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Report says council needs more scientists to manage water quality

Image: Bernard Spragg, via Picryl

Inquiry calls for number of scientists to be doubled in order to improve freshwater management

 An investigation into a New Zealand’s regional council’s freshwater management system has found its operations are compromised by a lack of scientific staff to identify and monitor water quality problems.

The report has found the Otago regional council’s freshwater planning system is “not fit for purpose” for managing the region’s rivers, lakes, groundwater and coastal wetlands.

It has recommended more than doubling the number of full-time scientists on the council’s staff from nine to 19, including hiring a team of six hydrologists.

The four-month investigation into the South Island council, which is based in Dunedin, was conducted by former environment court justice Peter Skelton. It was commissioned by NZ’s environment minister David Parker and included an assessment of water regulations for more than 350 mining permits which are due to expire in 2021. 

“Existing planning provisions to manage freshwater are inadequate to deal with the expiry of the Otago mining privileges, known as deemed permits, in only two years,” Parker said in a government statement.

“The predicament with deemed permits has been many years in the making. A 30-year transition period was provided to manage them. While the current council can’t be held accountable for the lack of past progress, it can take action now to improve its freshwater management framework.”

The report says deficiencies in science staffing “are exacerbated by deficient staff training, a lack of development pathways and consequent staff turnover leading to loss of institutional knowledge”.

“The impacts of lost institutional knowledge are exacerbated by a lack of robust data collection and databases to which staff can refer,” it says.

The report also questions whether the council’s policy and planning resources are adequate.

“At present, to cover all its planning and policy functions, I understand that the Council employs seven planners with varying levels of seniority and experience and also contracts the services of consultant policy planning staff with extensive water planning experience,” it says.

“The water policy and planning workload between now and 2023 is beyond the resources of such a small team and will require additional experienced planning staff.”

The report recommends that the council provide progress reports to the minister every six months, including the expansion of its scientific capacities.