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The recommendation to full council was made by a majority of the council's environmental performance committee after it heard from farmer representatives that the flights can contribute to farmer stress levels generally.
In past years, the council has used helicopter flights to randomly monitor farms in the region to see if they are compliant with effluent management rules. The helicopter flights have been an efficient way to cover farms and identify those where on-ground follow-up inspections may be necessary to see if run-off into waterways may be occurring.
In recent years, however, the council has taken a more targeted approach, with flights over areas where effluent getting into waterways may be a particular problem and subsequent educative visits to all farms in those areas to look at effluent management issues. There were six such flights last year.
Federated Farmers Waikato president Chris Lewis, who said helicopter monitoring could be stressful for farmers, noted at the meeting that there had been a positive response to this new educative approach, which he supported along with the targeted helicopter monitoring. But he also pointed to the significant stress levels on farms and recently reported national farmer suicide statistics. He felt it was good to remove sources of stress where possible. Lisa Lile from the Dairy Womens Network also spoke of how helicopter monitoring could contribute to farmer stress levels.
Cr Theresa Stark, a farmer who is not a member of the committee, supported ending helicopter flights due to the "fear" they generated. This fear was not conducive to the council's educative approach, she said.
Committee chair Clyde Graf, after hearing these comments, moved a motion that using helicopters cease pending further investigation of the council's regulatory processes.
In discussion on the motion, Cr Stark and non-committee members Stuart Husband and Hugh Vercoe, also farmers, were all critical of helicopter flights on privacy grounds. Cr Husband stressed he supported monitoring generally just not with helicopters. Cr Graf said he also supported the purpose of monitoring but questioned helicopter use.
Cr Kathy White felt it was important to focus on education work with farmers. Cr Timoti Bramley suggested the council had to look hard at the way it operated because of the stresses helicopter monitoring could place on people.
Cr Paula Southgate supported a review of monitoring methods but wasn't convinced flights should be halted pending the outcome of such a review.
Councillors Lois Livingston and Stu Kneebone expressed reservations about ending flights at this stage, with Cr Kneebone suggesting it would be a premature move without wider consultation.
In the end, the motion to cease flights pending a review was supported by councillors Graf, Bramley and White and opposed by councillors Kneebone and Livingston, while Cr Southgate abstained.
The recommendation will now be considered by the full council at its next meeting later this month.
No helicopter monitoring flights were planned till next month. A total of four had currently been planned for the rest of the year.
A second motion asking staff to report back on options for addressing concerns about effluent pond sealing rules was passed unanimously. It followed discussion on how the sealing rules could also be a significant source of farmer stress and difficult to enforce.
The formal wording of the first motion was "that the use of helicopters for monitoring and enforcement cease pending further investigation of council's regulatory process by the appropriate committee for review and approval by council".
The second was "that staff provide a report back to the next environmental performance committee meeting on the short and long term solutions to address regulatory rules with regard to effluent pond compliance, for further consideration by the environmental performance committee".
The committee earlier heard staff praise for the way farmers had been responding to council calls for making improvements to their effluent storage capacity to help avoid applying it to paddocks at the wrong time. If effluent is applied when paddocks are too wet this increases the risk of it contaminating waterways. Having the right storage was becoming the "new normal" for farmers, a council manager said.