Sound water strategies needed

00:34, Dec 05 2013
Southland Times photo
Federated Farmers Southland provincial president Russell MacPherson.

Action on water quality is already under way, says Federated Farmers' Southland provincial president Russell Macpherson.

It is right that all of us think hard about water, the economy and community wellbeing in Southland.

In light of that, the parliamentary commissioner for the environment's latest report on water quality is a contribution to the public discussion about water in Southland - but it is not a conclusion.

For a start, the report deals with actual land-use change up to 2008, and predicted land-use change to 2020. The report fails to take account of existing or future mitigation measures, and as a result represents what is arguably the worst-case scenario for water quality.

I have no issue with the overall picture the report paints of land- use change up until 2008, but the assumption that the impacts of land-use change up until 2008 will continue to have the same impact, should be read with caution.

Dairy farmers have a far greater awareness than ever before of their environmental impact. Since 2008, the adaptation to smart farm practices and investment by the industry and individual dairy farmers has reduced this impact.


On page 31, the report acknowledged it did not account for any state, council or industry programmes or policies currently in place. Given the significant amount of work aimed at tackling water quality issues at the central government and regional council level since 2008, this is a surprising and important omission.

As a dairy farmer who has invested large amounts of time and effort into doing better each day, each year, I take exception to this research gap. My expectation is that, as knowledge grows, modern and smart systems will evolve, then farmers can adapt, modify and further innovate systems. No one system is set in stone, and pragmatic and practical farmers are constantly seeking to do better. The report generalises what are often widely varying water quality issues and values.

We should be paying good attention to the science that Environment Southland is doing on differences to nutrient outflows between soil types.

What is clear is that there is no one solution that can be applied across the country, and the effects of land use on water quality need to be understood at the catchment level. Water is an environmental and an economic issue, and solutions need to be developed locally with communities based on all of their values for water.

This should happen only after empirical data sets are interrogated objectively. This last point is a shortcoming to date, and I hope it can be remedied before going down the track of local decision-making.

As Dr Jan Wright said herself, she is not the parliamentary commissioner for the economy. So here's a brief outline of the other side of the discussion.

According to Statistics New Zealand, agriculture directly contributes 22.2 per cent of Southland's gross domestic product, which makes it more dependent on agriculture than any other region by some distance.

Southland also has the second highest proportion of agricultural employment, at 13.2 per cent, behind Gisborne (15.7 per cent), and the highest proportion of agricultural businesses (28.7 per cent). There are many businesses in Southland directly reliant on primary production as their main income source or as a significant reason why they are in business. Households, too, are reliant on primary industries to varying degrees.

The figures show that dairying does not just benefit dairy farmers and what impacts on dairying in Southland ultimately affects all Southlanders.

A background report to the National Objectives Framework further underlined a strong coupling between growth in economic prosperity in Southland and water extraction and discharge. For instance, a uniform cap of 30 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare per year is estimated to take about $850 million off total gross margins for dairy farms in Southland by the year 2037, and this will affect all Southlanders.

Locally, there is already public discussion on these issues, led by Environment Southland's Water and Land 2020 Project. The parliamentary commissioner's report ignores this positive work and the effects the resulting changes will have on water quality in the region.

Southlanders now need to read the report, add in what is actually happening on our farms and in our communities, be informed about the economic impacts, and work the options through within our communities.

Our local communities and policy-makers need to have sufficient information to ensure they can make informed, justified and level-headed decisions about what environmental decisions will mean for farmers and the region. Perhaps there also needs to be further development of the models our decision-makers are using to inform this discussion.

It is useful to be wary, but not frightened of the future, and it does not have to be a case of farming versus the environment.

Farmers have proven they are willing to invest in on-farm mitigation, but we need to be sure that the money we are spending is going to deliver the results we all want and represent the best environmental return for our bucks.

The parliamentary commissioner for the environment's report on water quality is not a wake-up call for dairying in Southland. We are aware of the issues raised in the report, and are already working to address these concerns.