Taranaki is going from strength to strength when it comes to improving the ecological health of its waterways, with the rate and extent of the region’s improvements defying assumptions.
Latest monitoring results from the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC) show trends improving at 49 of the 57 sites monitored, surpassing record highs seen in the past two years.
“Statistically, any environmental trend can be expected to flatten out and reach a new equilibrium after a period of change,” says the Council’s Director-Environment Quality, Gary Bedford. “We’re surprised but delighted that we’re not yet seeing this here. We’re still riding the wave, so to speak.”
Sites showing improvements outnumber those showing declines by six to one, in sharp contrast to the 2008 ratio of almost three to one, and most of the improvements are in areas where intensive farming occurs.
Gary says the region is clearly seeing the benefits of TRC’s Riparian Management Programme, which provides farmers with management plans specifically tailored for their property. Since it began in the mid-1990s the programme has helped farmers fence thousands of kilometres of streambanks and protect them with millions of native plants. The programme has attracted international attention and is the biggest of its kind in the country.
TRC’s results have also been backed up by recent NIWA research which concluded that Taranaki’s riparian protection programme is not only strongly associated with improved ecological health in the region’s waterways, but has also reduced E.coli levels.
“You can’t argue with science – streamside fencing and planting is having a positive impact in Taranaki, trapping and filtering pasture run-off and keeping animals out of our streams and rivers,” Gary says.
He also says in some areas ecological health is improving even where nitrogen levels are increasing. “This shows that the relationship between nutrient levels and stream health is clearly not as simplistic and straightforward as often suggested. Generalised regulations may not necessarily result in better water quality at some locations, highlighting the dangers of adopting a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to freshwater management.”
Gary says the NIWA report is significant nationally as well as regionally. “As the authors themselves noted, it was a rare opportunity for them to conduct leading-edge research. As far as the Council is aware nowhere else in the world, let alone New Zealand, has a study reviewed a situation where riparian fencing and planting has been carried out on such a wide scale and for so long.
The NIWA study also raises questions about New Zealand’s new swimmability regime. “The report notes that under river conditions that are suitable for recreational use, only 27% of Taranaki’s waterways are swimmable under the New Zealand swimmability criteria”, says Gary. “But if European standards are applied, more than 80% would be suitable.”