There's something in the water...

00:34, Sep 19 2012

"Water, water every where, nor any drop to drink," lamented the narrator in Coleridge's epic Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

It's not quite that dire yet for New Zealand's rivers, lakes and wetlands - but it's not looking good either. Here are some of the more sobering stats:

Concerns about freshwater quality have for years been New Zealanders' number one environmental concern, but our action on freshwater issues has been slow, patchy and defensive to date.

The spread of urban and rural development has seen our water quality plummet across the country, to the point where a 2004 study showed that more than 90 per cent of our lowland waterways are now too polluted to swim in (let alone drink from). This is where the debate inevitably sinks into a slanging match between country folk and townies - all pointing fingers at who is contributing the most to pollution... So before we descend into that abyss, I'd like to point out that (truly, actually) some of my dearest friends are farmers. In addition, I spent every spare moment of my childhood on my Nana's sheep farm in the Catlins. I get it. But if I may, times have changed, and so too has our precious water quality.

We now have about six million cows in New Zealand - more than the population of humans - and if we want to be very specific, six million cows equals about 70 million human equivalents (in "doing poos and wees" terms). That is a lot of pressure to put on our precious paddocks.


I read an overseas article recently which pointed out that New Zealand and the US state of Colorado were roughly the same size, but that Colorado had approximately 20 per cent more people. Their entire cattle herd is 150,000 and they are already starting to see impacts on their rivers. The article queried how New Zealand could continue to profess to be "clean and green" while having a population of six million cows.

New Zealand once sat at the top of water quality reports in the world by Yale University. This year, we hurtled down the ranks to 43rd, putting us in the same boat as Panama, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Belarus, Cameroon, Tanzania and Kenya.

In addition, the OECD has said that our agricultural expansion has created a "time bomb" for water quality in New Zealand.

This is a really hard thing for us to hear. Many of us hail from farming stock. Either we grew up on farms or our parents did. Farming, we have been told repeatedly, is the "backbone of our nation" - and we have a tangible romantic connection to it. 

It cannot be denied that the rapid intensification of agribusiness and the rise of the Queen Street farmer has harmed our much-loved rivers and lakes. However, there are plenty of farmers who live and farm and work by principles that are about being connected to and responsible for the land.

Jeff Williams, for instance. A third-generation cow farmer who has shifted his methods to biological farming, spending far less on intensive farming costs such as antibiotics and fertiliser, and spending more time with his family. You may have seen him recently on Country Calendar.

Or Grant Muir, the Wairarapa farmer who starred in the award-winning film River Doga farmer who (with his loyal farm dogs) spends his days chasing his neighbours' cattle off his beloved river to protect it from pollution.

We know in New Zealand that intensification of agribusiness (not just dairy cows, by the way, but intensive beef, sheep and cropping as well as forestry) has harmed our rivers, but it makes us uncomfortable to acknowledge it. 

The general response to the increasing public concern has been that with a growing world population, despite the environmental costs, New Zealand has a role to play in "feeding the poor". However, one of my really good farming mates, and a very successful cockie, tourism operator and conservationist, pointed out that New Zealand is far too small to be trying to feed the poor - if we were clever, we'd be aiming to feed the wealthy of the world. He's got a point. We can advertise our product as being from clean and green New Zealand and charge a premium for it (rather than competing with other larger countries for a commodity that is milk powder in brown paper bags), so why don't we do more of this?

There has been some acknowledgment of our problem - the much-lauded Land and Water Forum was created by the government. The forum is a group of 60 representatives with interests in water who have spent 18 months slogging through the quagmire of water issues trying to come to a consensus on how to manage freshwater (though any outcomes remain to be seen). In addition, the Clean Streams Accord is a voluntary instrument to get farmers to clean up their waterways, in place since 2003. But despite almost a decade of voluntary opportunity, by last Christmas only 42 per cent of farmers had actually fenced all of their streams. Worse than that, the industry groups reported this compliance (mistakenly) as 84 per cent. Somewhere the message is not getting through.

Is it the lack of reporting on external costs? We don't account for those... but in my neck of the woods I can give you an example. Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) is an important freshwater habitat and a taonga to Maori.  Decades of abuse have resulted in it being one of the most polluted water bodies in the country, and the subject of a multimillion-dollar restoration plan by Ngai Tahu and the minister of conservation. Yet, despite this, and despite the money being poured into it - last year the minister of conservation overrode a DOC decision to refuse a grazing lease on the lake edge (in accordance with the restoration plan). The local council has also been leasing lakeside land to graze cattle, despite the state of the lake and certainly despite the expensive cleanup agreement.

So who pays for this mess? We do. The ratepayers, taxpayers and grandparents who simply take their grandkid to a river they used to swim in and find that you wouldn't let your mokopuna in the water for fear of risks to their health.

The ray of hope this month was the Environment Court decision about Horizons Regional Council's "One Plan", a plan that made landowners accountable for the impacts of their activities. The council won Environment Court approval to restrict the amount of nitrogen that can be applied to land for dairying, intensive sheep and beef farming and horticulture. The judgment made a lot of salient points, including "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''. This is true kaitiakitanga, a good thing, and should be emulated across the country.

This is our chance to maintain our proud farming heritage without crapping in our own nest. I'd like my kids to be able to grow up swimming in a favourite river, how about you?