Waikato River: The case for the farmers

Waikato's Healthy Rivers Plan is to be challenged in court. Doug Edmeades imagines how the case for the farmers will be presented.

People regularly swim in the Waikato River.
Chris Hillock

People regularly swim in the Waikato River.

OPINION: In the matter of The Waikato Farmers versus the Waikato Regional Council.

May it please the Court:

Your Honours; in opening this case I want to make one thing crystal clear – as clear as the water leaving Lake Taupo - my clients, all those in the region whose livelihoods depend on the farming sector - want to improve the quality of the Waikato River. That is their goal and none of the arguments I will be presenting today should be taken to mean otherwise.  We have no intention to undermine this primary goal of the Healthy Rivers Plan. Our concerns are that the plan as it stands is not practical, reasonable, equitable or fair. 

Your Honours; the Healthy Rivers Plan has been developed by the regional council to implement the "Vision and Strategy for the Waikato River" as set out in the Waikato-Tainui Raupatu Claims Settlement Act 2010. Section 1.3.k requires that the quality of the water "is safe to swim in and to take food from over its entire length".

We will be calling evidence to show that if the plan is implemented as proposed, it will financially cripple our rural communities and indeed the whole of Waikato region. What is the point of achieving a "swimmable river", if in the process we lose our own livelihoods? Such a goal is empty. It is for this reason we will strenuously argue that we must find compromises and alternative ways to achieve the desired goal.

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The water quality goal required under the Act sets a very high standard – indeed it is higher than that required by the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management (NPS), and, it has legal precedence over the NPS. In this sense the Act singles out the Waikato region for special attention.  Why should the Waikato region be treated differently?

And we wonder out loud, your Honours: did those good people who voted in support of this Act in 2010 know that, if it was faithfully implemented, it could bankrupt the region? Importantly, we note that the comprehensive economic analysis conducted by Waikato University, and upon which the regional council relies, is dated 2015. 

This is not idle contemplation, your Honours. It is crucial to the meaning we are now to place on the word "swimmable". It is hard to believe that those who supported the Act did so knowing that it could financially cripple the region. This suggests that maybe they were saying to themselves – this is our aspiration for the Waikato River. Indeed we find this exact terminology in documents prepared by the regional council, which talk about "aspirational 80-year water quality targets".

If the goal is aspirational then this suggests it is "the direction to go in" rather than a "key performance indicator".  It is qualitative not quantitative and a more relaxed approach to policy and planning is appropriate.

We will argue that this is the right approach. One of the explicit reasons for adopting a "long-term" plan was to "minimise social disruption during this transition". I can report to this Court that "social disruption" will be the outcome if the plan is adopted without substantial modification.

Your Honours: water quality can be defined by several parameters. Clarity of the water is important and clarity is related primarily to sediments in the water. High levels of the bacteria, e-coli, can affect human health. These pathogens are derived from animal faeces. Another problem is phytoplanktons which give rise to algal blooms and in the extreme can produce nasty toxins, dangerous to both animals and humans.  The nutrients N and P, perhaps ironically given their emphasis in the current plan, are not a swimming problem, except that they stimulate the growth of phytoplankton.

In a general sense, Your Honours, the water quality in the Waikato River, as measured by these parameters, declines with distance from Taupo. We will be calling evidence showing that the clarity of the water is not a practical swimming problem until below the confluence of the Waikato and Waipa Rivers, at Ngaruawahia. After all people regularly swim in the river as it passes through Hamilton.

The reason for this, as you will hear from our experts, is that the majority of the sediment in the Waikato River below Ngaruawahia comes from the Waipa River. It is, and has always been, even prior to farming, a muddy little stream, as you will hear.

You will also hear evidence that this problem – the sediment loading - is greatly exacerbated by the koi carp that feed by disturbing the mud on the river floor and banks. We will be suggesting that removing the carp from the Waipa will be a giant step towards making the Waikato swimmable in its lower reaches.

We will present evidence that shows that the average e-coli level in the Waikato River only exceeds the threshold level of 560 in the lower reaches of the river downstream of the Horotui Bridge, a few kilometres south of Hamilton. And in any case, this critical level is only exceeded during flood events. Why not set up a series of e-coli "warning bells" along the river and especially the lower reaches, to warn people as and when required? In any case we will be suggesting that industrial solutions to sanitise the river, of both e-coli and phytoplankton, should be examined before we undermine the region's economy.

Phytoplankton do not grow in moving water-bodies. They come into the river from Lake Taupo and multiply in the slow moving hydro-lakes, but only if there is sufficient N and P. The proposed plan attempts to control phytoplankton, and hence limit algal blooms, by limiting the N and P inputs into the river: for N, grandparenting of nitrate leaching is proposed - essentially capping production – and for P, extensive riparian planting and fencing along streams will be introduced to limit P runoff.

Your Honours, you will be hearing evidence from farmers and farm consultants showing that, apart from the crippling costs, such measures are unfair and inequitable. Once again we will suggest alternative methods to reduce N and P concentration in the hydro lakes some of which are already being used and explored today, which may achieve the same outcome at a fraction of the cost.

The other source of phytoplankton in the Waikato River is from the lowland lakes in the flood plains of the lower reaches of the river – Lake Waikare is an example.  Imposing costly restrictions on farmers in the upper reaches of the river will of course have no effect on this source. Once again we are suggest treating the problem at source.

Your Honours, our case is about strategic management of the river. Identifying and isolating the real problems affecting the water quality and going after them – the low hanging fruit, so to speak  - rather than a shotgun approach that is envisaged in the current plan, which effectively says  – let's go after all the contaminants in all reaches of the river, irrespective of the cost and without complete knowledge that such measures will be effective!

Finally, we submit that the current plan and its solutions arise out of a myopic view that the only solution to the problem is to change farm management practices. A new approach – a strategic approach - looking at off-farm solutions, is required lest we inadvertently shoot ourselves in the economic foot.

Dr Doug Edmeades, MNZM, is an independent soil scientist and managing director of agKnowledge. He is happy to hear from readers: doug.edmeades@agknowledge.co.nz

 - Stuff

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