‘Never again’ philosophy drives regional programme

The devastating flooding across much of the Manuwatu in February 2004 was the catalyst for a programme to address the loss of natural capital stocks and in doing so mitigate the source of much of the sediment finding its way into the region’s rivers and streams.

“The visible devastation on the hill country and across the plains, to infrastructure, people and their businesses, schools and homes was a real shock for the community at the time,” says AgResearch scientist Dr Alec Mackay.

Following the February 2004 storm, Horizons Regional Council held a meeting with a wide range of community representatives to discuss what could be done to reduce hill country erosion and flooding of the region’s plains.

“From that meeting came the resolution that we were determined that this crisis should never happen again,” says Dr Mackay.

The result was the formation of the Sustainable Land Use Initiative (SLUI). The initiative is a renewed response to investment in soil conservation and aims to provide a ‘mountains to the sea’ approach to wise land use by developing and implementing Whole Farm Plans with individual farmers.

The aim is to repair and reduce the region’s hill country erosion and storm vulnerability by identifying issues at a catchment scale and then targeting implementation at a farm scale. This is done by implementing and part-funding on-farm erosion control work carried out in Whole Farm Plans and is directed at properties identified as being most at risk of accelerated erosion.

The development of the individual Whole Farm Plans that drive the initiative is voluntary and occurs as a private conversation between the land owner, land manager and farm consultant. Only once the plan has been completed and actions agreed is it made available to Horizons Regional Council.

Led by Horizons Regional Council, SLUI is guided by both a technical and governance group, which includes AgResearch, landowners, Federated Farmers, Horizons Regional Council, industry leaders, the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Local Government Chairs, Mayors and CEO group.

AgResearch was heavily involved in the development of SLUI in the 12 months following the flood, including the costing and feasibility study, developing and testing the prototype Whole Farm Plans, updating the Land Use Capability Survey HandBook, linking the Whole Farm Plans to catchment outcomes and providing on-going input to both groups.

Hill country erosion has been an issue for the Manawatu-Whanganui region for most of the twentieth century. The Horizons Regional Council has the largest area of farmed hill country of any region in New Zealand with 1,500,000 ha or 68% of the Region’s total 2,200,000 ha in hill-country. Much of this hill-country is underlain by mud, silt or sandstones that are naturally prone to slipping, slumping and other forms of erosion. In total 450,000 ha of the region has the potential for severe erosion.

Due to vegetation clearance the hill country has experienced accelerated erosion over the past 100 years. The rate of erosion varies greatly, with the worst erosion rates recorded in areas of highest storm intensity, steepest slopes, and areas with little or no woody vegetation.

The SLUI programme brings together a number of tools in a coordinated approach to target high priority land at risk to erosion within catchments and sub-catchments. The majority of these tools are non-regulatory methods supported by the region’s proposed One Plan:

Whole Farm Plans – the Whole Farm Plan is the cornerstone of SLUI. Suitably trained individuals or groups will work with landowners to map the farm (land types, soils, vegetation cover and infrastructure), discuss with the landowner the current farm business and processes, carry out both an economic and environmental assessment to determine the ‘best’ farming practices in terms of environmental sustainability and economic return, and finally develop and implement a programme of works to achieve this best solution.

Incentives – financial assistance to offset the costs to landowners of making changes to their farming practices, e.g. fencing and retiring land, re-routing access tracks, poplar planting.  The weighting on that assistance is heavily towards soil conservation practices that have the most immediate benefit to reducing community vulnerability.

Monitoring – to assess the progress and success of the initiative and its roll-out. Without monitoring it is not possible to determine whether methods or approaches need to be modified.

Joint ventures – opportunities exist for landowners, local government and private organisations to enter into joint ventures to establish forestry on those blocks where it is identified that livestock farming is no longer sustainable. This approach reduces the cost and risk to the landowner of establishing forestry and allows the landowner to tap into external forestry expertise.

The Sustainable Land Use Initiative has now been in operation for eight years. Erosion rates are reduced closer to natural levels and the region’s rivers have shown improved water quality. Now lowland communities are protected from the effects of upstream hill country erosion and the region’s rural sector is more resilient to the effects of major storms.

“There are a large number of services beyond the pasture production lost from our landscapes as a consequence of an erosion event,” says Dr Mackay.

“For example an eroded landscape has a reduced ability to absorb incident rainfall, resulting in increased run-off and pressure on flood control structures. Loss of the flood mitigation services is one of a large number of regulating services that are also degraded along with provision services when an erosion event occurs degrading our natural capital stock.

AgResearch has developed a methodology for quantify and value all the services we enjoy from our landscapes and used this approach to put a cost on erosion.  An ecosystem services approach to resource management offers a new more complete picture of the “cost” of a storm event that results in significant amounts of soil erosion, and the long- term effects of land degradation on the provision of the whole range of ecosystem services, as well as the “value” of soil conservation practices including added system resilience.

We have found that the recovery of all the ecosystems services, after the erosion event is slow, with only 61% of services offered 50 years after the event.”

The programme is funded via three sources: regional ratepayers through a general annual charge, the central government hill country erosion fund administered by the Ministry for Primary Industries, and contribution to implementation of works by individual farmers.  Each contributes approximately one-third of the total investment in future proofing the region.

By the end of 2012, 369 whole farm plans had been developed and implemented, covering 295,818 ha of highly-erodible hill country. By mid-2014, about 500 whole farm plans had been completed, covering nearly 400,000 ha of the 1.2 million hectares of hill country in the Horizons Region.