I have great respect for Jon Morgan who writes for the Dompost.
His article Farmers really have cleaned up their act (Dompost 16/11/2011) begs some questioning though.
Yes, I imagine most kiwis would agree with Jon – Most of us would agree that dairy farmers are not intentional polluters, and that farmers are genuinely horrified when they find that they or an employee have inadvertently caused pollution.
Jon tells us that these days, pollution happens on rare occasions through poor management, breakages or from a surprise weather event.
Fair enough with respect to weather and other uncertainties. But breakages are surely preventable? Do we accept that poor management is a reasonable excuse for degrading our waterways?
The RMA 1991 and other environmental legislation exist to prevent poor environmental management. Jon observes that: in the past five years, Horizons Regional Council in Manawatu-Whanganui has prosecuted 16 farmers out of 860. Ramping up investment in intensive farming puts a greater burden on Regional Councils. Are we expecting Councils with stretched resources to identify and prosecute every breach? Who pays?
Our rivers are dirty. And yes, some of that is because of urban sewage. But, as Jon suggests, most of it comes from farms. The Clean Streams Accord was signed in 2003, and the state of our rivers has further declined, rather than improved – so it might be fair to say that some farmers have been slow to act.
We’re talking the best part of a decade since the Accord. While I’m not disagreeing with Jon that farmers are indeed cleaning up their act – with great examples like the Lake Taupo restoration project and others described in earlier posts (and see NZ Landcare Trust) – the question is, are farmers doing enough? And are Regional Councils doing enough about enforcement? The Auditor General says no.
This comment comes from a Regional Councillor regarding one of a number of pollution incidents in the Wellington region. We can and should do better.
We received another report today of about a hundred cattle breaking down the banks and fouling the Huangarua River near Martinborough. Local residents have had enough and are angry that repeated appeals made to the GW Environment Protection Unit over much of this year to curb the local farmer involved have had no effect. This farmer repeatedly confines the cattle into the river with hot-wires traversing it so cattle are trapped on the banks and in the water. We are disappointed that although GW has clear Farmer Guidelines, a Fresh Water Plan and responsibilities under the RMA, it is failing to provide the necessary resources to check farmer compliance and fine them for repeated transgressions. Fecal and urine pollution occurring on the Huangarua River also pollutes the nearby Ruamahanga River into which it feeds: both rivers are used for swimming, fishing and other recreation. Such pollution causes both unwanted algal and bacterial overgrowth and is a health hazard for the region.
Back to Jon, who says that one cause of river pollution is cows crossing or standing around in streams and rivers, with cows more likely to defecate in water than out of it, according to a 2004 study. 85 per cent of dairy cattle are now excluded from waterways, according to Jon’s sources and this is improving every year. And 99 per cent of farms have apparently bridged streams.
While I applaud the improvement in dairy cattle exclusion zones, I wonder about that other figure – that 99 per cent. Taking a look around the countryside near where I live, most wetlands and streams are not fenced off from stock. Effluent from cows and sheep grazing in or near waterways, and silt from their wading through swampy areas, this fouls our waterways.
All this is surely preventable. According to Jon’s article, only 1 per cent of farms are failing to step up. Only 1 per cent of farms are failing to clean up their act? So why are we still seeing unfenced streams and wetlands and hearing of incidents like the one near Martinborough?
We can do better, and we must do better – before unleashing more intensive irrigation on our pastureland, which will likely drive more effluent into our lakes, rivers and streams. Is public funding of intensive irrigation to be promoted before farmers have fully cleaned up their act? The public should think carefully before funding more intensive irrigation.
- Freshwater in NZ – Auditor General unimpressed by ‘forgiving’ Regional Councils (robynmmoore.com)
- Protecting Lake Taupo – the Restoration Project and Variation 5. Taupo farmers are the first in NZ to have to seek a consent to farm. They provide a detailed nitrogen management plan to gain their resource consent and it’s limited to 15 years. Audits are part of the process.
- Protecting Lake Taupo Strategy (PDF)
- http://www.odt.co.nz/regions/north-otago/187746/feedback-taken-water-proposals (Otago Daily Times 23 Nov, 2011 – The Otago Regional Council is consulting before preparing a draft policy early next year on discharges from farm drains, run-offs and leaching. Meetings were held at Papakaio and Maheno. A concern for meeting participants was whether the limits set by Council on discharges of sediment, nitrogen, phosphorus, E. coli and ammonia would be achievable).
- Listen to this good news story on Radio NZ podcast, aired 1 March 2013 – It relates to the same soil conservation programme the Avery’s are part of (see my earlier post). Increasing the efficiency that plants use water can hugely increase production and financial returns. Nitrogen is the most limiting factor for grass to grow (Derek Moot, Lincoln University). These dryland farmers use nitrogen fixing legumes (sub-clovers) to get that nitrogen into the soil and boost the efficiency that plants use water. “We’re getting the nitrogen for nothing (David Grigg)…If the plant can do it why not use it?” (instead of applying urea). The Griggs have seen massive changes in stock weight gains under the new regime – going from 190 grams per day to 380 grams per day, with 100s of 1000s of dollars added to the Grigg’s financial performance
- Many NZ rivers unsafe for swimming (stuff.co.nz)
- Waikato River in ‘serious decline’ (stuff.co.nz)
- MPCA Blames Agriculture For Rising Nitrate Levels (minnesota.cbslocal.com)