Pollution kuku creek

A little while ago one late March, I flew back to Wellington from Dunedin. I had a window seat and a perfect view of the eastern South Island landscapes glittering in the late summer sun. I marvelled at the wonderful braided rivers, which meandered down to the Pacific Ocean from the distant Southern Alps – the Waitaki, Rangitata, Rakaia, Waimakarariki. Soon we were off the seaboard of north Canterbury, but where were all the rivers flowing into the sea? Many of them had dried up several kilometres from the coast.

Farming and forestry out of control

By Roger Childs

For too long our two biggest export sectors have got away with polluting the land and rivers. As Environmentalist the late Bill Benfield put it, the current state of our lakes and rivers is not something that happened over night.

For decades many farmers have :-

  • increased their land use by taking over river banks, aided by indulgent councils
  • cross-bladed rivers into narrow channels to make them run faster
  • drawn off huge amounts of water for irrigation resulting in lower rivers and acquifers
  • allowed stock to pollute streams and rivers
  • increased nitrate and insecticide run-off into aquifers and watercourses
  • fenced off public access to rivers
  • expanded dairying into regions like Canterbury and Central Otago where there is insufficient rainfall.

Forestry has also caused plenty of pollution, and logging in the upper reaches of rivers has often resulted in tree debris being washed downstream.

Consequently, these two massive industries have lowered freshwater quality and made many water courses unswimmable.

The argument that they are earning big money for the country is no excuse for degrading the environment. There are, of course, plenty of farmers and foresters who are responsible land-users, but too many don’t clean up the waste from their operations.

Time for action

Cleaning up polluted waterways is a long-term challenge that will take a generation to fix, but the steps in this plan will make a real difference and get things heading in the right direction. –Environment Minister, David Parker

Ruamahanga 1

The Ruamahanga River, popularly known as the Sewermahanga.

Previous governments have consulted on the problems and talked about solutions, but little has been done to clean up the mess. Now the Coalition government has come up with specific policies to try and turn around the decades of environmental damage.

The Action Plan for Healthy Waterways sets out the proposed new requirements to improve freshwater, which include:

  • Freshwater Management to improve ecosystem health, including protecting wetlands and streams.
  • Setting higher standards for swimming in the places New Zealanders swim in summer.
  • Interim controls on land intensification, until councils have plans in place (2025).
  • An amendment to the Resource Management Bill accelerating the planning process to allow regional councils to take better, faster and more consistent action on freshwater.
  • Support for the delivery of safe drinking water and improved management of stormwater and wastewater through an amended Drinking Water National Environment Standard.
  • Improving risky farm practices where needed, including ensuring farmers and growers understand and manage environmental risks through farm plans
  • Requiring towns and cities to ensure that storm and wastewater systems are up to scratch so sewage does not contaminate waterways and beaches.

Federated Farmers over-reaction

“Farming is an essential part of New Zealand’s economy, so many people are touched by food production and in the document there’s large parts of New Zealand — Canterbury, Waikato, Southland — where they’re saying massive reductions in [nitrogen] is going to be required. So it is effectively shutting the door on agriculture.” –Federated Farmers spokesperson Chris Allen

Dairying in CanterburyFederated Farmers has also talked about the end of pastoral farming in some areas. This is nonsense, however, dairy farming may be phased out in Canterbury and Central Otago.  These regions are too dry to support running cows as it requires major draw-offs of water to keep the grass growing. Traditional dairying areas like Taranaki, Waikato and Southland have the rainfall needed without costly all year round irrigation schemes.

Canterbury has traditionally been a mixed farming region specialising in grain and crop growing, along with running sheep. Back in the 1870s to 1890s there was wheat bonanza with major exports notably to Australia.

Ending dairying in much of the Eastern South Island would benefit the environment and the economy, as water resources would recover and there would be less nitrate runoff and lower methane production from cows.

Government reaction to the scare-mongering

I don’t think that everyone is of the same view as Federated Farmers. Keeping in mind of course, when we developed these proposals we used and talked openly with those from the rural sector from processors to make sure that we were working alongside the rural community. –Jacinda Ardern

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said they only need to look at farms up and down the country to see that what the government is proposing is possible.

I think it’s a ridiculous statement [Federated Farmers reaction] and I think the ability of New Zealand farmers to innovate to adapt, the fact that we have profitable farming operations up and down the country that are achieving what we wish to see across all farms says this can be done.

Canterbury farmingNot surprisingly the National Party has called the proposals short-sighted and flawed and claimed that the strategy would limit farmer flexibility to change land-use in line with market conditions. However, although they say they want improved water sources, the bottom line is that for nine years in government they did little.

National’s environment spokesperson Scott Simpson says the proposals would “severely limit” New Zealand’s most profitable sector. However, other than dairying, most other farming types have little to worry about. Producing milk products at a considerable profit is no justification for polluting and degrading the environment and drawing off excessive water from rivers and acquifers.

Support for the proposal

Many individual farmers, especially those with efficient systems on place to limit pollution and waste run-off, are positive about the government’s plans. So too is  Horticulture New Zealand and Fish and Game.

fishandgameIt was essential the government went for options that would set “mandatory, enforceable rules for intensive agriculture”, as voluntary accords and unenforced Farm Environmental Plans have failed the country. –Fish and Game’s chief executive Martin Taylor

The government now wants feedback before legislation is enacted.  The country has been waiting for Labour to fulfil its election promise of cleaning up our waterways, and hopefully the recently announced proposals will be fine-tuned, but not watered down.