Call Waikato's Plan Change One for what it is and develop something better
OPINION: The Waikato Regional Council (WRC) has a tough job to deliver a water quality plan that will give effect to both treaty settlements' vision and strategy for the Waikato catchment and the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.
I am committed to working alongside WRC to help us achieve all of our shared aspirations for the river.
However, in recently published articles titled "Clarity Needed in Water Discussion" and "Myths on Water Clean-up" the WRC cautions us that we need to be "clear sighted" and "stick to the facts" while we debate these issues.
I couldn't agree more but in their recent communications the WRC has made statements which are incorrect.
The WRC claimed that the collaborative process that developed the rule framework known as Plan Change One (PC1) reached a "consensus between all parties".
I was fortunate enough to have been a part of the Collaborative Stakeholder Group (CSG) representing the sheep and beef sector. The CSG did a lot of good work but despite our best efforts, we could not reach a consensus between all parties.
I know this because I formally objected to plan change one (PC1).
The primary reason for this objection was that, early in the process, the CSG agreed to not grant existing use rights for nitrogen (N) discharge or "grandparent" nutrient loss.
We agreed to do that because grandparenting penalises low level emitters and rewards high emitters. Yet when it came down to the final vote a slim majority of the CSG voted to proceed with a grandparenting approach to managing nitrogen.
To get past the WRC rhetoric, I need to take you through what that actually means. Let us consider three farms side by side.
Farmer A has been working proactively to reduce their N leaching through better effluent management and infrastructure, focusing on profitability, improving their nitrogen efficiency, reducing their N leaching rate to 30 kgN/ha/yr.
Farmer B on the other hand has been focused on production, continuing with an ineffective effluent system, has high nitrogen fertiliser and supplementary feed inputs and leaches 45kg N/ha/yr.
Healthy Rivers PC1 says, 'thank you very much Farmer A for being proactive, but 30kg of N is now your new limit'.
Farmer B would then be rewarded for higher emissions, which would give that farm more flexibility in the way they operate and intensify that property and ultimately increased farm value.
Meanwhile, Farmer C up the road, who is leaching just 12kgN/ha/yr is held at that limit, leaving no room to adjust with markets and climate, and a reduced farm value.
That's great for high N emitting Farmer B when he purchases that farmer C's property, because that land will be a great way for Farmer B to spread their N leaching across their growing enterprise, should reductions in nitrogen leaching become a requirement in the future.
If you don't believe me, ask someone who farms in Taupo.
WRC claim that "there is no intention to lock these arrangements in" with regards to the nitrogen reference point (NRP).
There is no way that this council can predict what a future council decides. The proposed rules for PC1 set N discharge limits based on existing use. PC1 has set those limits in place, full stop, there is no hiding behind what that means.
WRC also state "The longer we delay, the harder and more expensive the task will be".
I whole heartedly agree with this statement. Unfortunately, with regards to N, such proactive actions under PC1 are discouraged. Farmers around the region are now working on how they can make it look like they have been leaching more historically to give them more flexibility in the future.
These are the perverse outcomes of grandparenting N discharge rates. I believe this is the wrong mind-set required for our journey towards the vision and strategy.
The approach taken to N management in PC1 is not surprising, considering the CSG membership favoured high N emitting farm systems.
I will point out that personally I have invested as much in dairy farming as I have in sheep and beef. I believe that we need to find solutions where both industries can thrive sustainably. I do not want to create a divide between the haves and have-nots.
This plan and WRC public defence of it, is driving a wedge between communities, when to fulfil the vision and strategy we need, more now than ever, to be working as one.
- James Bailey is a former member of the Collaborative Stakeholders Group and a Tirau drystock and dairy farmer.