West Coast freshwater goals on hold due to Covid-19

4:00 pm on 16 April 2020

Community groups tasked with setting goals for water quality have had to stop work for the duration of the Covid-19 lockdown.

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But the West Coast Regional Council is still hopeful all four Freshwater Management Units (FMU) in the region will have the job done by the end of the year.

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The units, made up of interested volunteers from the public, are working with scientists and council staff to set standards in their local catchments as part of the government's drive to clean up rivers.

On the West Coast, four units will ultimately make recommendations for waterways in their districts: Kawatiri (Buller), Mawhera (Grey), Hokitika and South Westland.

So far only two - Kawatiri and Mawhera - are up and running.

The regional council's planning and science manager Hadley Mills says the Hokitika unit had only just been appointed before the level four lockdown and was to have its first meeting in March.

But Covid-19 put paid to that - and the work of the two northern groups is also on hold.

"The Grey unit has almost completed its work - they're finalising their recommendations and they had one last meeting to go; Buller was on to its seventh meeting of the 10 (when Covid happened)," Mills said.

Compared to other regions, the West Coast freshwater management groups had fewer problems to deal with, he said.

"We have the best water quality in New Zealand - that's one of the big pros of living here. But that doesn't mean we don't have room for improvement."

The job of the FMUs was to define freshwater values for their community, and set objectives and goals for rivers and streams, Mills said.

"We bring in scientists to educate the groups and explain the parameters of things like nitrates and e.coli for instance, and what the impacts at various levels are on activities like swimming."

The community units then had to decide what standards they wanted to set for particular waterways.

The groups included a good representation of people living and working in those communities including farmers and miners, Mills said.

But there was no suggestion that they would set standards to suit industry.

"The government has set a basic standard, and they can't go below that - we have to decide whether to maintain or improve on it, but there's a national bottom line."

Only a few waterways on the Coast fell below that standard, he said.

"There's Sawyers Creek in Greymouth and a few others with higher e.coli counts; there's Shingles Beach and Mahers Creek in the Buller as well."

The FMUs had to bear in mind that the regional council had limited resources to monitor water quality.

"If it's under the bottom line, we have to improve it, and if the group wants to set the standard higher, it can recommend that to the council - but if they were to set the gold standard for every waterway we couldn't enforce it."

FMUs also had to look at water quantities taken for irrigation, and the impact on rivers, but that was rarely an issue on the West Coast, Mills said.

"It's really only the Grey Valley where there are irrigators - around Mawheraiti and Ahaura - and it can get extremely dry through there in summer, so there's a fair bit of water being taken from the aquifers."

But unlike Canterbury's aquifers which were deep, old and confined, aquifers on the West Coast were uncapped and strongly linked to surface water.

"We've had Niwa do some work on this with the Mawhera group, and that'll be included in the final report that goes to the council."

A South Westland Freshwater Management Unit had yet to be set up, but it was likely to have a fairly easy job, Mills said.

"It's a pristine environment down there between the Waiho (Waiau) and Haast... 90 percent of it is in the DOC estate. We should be able to get through that work in about six meetings, and have all the units' reports in by early next year."

Those reports, if they are accepted by the council, will eventually be incorporated in a plan change that will set the standards and rules for freshwater on the coast for years to come.

But that could be later rather than sooner; the council successfully applied for an extension of the Government deadline and will not have to notify the change until 2030.

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