Time to shake hands with iron fist over nitrogen leaching

JON MORGAN
Last updated 14:49 04/07/2013

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OPINION: Now that Horizons Regional Council has shown it intends to clothe its iron fist in a velvet glove, maybe it's time for some of the warring parties jousting over the One Plan to put up their swords and sit down at the round table.

Sorry, I'm getting carried away with my medieval metaphors.

A quick recap: The council's One Plan aims to clean up the Manawatu- Whanganui region's rivers by constraining nitrogen leaching from farms.

Its rules for doing this have been confirmed by the Environment Court and are based on a controversial programme called Overseer that determines leaching limits.

But before the rules can be put in place, several parties have asked the High Court to review the case. That is due to get under way on July 29.

In the meantime, the council has told us how it intends to apply the rules - leniently. It is cloaking the One Plan's iron fist in a velvet glove.

And it is also asking that its opponents acknowledge this by withdrawing the costly High Court challenge - which can be only on points of law anyway - and sit down to talk about what happens next.

What should happen next is that the council, Federated Farmers and the dairy industry combine their efforts to help farmers who will struggle to meet the One Plan's rules.

So far, all we've had is a lot of heat and very little light.

Intemperate statements from the Feds and others have engendered a rising panic among dairy farmers and drowned out the voices of reason from the council and its advisers.

Significantly, Fonterra, which fought the One Plan through the Environment Court and drew stiff criticism from the judge, has welcomed the council's interpretation of the rules as realistic.

Along with DairyNZ, it has not joined the High Court case, both deciding more can be gained by collaborating with the council.

When it has managed to get a word in edgeways, the council has always maintained it would give farmers plenty of time to meet the rules. This recognises the vital importance of dairy farming to the economy.

Its latest statement says all farmers who are obliged to apply for a resource consent will be given one while they make changes to reduce leaching. Those who find this the hardest will be given three to five years to work with the industry to get down to a reasonable level.

This is mostly those in the Mangatainoka catchment on the eastern side of the Tararuas, whose porous soil structure allows high leaching levels.

No-one's talking about what will happen if these farms cannot meet the rules. I imagine they are expecting improved science to provide some answers as the years go by, and also for refinements to Overseer to give more accurate measurements.

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Above all, the farmers and the local towns can be assured the council won't do anything that would harm the rural economy.

The Feds' attitude is key to all this. It could take a positive approach and join those helping farmers change. Its view is that if the council is prepared to be lenient in the way it applies the One Plan, it should enshrine that leniency in a plan change.

I can see why it would want that. With the One Plan in its present form, nothing is stopping a future council or its officers taking a harder line.

But it is that hard line that is driving the present change. The threat of that iron fist has forced the dairy industry into action when previously it was dragging its feet.

However, some in the industry haven't joined the party with quite as much enthusiasm as others.

Efforts to downplay the importance of nitrogen as a pollutant have arisen.

DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle has said curbing phosphate runoff is more important on most rivers.

Phosphorous can come from hill country farms and maybe this is an attempt to shift the blame from dairy to sheep farmers, which I have heard some complain aren't doing their share.

Mackle may be right about phosphorous - although there will be some who dispute that - but all he is doing is confusing farmers. Is reducing nitrogen important or not, they might ask. The answer is a resounding yes.

Back to the One Plan and the High Court. Horizons is sounding out the parties to ask if they want to continue. Already, Ravensdown has withdrawn.

The main litigants are the Feds and Horticulture NZ. Overseer is the problem for HortNZ. The developers of the program admit it has not been fully tested on vegetable growing and Horizons chairman Bruce Gordon told me the council doesn't intend to use it to enforce the One Plan. It will be used as a guide to help growers understand which crops are heavy nitrogen leachers. That should provide some comfort for HortNZ and show that it is possible to shake hands with an iron fist.

- The Dominion Post

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