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Federated Farmers is warning against a possible "witch-hunt" against dairy farmers, after a new study of water quality in the Kakanui catchment found it failed to meet national guidelines.
A 10-month study, conducted by the Otago Regional Council (ORC) revealed many waterways in the catchment had high levels of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, as well as of E. coli bacteria.
Council chairman Stephen Woodhead said the situation, if left unchecked, would lead to nitrate accumulation in the Kakanui aquifer, and added that with the high nutrient (NNN) concentrations provided by the lower Kakanui River and Waiareka Creek, dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP) could stimulate algal growth in the Kakanui estuary.
"This investigation provides new information for all of us.
"Everyone in the community needs to understand that this sort of deterioration of the environment is not sustainable."
Cr Woodhead said the report, to be tabled at the council's natural resources committee meeting on November 29, indicated an increase in dairy farming, a lack of sufficient effluent storage on some farms and the prevalence of light soils with poor filtration qualities all contributed to the problem.
He said well-thought out improvements to farm practices could bring about observable improvements in waterway health.
"We know there are improvements to be made on some farms to increase effluent storage, and top-class effluent management is crucial.
"We know there are farmers who need to fence off stock access to waterways and fine-tune their irrigation practices and nutrient budgets. We also know that the majority of farmers do not want to be shamed by prosecution and face hefty fines.
"I will be recommending to the natural resources committee that we plan a community meeting for the new year. We'll work on strategic and practical approaches with NOIC (North Otago Irrigation Company) and other farmers in the area, and present these along with the report to the wider community."
Federated Farmers North Otago president Richard Strowger said he had not seen the study results, but it was important "not to jump to conclusions" about blame.
"As farmers we also want to find the practices that affect water quality and find solutions to them. The results and conclusions need to be fully analysed to ensure we get a true picture.
"What is of great concern is if people jump to conclusions based on this study without the full understanding. I hope that with collaboration of all parties we can find solutions without a witch-hunt-type mentality coming out where we as farmers will be burnt at the stake."
Mr Strowger also said he was "surprised" the council had released the information before results had been tabled at the its natural resources committee.
NOIC chairman Leigh Hamilton said the company would work with ORC to meet the problem "head on".
"Our Audited Self-Management system is well embedded, and we have a framework in place to drive continuous improvement in farm practices among our shareholders."