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The election is looming and freshwater is at, or near the top of, it seems, nearly every political party’s manifesto — at last!
Freshwater and access to it, is at the heart of everything we do as a society, culturally, economically, recreationally.
Without it, we couldn’t survive.
So how have we got to our present position regarding our most precious natural asset? Namely, three recent reports from the highest level of governmental machinery (the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, the Prime Minister’s Chief Scientific Adviser and the Ministry for the Environment) and one from the OECD, pointing out the state of our freshwaters is declining and will rapidly get worse unless immediate action is taken. Graeme Martin (ODT, Opinion, 30.8.17) opines that sound public policy, to do with water, should not be developed in response to "popular expressions of alarm or electoral calls for urgency". He points out the current state of our water is the result of the implementation and vision of regulatory policy. That regional councils have, for 35 years, had access to a suite of tools and principles to deal with these issues and, he seems to be saying, that nothing much new is required, or if it is, this should only be done after lengthy examination.
Forgive me if I point out "the implementation and vision" he mentions looks more like incompetence and/or mis-management as each day goes by, and the four reports I have referred to all point out urgent action is required.
In any case, why shouldn’t public alarm and calls for urgency result in that very thing, from central government, regional councils and their officials alike? Why should people feel reassured these "elites" will deal successfully and sensitively with freshwater, in future, when they have been proven to be so comprehensively lacking in this regard, to date, by the results of the reports I have referred to? The evidence for this is, after all, available in full public gaze, so it’s rather hard to deny.
It is claimed, in relation to Labour’s planned water royalty charge, that this "should not be punitive on non-polluting abstractors". Others have said it is intensive agriculture to blame for water quality problems, not irrigators, per se. This may be correct, but in this part of the world, intensive agriculture is impossible without irrigation and given the high cost of developing new irrigation schemes it is inevitable development of schemes will be followed by the expansion of intensive agriculture, if only to pay for scheme installation.
So, the public are left wondering "Is there no better way?"
Well, yes, there is!In the Central North Island there is a company of agricultural advisers, agricultural economists and ecologists who are advising a group of innovative farmers on ways to change their farming practices so they have less impact on freshwater and the wider environment, yet retain their profitability.
The company is Tipu Whenua, led by Alison Dewes, a fourth-generation dairy farmer and a second-generation veterinarian — hardly a typical "city greenie"! Her MSC (2015) focused on how upper Waikato dairy farms could be profitable while achieving the lowest possible environmental input. She is a member of the NZ Veterinary Board and is on the National Environmental Reference Group for NZ’s biggest farmer, Landcorp. The group has found dairy farmers can reduce their herd size by 20% to 30%, and achieve 20% more production per cow (same total milk but with less inputs).
The group found there were critical source points in catchments for the loss of nutrients and sediments (the lowest, wettest areas) that needed to be targeted, but there was also the risk of diffuse loss that could occur through leaky soils, such as gravels or peats.
The group also found that irrigation and intensification on vulnerable soils, linked to drains, wetlands, rivers and lakes, meant there was an easy pathway for pathogens and cow faeces to enter the swimming hole or arrive on the plate.
It concluded New Zealand needed to stop converting vulnerable (e.g. gravel) soils or there would be a train of damage — think dairying around Omakau, for example, and plans to increase irrigation in the Manuherikia Valley.
- Murray Neilson, of Outram, serves on the Clutha Fisheries Trust and Otago Fish and Game Council.