Tuesday, 05 May 2020 10:16

Water quality – not just farming’s problem

Written by  Peter Burke
Water quality: not just an issue for farmers. Water quality: not just an issue for farmers.

A report by the Government is offering further evidence that New Zealand’s freshwater is being impacted not just by farming but equally by urban development, forestry and other human activities.

Our Freshwater 2020, by the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) and the Department of Statistics (DoS), highlights how climate change is set to make the issues faced by our freshwater environments even worse.  

The report’s authors say it builds on the information presented in previous reports but goes deeper on the issues affecting freshwater in NZ. This includes new insights on the health of freshwater ecosystems, heavy metals in urban streams, consented water takes and expected changes due to climate change.

The aim, say MfE and DoS, is to provide the evidence to enable an open and honest conversation about available options and to tell a national story, while recognising that significant regional variations exist. It notes that the data and science presented in the report is up-to-date and the best available, but that there is much more work needed to be done.

It does conclude that most rivers in farming areas are polluted, quoting studies at national, regional, and catchment scales showing that show the concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment, and E. coli in rivers all increase as the area of farmland upstream increases.  It says farm animals are a source of freshwater pollutants such as dissolved nitrogen, phosphorus, and pathogens and that fertiliser and animal dung and urine are important sources of phosphorus.

It notes that dairy cattle numbers have increased by 70% in NZ since 1994 and that farming has intensified with higher stock numbers per hectare in many regions.

But the report also notes that most of the rivers in catchments in the urban land-cover class are polluted with nutrients and suspended sediment, and many are polluted with pathogens and heavy metals.  And it points to a problem with aging infrastructure in urban areas, which is leading to pollution.

Farmer reaction

DairyNZ says the report highlights NZ’s environmental challenges and where everyone can play a part. 

Strategy and investment leader for environment, Dr David Burger, says dairy farmers are committed to protecting the environment and taking action on-farm to support that.

“Our dairy sector is on the journey to improve and protect water quality outcomes and our farmers have been working toward this for over a decade. We are continuing to do more every year. The Freshwater 2020 report does draw some key themes together for urban, farming and forestry, and shows us that all land use has an impact on our freshwater,” he says. 

But Burger says the report’s approach compares current water quality with native forest waterway condition and DairyNZ believes it is therefore somewhat misleading.

“We know that all development has an impact on water quality but it is unrealistic to compare this to native forest state. An estimated 95% of total river length in pastoral catchments exceeded one or more guideline values, simply because they are being compared to a very high native forest standard. 

“Interestingly, more than 50% of native waterways also failed to meet this criteria. This sets the benchmark very high for catchments with modified land use,” he says.

Federated Farmers says the data and findings in the report provide powerful backing for the case for greater investment in water storage. 

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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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