Water quality has become a major issue and councils are increasingly expected to be active guardians, whether they are ready or not, Peter Watson reports:
In just over a week, Tasman district councillors will resume reviewing the way the council manages water, as the clamour grows for it to do more to protect the quality of it in areas that are intensively farmed.
The council, which has some of the most permissive rules for dealing with dairy effluent, is under pressure to take a tougher stance not only from Golden Bay marine farmers annoyed at pollution from discharges, but also from politicians and environmentalists.
It is facing having to respond to the Government's national policy on freshwater management, which aims to maintain or improve the overall water quality of a region, by the middle of next month.
The Land and Water Forum has already recommended regional councils should be required to set and enforce catchment limits on the amount of water that is able to be taken and the amount of each contaminant that is able to be discharged.
There are also talks under way to replace the voluntary Dairying and Clean Stream Accord with a tougher regime with teeth.
If the Environment Court's groundbreaking decision on the Horizons Regional Council's One Plan is upheld, it paves the way for councils to limit the amount of nutrients running off farms into waterways, where it causes environmental harm.
The court's decision has been greeted with alarm by Federated Farmers and Horticulture New Zealand, which are appealing the ruling, saying it will unduly restrict the ability to farm and will be a brake on growth.
Marine farmers are threatening to turn up to a council meeting on November 1 with a dossier of evidence in an attempt to get the district council to take a more proactive approach to dairy pollution.
Nelson MP Nick Smith agrees, saying recent high readings of Escherichia coli at marine farms off the mouth of Aorere River showed there was no question the council had to tighten up its enforcement and rules around dairy effluent.
"There has been a bit of an assumption that this water quality argument that is going on around New Zealand is not a worry in our little corner," Dr Smith says.
"It is and these test results show that we have to front up to the problem."
The former minister of the environment and local government says it has the potential to hurt not only aquaculture - "one of our most exciting growth industries" - but also recreational water users.
Dairy farmers and their companies have to "pull up their socks", despite some honest efforts to improve, he says.
Unlike major farming areas, such as Manawatu and Waikato, Tasman has the advantage that a big part of the district is in national parks, although its more varied topography does pose difficulties, Dr Smith says.
Tasman is better place than other councils to take action, because it is a unitary authority.
Dealing with intensive farming pollution is tricky, he says.
"It is going to require tighter regulation and enforcement, education and our dairy companies stepping up to the mark alongside Federated Farmers."
Longtime Puponga marine farmer Alistair "Cockle" McDonald says his industry faces much tougher rules than dairy farming.
"We are exporting to America and elsewhere and have to be up to standard. We don't have a right to discharge and to have s... around the factory. We are told to fix things or you are out of the game."
Allowing the dairy industry to basically police itself has not worked and the district council seems blind to what is happening past the cowshed, he says.
The old mum-and-dad farm with a couple of hundred cows didn't produce much pollution, but most dairy farms are now large-scale industrial milking operations producing huge amounts of effluent and too many don't have the systems to cope, Mr McDonald says.
The problem is not confined to the milking season, because cows on highly stocked winter grazing are also being allowed to "trash" paddocks and creeks.
It is "unbelievable" that the district council and Fonterra still allow some to discharge into waterways, he says.
Hika Roundtree, manager of Clearwater Mussels, says a small number of farmers are tarnishing the efforts of most who are doing a good job.
But if the E coli issue is not resolved soon, it has the potential to jeopardise markets, he says.
District council environment and planning committee chairman Stuart Bryant says changing its dairying rules hasn't been a high priority for the council, but he concedes that it will probably have to toughen them up.
"I'm aware we have more environmentally aware councillors around the table this term who may be encouraging that."
However, he favours a "gradual tightening" to give farmers time to adapt.
"If we make it too tough, farmers will just give up and as a country we need all the production we can get."
The council has to strike a balance between protecting the environment and supporting economic development and growth, Mr Bryant, a Tapawera farmer, says.
Council environmental information manager Rob Smith denies that Tasman is lagging behind other councils.
A discretionary consent to discharge to water is still a "reasonable bar".
The quality of treated water discharged is good, he says.
"It's not as though they are discharging raw effluent."
Federated Farmers Golden Bay dairy spokeswoman and Aorere catchment group leader Sue Brown believes the district council's rules are adequate, because consents are not granted without conditions, although she agrees that a council review is highly likely to lead to a tighter dairy compliance regime.
She doubts whether creating new rules will make much of a difference, saying what is needed are pragmatic solutions based on science "using the collaborative approach that's stood us in good stead for the last five years".
The dairy industry has undergone a "sea change on environmental matters" in recent years and has stepped up its support and technical advice to farmers, who now have to follow new supply agreements introduced this year by Fonterra, Ms Brown says.
Federated Farmers fully supports investigations by Fonterra and the council into the source of the recent spikes in pollution measured by the Marlborough Shellfish Quality Programme and has agreed to hold further meetings with farmers, she says.
However, it is "highly likely" that higher sediment levels in the Aorere since the floods of 2010 and 2011 are complicating water quality in what is already a complex, high-rainfall catchment.
The catchment group's funded programme has ended, but it recently sent out a newsletter and support from Landcare Trust to reconnect as needed, she says.
Its "real and measurable" work in improving water quality is not at risk from being tarnished by the latest spikes in bacteria levels.
Fonterra's top-of-the-south sustainable dairying adviser Mirka Langford says the company has made every effort to find the source of the spikes, including visiting farms at very short notice. A photo provided by marine farmers is of a stormwater pipe which has nothing to do with effluent.
She says the Aorere is a priority catchment because of its proximity to marine farms, and compliance is no worse than anywhere else and, in some cases, better than other catchments because of the work done to improve water quality.
But Fish & Game Nelson-Marlborough manager and forum member Neil Deans says both the Tasman and Marlborough councils are near the back of the field when it comes to dealing with the effects of dairying.
The Environment Court has made it clear that allowing dairy farmers to discharge on to land as a permitted activity can no longer be tolerated because of the cumulative adverse impact on the environment, he says.
Farmers do not have a special status under the law.
"Farmers get annoyed, but some of their activities have affects similar to an industrial activity, which clearly needs a consent to operate."
The district council needs to get tougher on a small number of offending farmers "who are dragging the side down big time", rather than giving them repeated warnings which are often ignored, he says.