Councils and farmers should cop the blame over water quality

By Graham Carter

Recent articles discussing our dying rivers and lakes, followed by a story about the dirty Selwyn River in North Canterbury and the news that a complaint against Greenpeace’s anti-dairying advertising was not upheld clearly point out the main offenders regarding our dirty rivers and streams.

The dairy industry through its various industry media releases have been bleating that it’s not just dairying which is quite correct, but they are the main offending group.

It must be very upsetting to dairying families to read and hear all this and feel the hatred directed at them. However while it’s good to blame the good ol farmer it’s not entirely their fault.

I believe that blame equally lies with our Regional Councils, Fertilizer companies and Fonterra.

NZ is a small country, and we all know farmers. Most of the better farmers are your typical hardworking down to earth, decent, hardworking and caring kiwis, that love the outdoors, go hunting and fishing and very much care for the environment. Some we call friends. They allow us to shoot and gain access through their properties for various outdoor activities.

Every kiwi is responsible for water quality and ensuring that our kids and others stop throwing trash out of the car onto the road, .smokers need to sort their rubbish out responsibly, it all adds up.

There’s also traffic run-off, oil, fuels and emission deposits that make their way into kerbs and ultimately drain into streams during rain…everyone is responsible.

And yes, they have been sold a pup by central and regional Government, and the likes of Fonterra and other industry bodies.

But who are they? Well, if you are talking about the current PM or Minister of Agriculture, they are farmers. If you are talking about the architect of the RMA reforms that bought us wadeable rivers, Amy Adams is a farmer. By far the majority of Regional Councillors in the country are farmers, or have direct links or associations with farms (in Horizons Council it is 80%). This is no accident, but the result of a very deliberate and public campaign by Federated Farmers to get farmers elected to Councils. That has been going on for years. Fonterra will tell you that the company is its shareholders. And who are they? They are farmers. These people were elected by farmers.

John Key pledged to increase dairying as he wants to “lift exports by $14 billion to meet the Government’s 2025 growth target.”  “The conversion of low-intensity sheep and beef farming to dairying had led to increased leaching of nitrogen and phosphorous into waterways, which spurred the growth of weeds and algae, and worsened water quality. By 2020, it’s predicted 400,000 ha of land would have been converted into dairy farms in the preceding 12 years.”

Nick Smith wanting water quality standards lowered and to gut the RMA threat to farmers making it easier to allow run-off and extract water. So central government is a big part of problem.

Regional councils have been absolutely negligent in setting up consent processes and then not carrying out even the most cursory of compliance monitoring regimes. However, farmers have taken advantage of this by knowingly and consistently being non-compliant in the belief that they will be unlucky to be caught. At the end of the day we should all respect “the law” because it is the basis of a hopefully just society. The notion that it’s fine to disregard it “when no-one’s watching” is really the beginning of the end of what a good society is all about.

There is a growing number of accountants, overseas corporations, immigrants and business owners that own farms as they see this as a very lucrative money making venture and don’t give a toss about environmental issues as that fits into the expenditure column and they are not in the business of spending money on improvements that don’t ring the till.

Some farmers take the environmental issues seriously doing everything asked of them to reduce the leaching of nutrients from their farms. They have bridged stream crossings, fenced waterways, planted riparian strips and built highly technical effluent treatment systems. They want clean streams as much as any other kiwi.

It isn’t as if the problems with our waterways was a sudden and recent event, it isn’t.

Both the problem and its causes have been known for years. Decades in fact. But it was a very inconvenient truth, and it has been ignored. And I’m not talking about facts buried in obscure scientific journals. Parliamentary Commissioners for the Environment have been publicly warning us for a long time. Pleading ignorance is no longer an excuse.

At the end of the day, whatever else farmers are, they are business people.

They run businesses just like your local dairy owner does.

Farmers, good or bad, also have to own both the ethical and sustainability issues surrounding farming. They may or may not directly contribute, but they do elect the representatives who advocate on their behalf, and allow them to lobby and campaign practices which are neither ethical nor sustainable. They line up for taxpayer subsidized schemes like irrigation schemes when they are offered or suggested. And not just line up, but aggressively attack anyone who might dare question that.

Of course farmers aren’t the sole cause of the pollution of our waterways, and of course Council sewage and stormwater schemes contribute. But again, the science tells us that the 80/20 rule applies here also. The proportion is that small. That doesn’t mean we don’t hold Councils (and Councillors) to account for their actions (or inaction’s), but let’s solve the big issues first. Councils don’t tell farmers how much stock they can carry, that is a business decision that farmers make, along with deciding the farm management regimes they will employ to achieve that.

So I fail to see how the farmers are the ‘victims’ in all this. They must wear the consequences of their decisions, just as we all do.

Lake Tutira in the Hawkes Bay has a serious algal bloom that has been linked to phosphorous in sediment washed off the land by heavy rain. It is the Councils mandate under the RMA to manage natural weather events.

So why does Ecan allow heavy water extraction upstream of the Selwyn well knowing that the river downstream needs the waterflow?

In a Dec 2016 Stuff article “The amount of groundwater allocated for irrigation in Selwyn is 134 per cent of the limit.” To allow Lakes Ellesmere and its rivers Selwyn, Irwell, L11, Harts Creek to dry and become cesspools is the fault of the regulators and those not following their consent rules.  Not to mention leaching of nutrients to feed algal blooms.

So are the Selwyn River problems all about not enough rain? And nothing to do with the taxpayer supported irrigation schemes, with a new one just approved? Don’t think so.

Let’s also consider what the Waikato Regional Council has done around Lake Taupo. As soon as high nitrogen and phosphorous levels started showing up in streams leading into the lake, measures were instituted to stop the leaching of nitrogen into the lake and retire land to forestry. So it can be done. The Great Lakes District Council filters storm water flowing into the lake.

Most farmers have accepted the science – although questions remain, particularly around the use of a flawed nutrient-measurement system like the OVERSEER programme which could but doesn’t record heavy metal runoff, like Cadmium already at extreme levels on 20 Waikato farms.

Up to the late seventies early eighties there was a very good balance between the farming and the aquatic health of rivers and lakes. That balance was due in a large part to the use of clover grass fed dairy on traditional style farms.

Copying foreign industrialized methods and intensifying dairy since the 80’s is obviously one of the reasons that our waterways are becoming the troughs of bacteria they are.

There is also an interesting issue around the enacting legislation for Fonterra which requires them to take all the milk their farmers produce. That had the unintended consequence of forcing Fonterra down the dried milk focus which in turn, as a commodity produce, drives the environmental damage etc!

The farmers are invariably trapped on a treadmill of production for Fonterra as otherwise they cannot continue the job they love. Saying dairy farmers are copping flak for no reason is wide of the mark though. They are copping flak because the way they are farming is ruining the water. Isn’t it funny how Fonterra seem to get away with little mention, it’s almost like the main stream media are turning a blind eye. I remember being able to drink the water in the rivers of Hawke’s Bay and Taupo, when I went for a swim growing up. Now you are brave if you wade in some of them.

We don’t seem to have learned from the past and there is still a drive for increased intensification. This will inevitably lead to more pollution, even if the new farmers are following best practice. Increased nitrogen leaching from more cows cannot be mitigated to any great degree by fencing off streams or improving cowshed effluent systems. More cows = worse rivers!

Yet this government and industry lobbyists continue their push for more irrigation and intensification.

The number of cows per hectare continues to increase and there is evidence this is beyond what the environment can handle.  There should be some limits on cows per hectare as part of consents, and move cow densities to that of 30 years ago.

 The scientific evidence provided by Greenpeace must be correct for the dairy farmer’s complaint against Greenpeace’s anti-dairying advertising not to be upheld.  Too bad if this is upsetting some in the dairy farming community, but let’s point the finger at the bureaucrats that allow this.

Most of our Regional Councils have high staff levels of overpaid desk wallahs that have university degrees and very little farm experience and common sense. Some are very cunning farm owners that manipulate policies to suit their own agendas. These are the very people that we should also be holding accountable. Council staff should be contracted to perform and if they don’t then they should be dumped for their incompetence and disregard for the environment.

 We should be looking at the people that have allowed these issues to prevail, after all they do the water testing, issue consents and over charge farmers for their rates.

The councils should also take some blame for being hard on farmers for some bad farming practices yet hypocritically permit themselves to pump untreated effluent into their own streams.

The pending Court case between Wellington Fish and Game Regional Council and Horizons is a case in point where although standards of the ‘One Plan’ are known to all and sundry, it is its implementation that is the problem.

If a fixed stocking rate per hectare was implemented as suggested it would mean that naturally productive land for dairying would be the most economic and marginal land with high stocking rates supplemented by excessive pasture fertilization and high supplement usage could result in dairy production on substandard land not even being considered.

Another danger is that the provision of water for pastures is being pursued as a political objective to show people in a region that the government is interested in regional development and job creation. The fact that the capital and other costs could total an amount that would keep a greater number of people with a work and income benefit far in excess of the number of so called new jobs being created is something the current administration seems to ignore.

We automatically assume that the current National government are the problem but wonder whether any alternative would be any different.

Then you have business people elected to positions on some of the environmental groups like Fish and Game, Forest and Bird etc that have potential conflicts of interest. For example an irrigation contractor business owner who is in a potential position of influence as the chairman on a Fish and Game Council.

 It’s not always easy determine which other Councillors have no potential conflicts of interest. This is a major can of worms based on a lack of clear definition of what is a “conflict of interest” and how councilors have the ability to get there mates to vote them on – democracy in action?

 The flawed electoral process of these groups doesn’t require candidates to list their interests. They have to be declared at meeting times, but not in the election profiles each candidate writes about themselves, there’s no requirement to inform the voting public.

I have personally witnessed farming in areas which have no direct effects on waterways, but these farms are in locations which will never severely affect waterways; and have seen some practices on farms which do affect the run-off, and water quality. You don’t have to go far to see it.

It’s well past time the Councils were held accountable!

Councils should not be self-regulating, they should be audited by an independent authority, regarding stormwater, wastewater, sewerage so their overpaid CEO’s cannot influence managers and hide issues and allow them to pollute our streams etc.

The actual victims are our grand-kids, who are denied the opportunity to go down to the local creek and catch frogs and cockabullies’ and learn about the natural world like we did, as a result of all this. And that is why I shall continue to fight all the causes, regardless of whether they originate through deliberate actions or through an apathetic disregard of ‘just letting it happen’.


Leave a Reply