Changing our tune on cleaning up the waterways

It's been an awkward year for me, one of lost friends and shifting principles.

I began the year as the dairy farmers' friend, saying they were doing all they could to clean up waterways.

I reeled off a list of on-farm actions they were taking to keep waterways clean. I quoted figures from the most recent report of the Clean Streams Accord, among them that cattle were fenced off from waterways on 84 per cent of farms.

Then I found this figure was wrong. Naively, perhaps, I did not realise that the accord relies on farmers' honesty to report their own progress toward the agreement's targets.

When the Primary Industries Ministry finally, after eight years, got around to checking for itself, its audit found a discrepancy. Only 42 per cent of farms had fenced their waterways.

It was quite a shock. I began to think about the arguments from the Manawatu-Whanganui regional council for their prescriptive One Plan - that they'd had enough of asking farmers nicely to change their ways. They hadn't listened and now it was time to force them to act.

After all, regulations had been needed to stop them pouring cowshed effluent into rivers some years earlier - they hadn't voluntarily stopped that.

So, in March, just as the Land and Water Forum was meeting (unbeknownto me), I changed my tune. I said: "It seems obvious to me that we have too many cows in the most sensitive parts of the country - sandy, shingly, free-draining areas laced with streams, close to groundwater and big recreational rivers.

"And I think there's no doubt that these cows are the main source of the excessive nutrients that are polluting rivers and lakes in these regions.

"The simple solution is to regulate a reduction in cow numbers."

I suddenly found I had lost some of my old friends but gained a lot of new friends - all of the green persuasion.

This was awkward. I'd railed against these people for years and here they were, welcoming me as a new ally. I didn't see it that way - still don't. I'm not on their side. There's much they say that I do not agree with.

The only side I'm on is that of you, my friend the reader, who has the right to be as fully informed as possible about this important debate.

And that's been my intention all along. As the information - the science, expert views, farmers' experience and other facts - has come to light I have given it to you.

I have coloured it with my own views, but these are the opinions of someone close to the action, seeing all sides and, hopefully, weighing them up fairly.

And it hurts me to say this, because I have yet to meet a dairy farmer I didn't like (or any farmer, for that matter), but most of them are not taking all this seriously enough.

Even in Manawatu-Whanganui, which has been delivered the sharpest shock of all by the Environment Court, all that is heard are loud complaints.

It would be easy to make a case to say this is not their fault. They might have heard the calls to take greater responsibility and looked to their industry leaders for a guide.

And the answer they received was to carry on - take their time about fencing their streams (the ones bigger than a stride and deeper than a gumboot) and keep on pumping out the milk.

But they are members of a co- operative and they are in control. They should be making their voices heard and demanding the tools (advice, science, funding, technology) to make their farms measure up.

DairyNZ would no doubt argue it is doing this, and, yes, it has various projects under way. But they are relatively small studies and their field days are poorly attended.

And the science is inadequate for the vastness of the problem. It's no use saying they are doing the best they can. This is dairying's - no, the country's - No 1 issue and this wealthy industry should be putting many more resources into solving it.

The trouble is, the leader we all look to for guidance, the Government, is also not taking this seriously. It is misjudging the public mood.

There are answers out there. If farmers have to reduce cow numbers on sensitive land so the rivers can begin rejuvenating, then let's bite the bullet. As the urban people who are demanding this, we should be doing our bit. Our town sewage plants should be upgraded.

And we should help out our farming neighbours with compensation for their loss of earnings. Yes, we should. It's only fair. Oh, no. Don't tell me. I'm not your friend any more?

A merry Christmas and happy New Year to you all - friends or not.

Taranaki Daily News