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24 May 2018

Environmental Sea Change

After enduring years of the old Council’s long term neglect, Aucklanders have reached a tipping point. The environment has suddenly become mainstream.


There has been an overwhelmingly positive response to the Auckland Council’s plan for targeted rates to deal with environmental issues that have sat in the too hard basket for too long.

At the moment humanity is on a collision course with nature. Aucklanders are now ready to confront and deal with the issues. At the end of June, the Council will have the green light to push the button to start a radical clear-up which will set in motion a sea change.

Mayor Phil Goff recently said, “We have enormous acceptance that our responsibility as a generation is to pass on the earth that we inherited in a better state, not a degraded state to those who follow up.”

One of the biggest issues to confront is our water quality. Tourists have criticised our branding – clean, green, 100% pure – which might not be accurate anymore. Goff adds, the idea is not to change our branding but to make reality match that branding.

“For years in our city, the water has been pouring off the roadways, taking with it the oil and the dog faeces and everything else into the harbour. Stormwater off the roofs of too many of our dwellings has infiltrated into the system and every time it rains in Auckland, instead of the normal 16 beaches not safe to swim in (and even that’s terrible) we suddenly have 70 or 80 beaches not safe to swim in.

That’s why the ground-breaking Safe Swim programme was started so we know where and when it’s safe to swim in our city.

As a passionate diver, Councillor Penny Hulse, chair of the environment and community committee, is particularly sensitive to the subject of water quality, our harbours and the marine environment. “Being underwater is my idea of heaven. It really helps focus your mind around what’s happening in our marine environment, whether it's the bleaching of the coral on the great barrier reef or the plastic islands floating around the Pacific.

“When you think of Auckland and the effect on our daily lives and our beautiful Waitemata Harbour, that’s my number one focus. Everything we do on the land has an impact on our marine environment.”

She says for all those who say ‘water quality is not your thing’, just get into your lovely boat and go out into the Hauraki Gulf to catch your snapper on the weekend.  That’s pretty big in Auckland. If we continue to ruin our snapper spawning areas, it will impact on the fish stocks in the Gulf. And this is where water quality meets the stuff we value. We’re all responsible.”

She refers to Professor Johan Rockstrom at the Swedish Resilience Centre who says, we’ve gone from a small population in a big planet transitioning between the 1950s to 1970s to a large population in a small planet. “Our environment has been able to absorb and absorb. Not anymore. Unless we start to change the way we’re dealing with things….we’re already seeing failures in our rivers and streams. We’re straining to cope with the water quality of our upper harbour degrade.

“We’re now having to spend close to a billion dollars fixing up some of the effect in the St Mary’s Bay area with the big interceptor. Aucklanders will pay for that long term neglect. We just have to deal with it. We can’t just keep taking it for granted.”

Sea Cleaners

Sea Cleaners

Hayden Smith is a trustee of Sea Cleaners, which cleans up rubbish from the Gulf and elsewhere. He works with Ray White Damerell Group in a yearly clean-up of Coxs Bay. He says there’s a lot of work to be done.

 “I’ve seen 75 to 90-year-old turtles washing up on our shores with stomachs full of plastic. Inside one, there were over 265 pieces which is what killed it. Three items directly related to New Zealand – a “Made in NZ” sticker, a “100% pure” logo and a Timaru brew sticker.” Whether those items came from NZ waters or just moved through the Pacific, we’re having a direct impact on the marine life of the Pacific.

Penny Hulse says, the Council has just gone out to consult with Aucklanders about the special targeted rate to clean up our water and so far, Aucklanders have come back saying, ‘we’re really supportive of the rate which is fantastic’.

In the 10 year budget, the Council’s targeted rate to improve water quality adds up to an average of $1.30 a week on properties valued at $1million generating an additional $452million, money the Council can’t find elsewhere. It lets us clean up the beaches, fast-forward the stormwater, reducing the waste water overflows by up to 90% within 10 years instead of the 30 years that was expected. The other targeted rate deals with the problems with disease threatening the survival of some of our most iconic species. The Council has now closed most areas of the Waitakere Ranges and high risk tracks in the Hunuas where we have kauri dieback and the plants, animals and ecosystems that rely on the kauri are at risk too.

“We’re delighted the Government has started to engage with this and fund the research. From our perspective, it’s saying, how do you stop the spread of the disease into the Hunuas and out of the Waitakere Ranges? You get muddy boots and shoes and track this stuff around. That’s why we’ve taken a pretty conservative approach and closed affected areas. That’s a big step. There will be some parts of the forest that will stay closed for a very long time – probably generations.”

Then there is 70% of our significant ecological areas on Kawau, Waiheke Island and the Great Barrier that don’t have a pest control programme in place and possums are decimating their native bush so we’re losing the inheritance of native bush.

Nicola Toki, from Forest & Bird says: “Where you don’t have pest control, 19 out of the 20 Kiwi chicks on the islands don’t survive to one year old. I don’t know about economics, but I do know the importance of holding onto the things that define you as a city.”

To work towards resolving these issues, Aucklanders were given a choice of putting $21 per household a year into preserving native species or better still $47 a year to contain native kauri dieback by about 80 to 90%. By ring fencing the kauri and with the research undertaken by the Government, we have the ability to stop the dieback. If we don’t it will continue to accelerate and we will lose these forests.

Phil Goff says, “With those small targeted rates, we can make a difference. We intend to spend $1billion more on water quality in this 10 year budget. And we want to spend hundreds of million dollars more on protecting and preserving our environment.”

There are also high hopes Auckland will get legislation that will steer us towards zero carbon by 2050. It’s a big challenge for urban communities.

Councillor Penny Hulse

Councillor Penny Hulse

Penny Hulse says, if we’re going to tackle climate change, we have to fundamentally have a step change in the way we tackle transport. “We have 800 cars a week coming into the city. That’s ridiculous. We might need to throw everything and the kitchen sink at how we make it easy, fun, glamorous and affordable to use cycling and public transport.

“That might make Auckland a more gentle, kinder, humane place to live. At the same time, that’s the primary way to tackle climate change. If we don’t get our emissions down, we’re on the path to dire consequences. We need to stop believing people won’t get out of their cars because people who travel and who have lived overseas and who are that little bit adventurous are actually happy to use public transport.

“And that’s who we need to be as Aucklanders. We need to live a little. And maybe give our grandchildren’s grandchildren a chance at the life we live.”

Penny explains Council is at the limit of their mortgage borrowings but Aucklanders accept they now have to contribute to the cost of safeguarding the environment.

“If we tell people exactly what we’re going to spend, it hypothecates that money to $66 for each ratepayer. They know what the money is and they know what it’s going to buy. It’s not just disappearing into some kind of theoretic pocket that they have no oversight of. I personally think that’s quite a good way of doing it. They want to invest in their city. They just want us to tell them where we’re spending it.”


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