Report damns dirty dairying

22:57, Nov 21 2013

A damning report released yesterday has shown a clear link between dairy farming and the degradation of New Zealand waterways.

The report titled "Water quality in New Zealand" shows Southland, along with Canterbury, is leading the way in destroying the ecosystems in its waterways.

The document, compiled by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright, shows as the rate of intensive dairy farming has increased, so has the level of nitrates and phosphates in the water.

But Southland Federated Farmers president Russell MacPherson said the damage being done to waterways was not just by dairy farmers and that the whole community had a responsibility to protect them for the future.

Dr Wright's report paints a different picture.

It shows that as the region has experienced a boom in the dairy industry, the nutrients in the water have also increased.


"Southland is dramatically changing . . . unfortunately, this investigation has shown the clear link between expanding dairy farming and increasing stress on water quality, she said.

Her report is based on satellite images from 2008 and the best practices currently being used in the dairying industry.

The report projects what New Zealand's land use will be in 2020 and showed the water quality wouldonly get worse as dairy farm conversions increased, especially in Southland and Canterbury.

"It is almost inevitable that without significantly more intervention, we will continue to see an on-going deterioration in water quality in many catchments across the country, particularly in Canterbury and Southland," the report says.

The report forecasts that by 2020, dairy farms will cover over 650,000ha more than in 1996, when the dairy boom was just beginning, with 70 per cent of the increase in Canterbury, Otago and Southland.

The two nutrients of concern were nitrogen, typically from cows' urine, and phosphorus in the soil.

When both washed into fresh water, there was an increased risk of plant growth clogging lakes and rivers, interfering with the food chain of fish and birds, and forcing the closure of popular swimming spots, the report says.

"Too much nitrogen, in the form of nitrate, can kill sensitive organisms and affect humans and animals that drink the water," the report states.

Dr Wright said despite efforts from farmers in the region to protect the waterways, such as not dumping the shed effluent straight into rivers, there were still several options for Southland farmers to further help improve the water quality.

Farmers could house their stock inside in the winter, as that was the period in which the most nitrates leached into rivers because they were washed into the rivers by the rain, she said.

Secondly, the regional council could curb the amount of dairy farms or thirdly decrease the number of cows per hectare.

While they were not solutions, they could decrease the harm being done, she said.

Mr MacPherson did not discount the three options but said Southland farmers were already trying to decrease the damage they caused.

Housing stock in barns in the winter was costly to farmers, averaging about $2000 a cow, he said.

If regulations such as that were put in place, it would put owning a farm out of reach for many Southland families.

While water quality was important, the dairy industry was extremely important to the region's economy, he said.

"If as a community we want pristine water we won't have any agriculture and we won't have any jobs."

Mr MacPherson said the responsibility lay with the community as well as with the farmers.

"We've got a responsibility, but we also want to live and have jobs in our communities," he said.

"I think we can have both economic growth and water that we can swim in."

Mr Macpherson said to achieve that, the region needed to focus on science and innovation, not rules and regulations.

Environment Southland chairwoman Ali Timms said the council was well aware of the link between changes in land use and levels of nutrients and was working with farmers.

"Improving water quality is the council's top priority and has been for some time. We've been very clear about that," she said.

But Ms Timms said the report was only as good as the information in it. "We have also got to be aware that this is just a modelling exercise."

That view was not shared by Fish and Game. Southland Fish and Game operations manager Zane Moss said the report was a "strident warning" for the path Southland was going down.

Dr Wright said the situation was "hard stuff"' for Environment Southland, and finding a happy medium between the economy and environment was a challenge the whole country would face.

The Southland Times