Protecting our waterways and the work already underway

The photograph of cows in Lake Taylor that sparked fresh debate about fresh water.
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The photograph of cows in Lake Taylor that sparked fresh debate about fresh water.

OPINION: Lake Taylor has certainly grabbed a few headlines over the past week, but more than anything the uproar around that herd of thirsty cows has highlighted the challenges of getting practical solutions to stock exclusion.

That is, solutions that are workable for farmers and meet the expectations of other water users and the general public.

It's what Federated Farmers is working towards. And we're not alone. More than 20 organisations signed the fourth report of the Land and Water Forum (LAWF) just before Christmas. Among its 60 recommendations were proposals for a prioritised framework for stock exclusion.

Through all the furore we can lose sight of the common ground. And lose sight of the progress and investments that have already been made – and will continue to be made.

Reading media coverage over the past week people could be forgiven for believing that nothing is being done to find a national solution to water quality.

The LAWF hasn't rated a mention, despite the number of organisations that have worked side by side to bring it together – and the fact it passed through Cabinet in December and is set for public consultation.

We urge the public to see what it's all about and what direction it proposes to protect our waterways and provide fair access to all.

The Green Party and others have been calling for all stock to be banned from all waterways. This is out of step with where the LAWF landed.

The LAWF agreed to prioritise efforts where the pressures are greater, starting with intensive stock in the lowlands.

The LAWF does not recommend national regulations for stock exclusion in the hill country, proposing instead a catchment-specific approach to identify sensitive areas and deal to the hotspots.

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Sometimes this will mean stock exclusion. But we need to think about landscape values as well: do we want eight foot deer fences around lakes, blocking access and spoiling the view?

The LAWF proposals do not include sheep — there is widespread agreement that sheep are not an issue.

Instead focus is on larger animals — dairy cows, beef cattle, deer and pigs — where they are being run under reasonably intensive stocking rates.

This isn't what has been dictated by Federated Farmers. These proposals are the result of literally hundreds of hours of consultation between more than 20 groups.

Federated Farmers applauds the efforts farmers have put in up and down the country to look after their waterways. Unfortunately, there hasn't been much recognition of this over the past week.

The dairy sector has led the way. In 2003, the Clean Streams Accord prioritised regular crossings and streams "deeper than a redband, wider than a stride" on the milking platform — the main part of the dairy farm, with the milking herd and dairyshed.

In 2013, the Sustainable Dairy Accord set a target for 100 per cent completion by 2017 (as at October 2014, progress was tracking at 96 per cent); then extended these commitments to include supplier grazing land off the milking platform from 2017.

For the drystock sector, the practical and financial implications of stock exclusion and alternate water supply may fall mostly on dryland farmers due to terrain and climate.

In all this, we cannot lose sight of the fact that stock needs reliable water (and reliable power): these are not necessarily a given in many areas, be it the winter freeze, a summer drought, or simply unreliable power for running the fence or the pump.

As with all policy, the devil will be in the detail. Excluding stock from spring-fed streams is one thing; requiring exclusion from water races and drains is another. At these margins of the debate, the quality of the cost-benefit analysis will be critical.

Timeframes are important too. Notably, the LAWF recorded that, across councils, those who had made the most progress were those with active partnership programmes in place. 

Often these are prioritised to special places where landowners and community work together to put riparian management in place around popular swimming holes or inanga spawning sites.

In other places, councils and landowners are trialling the design of "drinking bays" which restrict stock access to the length of the stream while still allowing access for drinking. Other councils are stepping up to streamline the process for putting in bridges and culverts.

Regulation will only ever be part of the game. A national regulation may serve to confirm a clear set of "no-goes" and timelines.

Beyond that, the practical solutions on the ground for all those problematic situations at the margins are mostly likely to come from landowners, councils and community working together on the ground: identifying the sensitive areas, assessing the risks and prioritising the best tool for the job.

Chris Allen is a national board member of Federated Farmers.

 - Stuff

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