How constant are we on water?

Lake Wakatipu. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Lake Wakatipu. PHOTO: ODT FILES
If farmers are expected to fo their best over water discharge, shouldn't everyone? asks Simon Davies.

Across the country, more and more catchment groups and other farmer-led environment-focused groups are getting stuck in.

In my own neck of the woods, the recently launched Tokomairiro Water Catchment Group is made up of farmers who are trying to do their bit to improve the water in the local river.

So I was appalled to discover the local district council has applied for resource consent to continue to discharge untreated wastewater (a nice way of saying raw sewage) and stormwater into the same river during high rainfall.

For some time now the agricultural sector has been being dragged through the mud over its environmental footprint. Farmers are now lifting their efforts, and spending a lot of money, to improve farm practices and the quality of the water leaving their properties.

They're upgrading effluent systems and other infrastructure, excluding stock from waterways, running nutrient budgets and increasing riparian planting, to name just some of the initiatives.

Most farmers are aware that activities on their land can affect water quality. They're seeing the benefits of changes they're making and it is now an accepted part of being a good farmer.

It's not hard to understand why we get grumpy when we put in the time, effort and resources to improve our sustainability but the same cannot be said for urban councils.

Surely urban folk realise that rain washes everything off the roof, road and driveways down the street kerbs and into the stormwater system. This stormwater, with its load of detergent from car washing, unpicked-up dog poo, spilled oil and all the rest flows through a network of pipes and out into the nearest body of water - the local river, lake or in the case of most of our large cities, the sea.

Auckland's sewage pollution problems have been well highlighted, with its beaches being unsafe for swimming several times a year.

Queenstown Lakes District Council has recently applied for a 35-year resource consent to be allowed to discharge storm and untreated waste water into the central lakes after high rainfall events.

It is no secret that the QLDC has had multiple occurrences of this in the not so distant past - an appalling situation. These lakes are the poster images for our tourism industry.

As a community, are we happy with this? I say as a community because it effects all of us - urban and rural people. We all want these lakes to have the highest water quality. After all, that's what tourists pay good money to come and see.

The QLDC consent application really just seeks to retain the unacceptable status-quo, on the basis that updating the ailing infrastructure would be unaffordable.

Given populations are only going to increase in the Queenstown District, this problem will not be going away, and hiding their head in the mud just doesn't cut it.

The silence on this issue from those who are quick to attack farmers for their water quality problems surprises me. Why aren't the fresh water ecologists, Fish & Game and other environmental groups falling over themselves in a race to condemn the QLDC application?

The difference can't be because the council is applying for a long term "get out of jail card". If a farming operation wanted a 35-year consent to discharge contaminants into a water body, even if only after heavy rain, they'd soon be told
where to go.

In this day and age, given public expectations on water quality, it almost seems arrogant for a council to even ask for this sort of discharge consent. I am quite sure a private commercial operation wouldn't even consider asking for a term of 35 years for any form of discharge consent, let alone one involving raw sewage.

Shouldn't we as a community hold councils to the same standard? Is it because we as ratepayers will foot the bill for the infrastructure upgrades that are needed? Is money out of our own pockets talking louder than concern about water quality?

This is by no means exclusively an Otago situation. Sewage infiltration and discharge via stormwater at times of high rainfall happens everywhere. Most of our urban areas, big and small, are struggling to manage their wastewater and stormwater systems.

All of us have a choice. Either we all get serious and pay the price to fix the infrastructure, or we just make a token gesture and focus on pointing the finger at others. If we expect farmers to be doing their best, shouldn't we expect the same of others?

- Simon Davies is president of Federated Farmers Otago and farms at Toko Mouth.

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