in addition to changes to the Resource Managment Act, which will, according to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment," alter the functions of the RMA and erode its environmental protections."  These changes amount to a pollution bonanza and if we are already facing almost universal degradation of our lowland fresh water, where will this lead us? When you consider these alarming facts, Dr Joy's opinion was, unsurprisingly, as dubious as my own regarding a change in industry rhetoric, in that it is more about spinning the issue to soften public opinion, than a genuine intention to change. He points out that if regulations are this slack, then people can't really be blamed for doing what they are legally entitled to do in order to make money.

*There is much more to cover from our conversation which I will publish in a second part of this interview when I reach Wellington in around two weeks time. My apologies to any grammar fiends out there; I am in a rush. Right now the library is about to close and I must go to get groceries and find a place to camp. Tomorrow it's up into the Tararuas! Many thanks to Mike who really is a great Kiwi. Have a look at some of his stuff online.