Tuesday, 01 October 2019 10:55

Are the water proposals a done deal?

Written by  Mark Daniel
Farmers at the Mystery Creek meeting on water reforms. Farmers at the Mystery Creek meeting on water reforms.

Big questions have been raised by farmers at an environmental roadshow on the Government’s freshwater proposals.

What's the difference between a dairy heifer and a beef heifer? 

It depends. Not a lot if you’re changing from a dairy to a beef operation, as it’s not a problem. 

But a change from beef to dairy heifer rearing is demanding and will likely require resource consent as it’s likely to be considered intensification.

This question and many others were raised at an environmental roadshow at Mystery Creek, Waikato to get feedback on the Government’s freshwater proposals. About 750 farmers turned up, describing themselves as angry, mistrusting and fearful.

The presentation, led by MfE’s chief water policy advisor Bryan Smith, was to present the key objectives of restoring water quality in both urban and rural situations. 

Smith said the intention is to put water first and the needs of people second. He used buzzwords like ‘holistic approach’, ‘mountain to sea’, ‘long term vision’ and ‘hierarchy of values’. 

He said the aim is to reduce nitrates and sediment -- the levels of the former to 1mg/litre or less. And he conceded this might take a generation to achieve.

It will become mandatory for every farm to make an environmental plan for freshwater, created with the help of a third-party advisor and subject to ongoing audit. 

Smith said detailed modelling had shown that good plans have potential to reduce sediment losses by 50 - 80% on typical hill country farms and 15 - 30% on dairy farms.

A proposal to create stock exclusion zones of 5m along waterways over 1m wide got the audience stirred up, as did mention of restrictions on winter grazing practice, already under fire from environmental lobby groups.  Feedlots and winter stand-off areas also came in for scrutiny, raising a suggestion of need for Resource Management Act oversight.

A long question and answer session showed farmers’ mistrust and frustration. Summarising this was dairy farmer Susan O’Regan, Te Awamutu, who said the common perception in the rural community is that the clear water proposals are intended as a legacy project for Environment Minister David Parker, and that he would likely pay little heed to submissions.

Matamata dairy farmer Wynn Brown questioned the proposals’ timing -- sprung on the industry at a very busy time on the farming calendar. 

Said Brown, “I feel in my life at present, as a farmer, that the numbers and timeframes the Government is suggesting are like asking me to climb Mount Everest in my Speedos and swimming goggles.”

Andrew McGivern, Waikato president of Federated Farmers, summed up the Feds’ mood and tendered apologies from 49 members. He asked, “When were NZ waterways last in ideal condition?” citing 1950s research showing E. coli levels were then significantly higher than now.

During the Q+A session, John Penno, the chair of the Fresh Water Leaders Group, reminded the meeting that the discussion was of proposals only, then he addressed the need for certainty and a solution to suit all parties. He said similar discussions had stalled over the last five or six years and the need now is to commit rather than stonewall again, to avoid more uncertainty.

Further points were raised about the scientific studies done to confirm the efficacy of 5m exclusion zones, invasion of those zones by pernicious weed species and the shading of watercourses.

In closing, Graeme Gleeson, a sheep and beef farmer in the Freshwater Leaders Group said farmers should take things in their stride and accept that the monitoring of waterways is a good indicator of how environmentally sustainable farming practices now are. 

Gleeson also noted that the policy recommendations do not compete with existing farm use, and he urged the audience to accept rather than “knee-cap” the suggestions. He also asked the audience to think as NZ Inc and as Team Ag in working together.

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Restoring our freshwater systems

OPINION: When I started writing this piece, I was sitting in my Kaiapoi office on a sweltering 30-degree summer’s day, and I could hear faint “plops” as youngsters pulled “phat manus” and “bombs” off the bridge into the Kaiapoi River as generations before them have done.

Do they know that the river is deemed “unsuitable” for swimming with E. coli levels of up to 2,420 per 100ml? This information is available on LAWA’s website, Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA) - Can I swim here? It makes for sobering reading. With levels this high, we should supply these youngsters with full PPE gear to wear over their shorts. The saddest fact is that this story is repeating itself from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

We are witnessing the systemic collapse of New Zealand’s freshwater systems as our environment can no longer handle the extreme pressure we have placed on it through decades of urban and rural intensification. We have taken too much from our environment and we must start giving back.

Change is coming with a renewed focus on healthy waterways through the National Policy for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM), which the Government announced in August 2020, as well as Plan Change 7 to the Canterbury Land & Water Regional Plan (PC7), which progressed through submissions and a hearing in front of independent hearing commissioners last year.

I attended the PC7 hearing in December and it boosted my spirits to observe the passion our community has for improving Waimakariri’s waterways. I hope the changes that come out of PC7 will be bold and far reaching.

The concept of Te Mana o te Wai underpins the NPS-FM and places the highest value on the health of freshwater systems. This philosophy is the new basis for how we, as a society, interact with our environment. The NPS-FM creates a framework for change, but we must also change how we think as council bodies, as communities, as businesses, and as individuals about how our systems/practices must shift from productive growth mode to sustainability mode, and how we can live within an acceptable environmental footprint. On an individual level, we need to realise how, over the long term, that wet paddock or riverbed block would benefit the planet if it were left to revert to a wetland or a more natural state.

This year the Waimakariri Water Zone Committee will focus on priority areas and working with the community to improve our waterways.

We will support change through three newlyformed catchment groups – the Sefton Saltwater Creek Catchment Group, the Landcare Working Group, and the Biodiversity Group.

We are ahead of the curve in Waimakariri in terms of engaging with farmers, waterway conservation groups and the wider community, but we still have a long journey ahead to restore our rivers and streams.

We must work together in a united way to leave our land and water for future generations to inherit in a better state than when we found it.

Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua - As man disappears from sight, the land remains.

Michael Blackwellis is chair of Waimakariri Water Zone Committee.

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