Amenity Values

Andy Hollings discusses the management of amenity values and their relevance to the Resource Management Act and kayakers. This article was originally published in NZ Canoeing 98.2 (Winter 1998).

In the past two issues of NZ Canoeing 97.3 (Summer 1997) and NZ Canoeing 98.1 (Autumn 1998) Maree Baker has looked at how regional councils use the Resource Management Act (RMA) to control activities relating to water. Monitoring the state of the environment is a large component of this because it is hard to establish with certainty what effect activities might have or are having unless baseline levels are established. Some councils are already quite advanced in this and have developed large databases of physical and biotic features of water quality and river flow characteristics to identify changes over time and space.

As Maree pointed out the amenity of rivers is one of the pivotal characteristics of rivers for canoeists. This is because any proposal ('activity' in RMA jargon) which affects the flow regime (height of "fresh" and duration) in a river must show that its affects on amenity values can be avoided, remedied or mitigated. There are many examples in New Zealand where flow regimes are managed to preserve the canoeing amenity values, albeit in an altered state.

These include:

  • controlled releases for paddling activities. This may result in congestion at these times and removes the opportunity when water is not released. The Tongariro, Pukaki, Waiau and Mangahao releases are examples.
  • the provision of alternative activities on the same waterway. The Tekapo site is an example although it is release dependent.
  • the provision of alternative activities in other waterways. This is not common in New Zealand but the attempt to provide an artificial site off-river at the failed lower-Rangitaiki scheme is an example.
  • active river management to maintain activities. This includes digging swimming holes that fill due to altered flow regimes, lowering channels to maintain flow velocity and placing obstacles for eddies. Work at Mangahao slalom site has augmented a natural site.

Amenity values have been debated extensively in the Environment Court (Planning Tribunal), Ministry for the Environment and elsewhere. What exactly constitutes recreational values for rivers is established to some extent by precedent but needs constant updating as use patterns change. The NZRCA has even commissioned their own surveys of rivers to assess specific characteristics and use patterns for whitewater canoeing.

In the future it is inevitable that legal debate will centre not only on how many people canoe a particular river or river section but aesthetic quality and social aspects, i.e. what makes it unique. To many canoeists this is often intangible or not easily defined. The features that make the experience of a canoeing unique are not only the instream flow features of gradient, length and degree of difficulty but location, river bank features, remoteness, access and degree of naturalness.

It follows that being able to measure these features is a vital part of NZRCA and member clubs making a strong case at water conservation hearings and consent hearings. The Ministry for the Environment (MFE) which oversees the RMA has asked some councils to provide in their district plans a definition of what amenity values actually means in local context. The MFE says there is no reason why amenity values cannot be used as a basis for placing controls on activities but councils should provide in their district plans a definition of what amenity values actually mean in local context. They state that applicants need certainty, guidance and consistency as well as councils knowing what needs to be monitored.

So how can NZRCA or councils measure what local amenity values are? Surveys are useful to measure spatial (numbers and distribution) effects at rivers but they also need to give an indication of how values change with time. This allows the method to be recognised in the RMA forum and applied, perhaps nationally. The national river survey of NZRCA, when formalised will allow key sections of a river to be identified for specific paddling features, in effect a snapshot for future reference. Matching this to social features of the experience allows a comprehensive picture of amenity.

The social science field of recreation science has developed tools to survey not only how much use an area gets but how much enjoyment or satisfaction relative to peoples expectations is present. This is now accepted as fair measure of impact if it changes significantly due to any management action. By asking the right questions it is possible to build a picture of how crowding, isolation and degree of naturalness affect the canoeing experience.

These studies are quite advanced in the USA for rivers like the Colorado, and rivers of the Northwest. In New Zealand they have been used to establish features of the wilderness fishing and hiking experience for individuals and groups in the Greenstone/Caples and Routeburn. Convincing universities to undertake or commission some primary research in this area may provide a link to complete the picture of the people aspect of amenity. This will help NZRCA to establish if the common mitigation measures above do really achieve their purpose and promote a clearer vision for canoeing.