Ruling puts rivers ahead of farmers

The need to clean up dirty rivers has been put above the needs of farmers in an Environment Court decision being lauded as a huge victory for clean-water advocates.

But a Federated Farmers representative says the decision will put farmers out of work or force them overseas.

The groundbreaking Environment Court decision paves the way for regional councils to limit the amount of nutrients running off farms into waterways where they can kill fish and plants, cause algal blooms and make water unsafe for swimming or drinking.

Fonterra, Federated Farmers and Ravensdown, among others, agreed on the need for a regime to control nutrient runoff, but they argued about how it should be achieved.

In a ruling this week the court finds that, though voluntary programmes such as the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord might be "laudable as far as they go", history suggests they have not dealt with the problem.

Claims from Fonterra that some farmers were not aware of water pollution and how to deal with it suggested "they have been farming in some form of information vacuum for the last 20 years".

The limits were being sought in Horizons Regional Council's "One Plan" - an umbrella plan to pull regional plans into one document - which is seen as a precedent-setting document by all regional councils for the way pollution from farms into waterways is dealt with.

The decision says waterways in the Horizons area - central North Island - have "urgent water quality issues that require immediate action".

"We also know what is causing that decline, and we know how to stop it, and reverse it" and to fail to take available steps "would be inexcusable", it says.

The council can now use a "land use capability" regulatory regime for the amount of nitrogen applied to land used for dairying, intensive sheep and beef farming, and horticulture.

The regime aims for a balance between economic growth and water quality targets.

Federated Farmers opposed the proposed regime, which it said was "fatally flawed" and would make dairy farming less profitable or uneconomic.

The decision finds no evidence to support that argument and says that, if farmers cannot meet the required levels, they may have to change their farming category, or intensity, or "move somewhere else".

"Those are the same options that might face the operator of any business in a changing rules regime, and there is nothing that gives farmers a privileged place in the scheme of things."

But Andrew Hoggard, Federated Farmers Manawatu-Rangitikei provincial president, said last night that the decision dragged down local and national economies.

"In reality, many farmers will not be spending money anywhere because they will be bankrupt and heading either for the nearest Work and Income office or buying one-way tickets to Western Australia or Chile."

DairyNZ general manager of policy and advocacy Simon Tucker said the decision would create "significant hardship for farmers and economic pain for the region".

The industry was working on a new accord and this decision "cuts across all that work and the need to gather some really good on-farm data to inform these kinds of policy decisions", he said.

Fish & Game Wellington manager Phil Teal yesterday said the decision would help put the nation's agriculture "on an environmentally sustainable footing and setting in train a requirement to clean up its tarnished image".

Horizons must now redraft the plan and submit it to the court next month. A final decision is likely to be made in late November, and the plan could be operating by February.

Contact Marty Sharpe
Hawke's Bay reporter

The Dominion Post