Toxic rivers are here to stay

21:41, Jul 25 2013

This month (JULY) I attended a biodiversity expo at SIT in Invercargill, principally to learn about koura.

I was particularly interested to learn if they could survive in a drainage ditch that runs through my garden. The bad news was that the white scum that floats down whenever it rains heavily is almost certainly nitrate runoff from surrounding farmland which they'll like about as much as I'd enjoy bathing in cold sick.

However, there was a speaker from Fonterra who seemed to have good news, and he delivered it with a fine degree of conviction. He told us that the company's initiative to have all its dairy farmers fence off streams and rivers and plant the verges with runoff-absorbing plants by September this year was on track. Maybe there was a future for me and koura.

Sadly, it seems not.

According to Dr Mike Joy, of Massey University, the scheme will not include small streams of less than a metre's width, where such an initiative could do the most good, and it will not diminish the migration of nitrates through soil and groundwater into our rivers. This is a shame, he said, because the health of our waterways is dire. He gave me a chilling example.

A recognised international standard that determines a river's health rates a pristine example 1-3 and a reasonably healthy one 4-7. Anything over that is a problem. By that standard, the Manawatu River scores 107, a world record, and all down to dairy. The next-worst river in the world is beneath an old effluent treatment plant in Belgium - and that's a 60. There is no reason to suppose the rivers of any region where industrial dairy farming of the kind favoured by Fonterra takes hold will escape a similar fate.


Dr Joy reported that land used for dairy has fared no better. The Waikato Regional Council estimates that 160,000 hectares of dairy land in its region is contaminated with the deadly toxin cadmium, and other heavy metals, a result of years of superphosphate application. It made the disclosure against heavy lobbying from Fonterra's John Hutchings, who said going public would compromise export markets, and who also challenged the validity of the science behind the data. The Waikato Regional Council ignored him but other regional councils have proven all too willing to toe the line.

The Hawke's Bay Regional Council plans to invest $80 million of ratepayers' money in a massive dairy irrigation scheme in Ruataniwha, worth $260 million, when elevated nitrate levels in the Tukituki River are already a concern.

The council and the Government are relying on a body called the Environmental Protection Agency, set up to consider the situation. The council is arguing that the lawyers and ex-National Party MP who make it up should increase the maximum permissible levels of phosphate 200-fold while simply ignoring the soaring level of nitrates pollution. The Government's solution for the heavy metal-polluted land in the Waikato was equally simplistic. It simply brought in a new law making it illegal to classify agricultural land as contaminated. Other regions just as polluted simply measure heavy metals in their soils in more creative ways to guarantee positive findings.

The good news is we might be able to suppress the bad news for a while longer. Niwa, the official body that measures water and atmospheric purity, is doing its bit. For example, it takes samples of our rivers at the headwaters way up in the hills, before the dairy industry has a chance to pollute it, and another downstream after it has. It then averages the two readings to show it is only half as bad as it might be.

In fact, misreporting and under-reporting that accelerate water and land degradation are endemic. Our politicians are getting bum advice from their own departments.

I feel sorry for dairy farmers. They earn on average half their mid-80s returns, making only about a 4.5 per cent return on their land, - the most expensive dairy country in the world. Those who have done well have mostly made their money selling up, taking advantage of the lack of a capital gains tax and a milk bubble frothed by demand in China.

However, times are changing. China outproduced our dairy industry six months ago, with help from Fonterra, and it seems logical that it will not long need our product, and indeed will be able to supply cheaper product to our other markets. Where then? Is there a plan?

I called Fonterra to speak to the young man who spoke so well at the expo, only to be informed that he was not media-trained.

Someone who was contacted me a day later and we spoke about the waterways initiative. After we'd covered that, I asked if Fonterra had a long-term plan that took peak oil into account, the time when the amount of oil we can suck up on any given day becomes progressively less, a day that has either been and gone, or is fast approaching. Was there a plan as we approach the end of the age of cheap petrochemical fertilisers and pesticides?

She told me she would get someone to discuss it with me, if she could find anyone who knew anything about it. Someone media-trained, I presume. I'm still waiting.

In the meantime, one idea would be to develop product for the most demanding customers in the world - rich, privileged people who want food produced only by the very best practices, primarily to protect their rich good health. We could label it "Product of New Zealand - One hundred per cent pure".

Tim Hanna is a Lumsden-based author.

The Southland Times