Catchment groups, farm plans and the Otago environment

Freshwater Farm Plans will have flow on effects for Te Mata Au Clutha River. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Freshwater Farm Plans will have flow on effects for Te Mata Au Clutha River. PHOTO: ODT FILES
ORC councillor Lloyd McCall  examines freshwater issues.

The introduction of new Freshwater Farm Plans to be created together with area-based catchment groups will provide the next major improvement to freshwater quality in New Zealand.

But this time we hope the lessons of the past have been learned and the landowner community will be given the responsibility to create meaningful change.

Catchment groups as we know them began to emerge a decade ago, a response to the requirement for regional councils to monitor water quality and have a plan to maintain good water quality, and also improve water where it was degraded.

Landowners have been incentivised for a long time by central government to increase production. The "more is better" approach fuelled the intensification of our pasture lands. The introduction of soluble phosphates and synthetic urea resulted in highly productive pastures suitable for high output farming. More grass, more cows, more milk, more sheep, more money, and so the spiral continued. The environment was not considered.

This intensification resulted in deterioration in water quality, sparking a response from central and local government to reverse the trend. This was the birth of catchment groups .

The key players needing to reverse the trend were landowners. They took ownership and the associated responsibility to limit their businesses’ impact on water quality. The key driver of those decisions was to provide an improved environment.

Development of good management practices to improve water quality was led by farmers, for farmers. Winter grazing practices started to change, riparian fencing was erected, and farmers came to understand the importance of protecting critical areas. Fertiliser application and methods were highlighted, and contaminant hotspots controlled.

These farmer initiatives, often instigated by catchment groups, helped halt water quality deterioration and improved water quality.

The ORC State of the Environment 2022 executive summary says: "Tributaries of the Lower Clutha Rohe show many ‘extremely likely’ or ‘virtually certain’ improvements across multiple attributes over a 10-year period. Catchment groups have been working in the area for 10+ years and the improving water quality may be due to increased awareness and on the ground action promoted through farmer-led groups".

Genuine progress was being made over a prolonged period.

The introduction by central government of one-size-fits-all rules was justified as a way to manage the unengaged, but farmer outrage ensued. Ownership and responsibility for water quality passed from the farmer to the rule makers. Farmers were not only relieved of the responsibility, they resented being told what they could or could not do.

Just when the merits of catchment groups were becoming recognised their relevance was taken away by the rule makers and on-farm improvements were limited by the rules.

Fresh Water Farm Plans (FWFPs) can pass the ownership and associated responsibility back to land owners. This will only occur if their implementation enables each landowner to have both choice and an ability to be inventive. A catchment context, with area-specific information needs to sit alongside community expectations specific to the localised catchment, tributary or area.

The catchment context needs to be developed by the community. The one-size-fits-all rules replaced with achievable expectations in line with the community values.

Catchment groups can facilitate a farmer-to-farmer approach in small group or individual settings to assist with the development of individual FWFP. These plans would be certifier-ready with actions the landowner owns.

If these Farm Plans are developed and implemented collaboratively, we will see the next significant improvement in water quality. Imagine what could be achieved if there were incentives to assist the protection of on-farm biodiversity.

If FWFPs become just a tick box exercise ("you only do what you have to so you can continue to do what you are doing"), this opportunity will be lost.

Let’s grab the opportunity to ensure our future generations can enjoy the benefits of the water as we have.

— Lloyd McCall is an ORC councillor