Slipping away from me: dredging our tupuna, Tauranga Moana

Baby I’ve been watching you,
watching everything you do,
and I just can’t help but feeling,
someone is stealing you away from me.

I was slowly walking up our mountain Mauao on Friday along the four wheel drive track on its western side, when I espied a dredging ship out in the channel that is the entry to our busy harbour, Matakana Island on one side and Mauao on the other. A dredging ship is a gangly contraption, wrapped in a variety of pipes and steel beams and so low in the water that I could imagine one good sized wave would end the dredging quicker than any Environment Court appeal.

One small ship in a large harbour, pointlessly sucking up sand. As I understand it, a much larger dredging ship is due to arrive to speed the task, but as a layman my first thought was that it would take a month of Sundays to make even a dent in widening the channel; but of course I’m wrong. The dredging will be completed by August 2016, and by that time the channel in harbour will be deepened from 12.9 metres to 14.5 metres, the channel out of harbour from to 15.8 metres. Getting to these depths will also require the significant widening of the channel, which will require excavation of the shelves on both sides. About 15 million cubic metres of material will be removed in the end.

The Port of Tauranga claims that most of what will be dredged up will be clean sand, and this will be deposited out to sea and at three other sites closer to shore that will apparently replenish the sand at Main Beach, Ocean Beach and Pilot Bay. As Paritaha will be damaged, there is also a Pipi Enhancement Project underway that will see the removal of pipi from Paritaha to seed pipi beds in other parts of the harbour. As an iwi member, I can take solace that our three iwi all have front row seats on a trust to watch all of this progress happen in recognition of our special relationship with the harbour.

I have known most of these details for a few years now and understood the balance of mitigation and economic progress. But as I watched that little dredging ship leave the harbour to dump sand out to sea, I couldn’t help but feel we’ve got something wrong here.

The original iwi objection to the resource consent lodged in 2009 was on environmental grounds, particularly related to concerns about damage to Paritaha, a centuries-old pipi bed. All three iwi objected, and also noted concerns about the overall impact on the marine environment and erosion on Matakana Island. The dance that ensued at the Environment Court is a tired one; the company always has more money than the iwi so depletes their resources, an objection on environmental grounds is always an opportunity for mitigation rather than a reason to stop, and the keywords in press releases are that we should be sensible, objective and reasonable.

In my opinion, our iwi gave it their absolute best shot. But we were never going to stop the dredging because of the over-riding economic imperative; the Port of Tauranga, along with horticulture and healthcare, is the engine of the Tauranga economy. Their economic success is just too important to Environment Bay of Plenty, to Tauranga City Council, to the Western Bay of Plenty District Council, to local industries; and to iwi as well. Our continued economic prosperity depends on the expansion of the port.

So the dredging continues apace. Every day, more sand sucked up, more sand dumped; the slow beating of the economic heart or a slow drum in funereal march? Our harbour and our environment has significant problems. Only one river in the Western Bay of Plenty is safe to swim in. Our river mouths are silted up, and the chemicals, particularly nitrates we use in our agro-industries are destroying our rivers. Pipi and other seafood has been off the menu regularly over the past few years because of poisoning concerns. Algal blooms and sea lettuce expansion are increasingly the norm. We are poisoning, pillaging and plundering to ensure there are enough trays, enough steel, enough containers, enough logs to be loaded on ships at the port as if that is unrelated to the actual environment we live in every day.

Our greatest problem is not that anything that is happening is an example of corrupt or illegal exploitation of our environment. On the contrary, we’ve all done the right thing, followed the right processes; writing cultural impact reports, objecting to consents, presenting submissions at the Environment Court, seeking mitigations of negative effects, employing cultural monitors, researching impacts. But at no stage in any of those processes have we been compelled to say, Stop. Enough. We have come this far and no further. Our processes, entirely legal, reasonable and sensible are completely inadequate for protecting our environment. There is no end to our exploitation of the environment because the environment is a resource for our use, not a relationship for our well being.

Our children and our grandchildren will be left with the detritus of what was once a remarkable world that could meet all of our needs, and with piles of papers and electronic documents showing that we believed we were making sensible, rational and objective decisions whilst it all slipped away from us.

The only way to stop that is to link all of these ways we use the environment into one, complete picture. A systems view of every activity; the dredging then is not seen as an independent activity, but as one activity in a collection of activities that impact on the environment, including chemical use in farming and horticulture, grey water from the city, the extraction of seafood and other resources from our local harbour and sea, erosion of our coastlines because of building and farming activities and the use of water in irrigation and supplying our city. If we were to take a systems view, we could then ask, is this eco-system under stress? Will this new activity unacceptably the current eco-system? If the activity is so significantly important to us, what other activities need to cease, or be in done in a different way?

A systems view would ask different questions that recognise that everything is in relationship to everything else. That little dredging ship determinedly extracting sand from Tauranga Moana is our very own butterfly, and I fear we are not prepared for the hurricane it is starting with the beating of its wings.

[The header image is the little dredging ship making its way out of the harbour to dump a load of sand]