Image - Mike ScarsbrookMike Scarsbrook, Science Manager for Waikato Regional Council, works to keep our environment healthy and believes we’re defined by the environment we live in.

The environment we live in gives us a sense of who we are in the world. The region locks us into our community and where we all reside. But a healthy environment is what we all aspire to and sets our aspirations for the future.

So, how healthy is the Waikato?

Parts of the region are very healthy. Lake Taupō is as good as it gets for a lake of that size, but there’s an expectation it will remain with 10-metres-plus water clarity and will always be in a ‘close to natural state’ or with very minor impacts on it.

Despite improved management of human impacts around Taupō there is still a real need for vigilance and response to emerging issues. For example, in late 2017, we had signs of algae blooms growing in parts of the lake, and the district health board stopped people from using the lake for a short time over the busy summer period.

In partnership with local iwi Tūwharetoa and other partners, we’ve put new lake quality monitoring procedures in place so we will be able to respond more rapidly to give the community better information.

In contrast to Taupō, Lake Waikare in the Lower Waikato is a shallow lake that’s severely degraded. In terms of water quality, it has extremely high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus and algal growth. The lake is not safe to swim in. Improving our degraded waters, like Lake Waikare, will be a massive and lengthy challenge.

With the Waikato and Waipā rivers, we’ve teamed up with local iwi. The Vision and Strategy for the Waikato River tells us what the river needs from us. We recognise the river is degraded and needs to be improved, protected and restored because the river gives to us and we need to look after the river in return. This document provides leadership and direction. We are quite lucky to have a vision document like this.

If we destroy our environment, we essentially destroy ourselves as a region because it takes away our future options and what we can do.

The rivers, lakes, groundwater and coastal waters integrate all of the impacts humans make in the catchment and on the land.

As a freshwater scientist, I always need to remember the issue is wider than water. The key message is how we use our land can degrade our water resources and our freshwater environments as well as our land environments.

We need to remember that, a few decades ago, discharges from pipes along our rivers were a much greater pollution source. Through improved technology and stricter consent conditions, these point source discharges are substantially improved. For example, 60 years ago, the bacteria levels in the Hamilton section of the Waikato River were 100 times today’s levels. We should be proud of the substantial investments made to achieve these results. Our greatest water quality challenge today is improving diffuse discharges – what runs off the land.

The work farmers are doing to improve their practices is giving us some benefits in water quality. But we’ve got a long way to go in terms of getting that balance right between the level of intensive use of our land and water quality. Then there’s the push from central government about how we should manage the environment. From an environmental perspective, the Government’s paper, Essential Freshwater, has some very significant policy changes because it will provide national direction on how we’re going to manage water better.

Regional councils already have controls in place on resource use, but government is really driving for a much faster process. The drive is to restore some of the ecosystems or the fresh water health that people have lost.

The biggest area where we will contribute is going to be around protecting catchments. We can manage the source of contaminants through better targeting of actions to ensure people are managing the loss of contaminants from their land.

I swim in the Waikato River just above the Hamilton city water intake and the water quality there is acceptable for swimming almost all year round. When I’ve come out of the river people have asked, “isn’t it polluted?” I say “no, it’s safe to swim in”. Of course, it’s a swift and powerful river so not suitable for everyone, but the risk of getting sick at Hamilton Gardens is low.

People’s values and perceptions about water have changed. In New Zealand, there’s an increasing aspiration for clean water, for healthy rivers and healthy lakes. In terms of our overall environmental aspirations, the bar has lifted and regional councils and central government are responding, saying we need to put in place the things that are going to give the community what they’re looking for.

We have a valuable monitoring network across our rivers, lakes, our groundwater, land and our air quality and geothermal activity.

We monitor all of these resources with the idea that we can inform the community about the current state of the resource, how it’s changing over time and what the key pressures are.

A healthy environment is at the heart of the Resource Management Act.

If you have a healthy environment you have options; you have a wider range of options for the future, and you’re giving future generations those options. If we have a degraded environment we’re not giving future generations any options.

Overall, we’re on the right track to manage the effects of land on water. But there are some massive challenges. We’ve got more work to do around how we manage our biodiversity and where we might be wanting to go in the future.

The landscape will also evolve as we adapt to climate change. In contrast, a lot of the changes we make in relation to water quality are about choice.

With fresh water, we’re heading in the right direction but our rural communities need to be supported through that change because we’re asking people to make substantial changes.

We’ll be asking farmers to do farm environment plans, provide us with detailed information and make changes on their farms. We’ve got a great team at the council to help farmers through that.

But we also need to continue to provide regional leadership and advice to central government.