07 April 2009

Iconic high country lakes could become polluted, warns Environment Commissioner

"The water quality of our high country lakes in the South Island is under threat," says Dr Jan Wright, the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

"We have allowed incremental change to happen over a huge area of New Zealand, with little thought for how this has affected the environment" she commented today on the release of her report into the high country tenure review process, Change in the high country: Environmental Stewardship and tenure review. There are nine recommendations in the report.

"The usual result of a tenure review is that the lower land goes to the farmer and the higher land goes to the Department of Conservation (DoC)" she notes. "If the lower land is fertilised and stock is run right by a lake or river, it starts off the process of water pollution with nitrogen, phosphorus and pathogens (biological agents that cause disease and illness)."

"We don't want Lake Tekapo to end up polluted like Lake Rotorua. Prevention is far better than cure  better for the environment and better for those who end up footing the bill for any clean up."

"Will overseas visitors be so attracted to the high country if its special lakes are polluted like Lake Hayes?" Dr Wright questions, highlighting the relationship between the environment and its importance to New Zealand's tourism and trade. "It would endanger our important clean, green image."

Other areas of concern include the spread of weeds like broom and pine across many parts of the high country. "It's not just the effect on ecology and landscapes. There are implications for our ability to generate clean electricity too, should the trees spread into the catchment areas of our hydro dams," said Dr Wright.

The conservation estate also appears out of balance. "DoC has 22 high country conservation parks planned as a result of taking over pastoral leases. That is a lot of land of a similar type. It leaves less money for other conservation priorities  lowland forest, wetlands, dunelands and marine parks. I'm keen on the best spend for the conservation dollar."

To address these issues, a key recommendation is to create a new High Country Commission.

"If we don't take action now we risk leaving a huge liability for future generations. Having an agency, like a High Country Commission, focused on the big picture, would be a positive start," she commented.

Only a quarter of the leasehold properties have been through tenure review. That means there is still the opportunity to get a better result for the environment and for future generations.

"But to achieve a better outcome for the environment and the economy, we must take a fresh approach. I want to see a range of solutions such as greater use of protective covenants on private land and farm parks. One size does not fit all," Dr Wright concluded.

Copies of the report and accompanying background papers are available at the Commissioner's website: www.pce.parliament.nz.