Water quality policy bound to please no one

The Government is steeling itself to open a can of worms when it announces its new freshwater policy. With stakeholders all vying for competing interests, it's hard to imagine anyone ending the day satisfied.

Everyone, from local government to farmers to environmental groups, has a view on how to fix the country's deteriorating freshwater quality.

On Thursday, the Government will weigh in with its own definitive take when it issues a new National Policy Statement and National Environmental Standard on freshwater. It's hard to imagine any party coming out of the day feeling like they won.

Nonetheless, the Government has no choice but to try, as a Colmar Brunton poll conducted for Fish and Game found that 77 percent of people "said they were extremely or very concerned about the pollution of lakes and rivers".

Freshwater quality has remained in the top two concerns for Kiwis for three years running, said Fish and Game CEO Martin Taylor.

Nitrate at the core

The root of the issue, as with many of New Zealand's environmental struggles, is dairy farming. Cattle eat nitrogen-laced grass from all over a pasture, then urinate in a single spot. Inevitably, the soil is unable to absorb the majority of the nitrogen, which either joins with oxygen and enters the atmosphere as nitrous oxide or turns into nitrate and leaches into groundwater.

From there, the nitrate enters the country's fresh waterways, which have seen increased nitrogen pollution. According to Stats NZ, for the 2013-2017 period, 65 percent of the country's river length had levels of nitrogen exceeding guideline values.

This was exacerbated in farming regions, where 71 percent of the river length had nitrogen levels that "could affect the growth of sensitive aquatic species," according to a Ministry for the Environment report, Environment Aotearoa 2019.

"Higher nutrient levels may also cause excess algal growth (or blooms), which degrades the ecosystems and can make waterways and coastal environments unfit for recreational and cultural uses," the report said.

Stats NZ said 12 percent of the country's river length had above-expected levels of E coli. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Cattle dung also threatens the safety of New Zealand's waterways. Environment Aotearoa 2019 found 82 percent of the river length in pastoral area was not suitable for swimming in because of the risk of Cambylobacter infection and Stats NZ said 12 percent of the country's river length had above-expected levels of E coli.

The country's dairy herd has increased 70 percent between 1994 and 2007, putting increased pressure on the environment.

Enforcement and follow-through

The new NPS will replace a 2014 statement, which was substantially amended in 2017. Essentially, new statements come into effect every three years.

Chris Lewis, the dairy chair at Federated Farmers, said this made it hard for local councils and farmers to implement each one. "The previous Government had a fiddle with the National Policy Statement on freshwater [in 2017] and then it's been given to the councils to implement. Most of the councils have either started it or are halfway through the job at the moment," he said.

'We all know what ecosystem health is required but the mechanism for agricultural sector to comply with it and the compulsion to comply with it are just not there.'

Local Government New Zealand declined to comment for this article because of the work they've done with the Government on the new NPS. Lewis thinks a new statement will accomplish little.

"Potentially on Thursday, the Government's going to announce that they want to start again and have another look. The issue is, you can spend all this time on policy and paperwork, but the focus should be actually on doing the work."

Fish and Game's Taylor disagrees. To Taylor, the issue with the current NPS is that it is too lenient on councils and primary industries. "The biggest problem we've got is voluntary compliance from the agricultural sector with farm management plans and lack of action by regional councils," he said.

"We all know what ecosystem health is required but the mechanism for agricultural sector to comply with it and the compulsion to comply with it are just not there. What I want to see is a process where councils are forced to do the right thing within a reasonable time frame."

Taylor said he also wants there to be "an acceptance and an acknowledgment that voluntary approaches and voluntary farm management plans have failed. There needs to be mandatory rules that are enforced. The days of industry self-regulation need to come to an end."

How to clean up waterways

Unsurprisingly, the primary sector was prepared for arguments like Taylor's. A coalition of dairy industry groups dedicated to changing the narrative on freshwater quality and farming released a statement on Monday claiming major improvements.

In particular, the Dairy Environment Leaders Group coalition highlighted that they had fenced off dairy cattle from 24,249 kilometers of waterways that were more than one meter wide and more than 30 centimeters deep. This represented 98.3 percent of such waterways, the coalition said.

Dairy Environment Leaders group chair Alister Body said the coalition represented "over 11,000 dairy farmers. ... They pulled on their gumboots and put in many thousands of hours of time and made significant investment to help improve water quality."

A photo supplied by the Dairy Environment Leaders' Forum shows a fenced and riparian-planted stream on a farm in Waihi.

But Taylor said fencing off larger waterways meant little since nitrates could still enter through groundwater and small waterways. "Fencing off large waterways tends to ignore the fact that pollution could still come into the large waterways through small waterways," he said.

"Fencing and riparian planting have a minimal effect on keeping nitrates out of the water and E coli out of the water."

Instead, Taylor said the Government needed to crack down on fertiliser usage. Nitrogen-based fertilisers have seen increased use as the dairy herd grows. "There needs to an acceptance that the amount of fertilising that's going on is too much. There are sustainable farm practices out there and people have to follow them."

While bringing in less fertiliser means making less milk, the lessened revenue could be offset by the decrease in expenses.

Lewis, from Federated Farmers, lamented his own fertiliser spending.

"I spent $180,000 on fertiliser on my farm. Trust me, I don't want to spend a dollar more than I have to," he said. Lewis has also replaced some of his dairy herd with beef cattle, which release slightly less nitrogen.

He said farmers were open to working on improving freshwater quality, but initiatives should be led by local communities, not imposed by central government. To that, Taylor had a simple reply.

"This is the fact: for 20 years, we've had farm management plans and riparian planting and still water quality across the country has gone down. There needs to be something done and that means actually having mechanisms that are compulsory and mandatory and the agricultural sector has to comply with those."

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