Striking the right balance between landscape, community and farming values is the primary concern in the Mackenzie Basin, says Environment Canterbury's Nadeine Dommisse.
The potential for further dairy expansion in the region has sparked intense debate and Greenpeace protests in the past several weeks, with many feeling it would significantly mar the natural landscape.
Dunedin accountant Murray Valentine is behind the proposed scheme, which will involve 5500 cows and three milking sheds. Valentine holds the crown lease on 9600 hectares of land at Simon's Pass, near Lake Pukaki.
Over the past decade, several groups have voiced their concern over the degradation of the iconic Mackenzie tussock land - recognised as an Outstanding Natural Landscape by the RMA in the early 1990s - through continued agricultural activities.
However, according to Dommisse, structures are in place to ensure the beauty and serenity of the Mackenzie Country are retained, whilst the needs and concerns of farmers in the region are also catered to:
"It’s about balance. The key challenge in the Mackenzie country is addressing the outstanding landscape values, which I’m sure is an important part of it for everybody, along with getting the right balance with the community’s prosperity and farming values. What’s emerged over the last 5 years or so is a really strong collaborative process, which initially started with the Mackenzie agreement between farmers and environment Canterbury regulators, so there’s a really strong emphasis across those parties on wanting to manage the basin in a way that combines both the needs of irrigators and dryland agriculture, but also allows the tourism, and manages the biodiversity and landscape values."
Over the past two years, Environment Canterbury (ECan) has put in place 'Plan Change 5', called by Dommisse: "the most comprehensive nutrient management framework in New Zealand".
Plan Change 5 establishes a whole farm, whole ecosystem approach to land use, requiring farms over a certain threshold to get land use consent which includes a farm environment plan that addresses water quality, hot spots, riparian vegetation, nutrient management and soil health. Also included in the terms of the consent is a yearly farm audit to ensure farmers are keeping up with their responsibilities.
Dommisse says that, despite growing concerns over the environmental wellbeing of the Mackenzie basin, water quality in lakes and rivers remains high, and the vast majority of community values relating to the environment continue to be upheld.
The big priority now, she says, is ensuring the internationally renowned landscape, prominently featured in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and a popular image for New Zealand's 100% pure tourism campaign, continues to be protected:
"I think what the majority stakeholders are saying is – “we have to do something now to make sure those values are protected”, and I think the questions are – do we have enough in place to protect those values going forward? Are our regulators, our agencies, and district councils aligned? What else do we need to do to help protect those values? I think that’s more of what we’re seeing at the moment. From an environment Canterbury perspective, we’re really confident that with the introduction of plan change 5, with the farm environment plans, with all of those environmental requirements now in place, we have the right framework in place to protect the Mackenzie Basin from further degradation."
As evidence of the effectiveness of Environment Canterbury's consent framework, Dommisse points to the numerous examples over the past decade where consent applications have been declined in the Mackenzie Basin.
Over the past five years, plans for the establishment of more than 2500 hectares of irrigation have been declined, primarily due to concerns about environmental degradation.
This, Dommisse feels, is an affirmation of the fact that Murray Valentine's scheme will only go ahead if the council is completely certain it won't seriously damage the environment.
She says ECan are working overtime to address the concerns of all involved, and that a collaborative system is in place to ensure the issue is looked at holistcally:
"There’s a project that’s been put in place called the Mackenzie Basin alignment project – basically it’s the 5 agencies with responsibility in the Mackenzie: Docklands, environment Canterbury, Waitake DC and Mackenzie DC, have come together to make sure we’re looking at all of those things (a holistic approach) and we’re doing it in partnership with the community and with the Iwi and the farming community so hopefully there won't be any gaps with that.
"It's fair to say the community as a whole is seeking reassurance that the Mackenzie Basin and all its values are being looked after, so environment Canterbury is very much working with all the other parties to make sure that’s the case, and I think that from a community concern perspective, that’s fair."