OPINION: It's not often that households containing one environmentalist and one freshwater ecologist are deafened by the din of popping champagne corks, but recently ours was.
It seldom happens because in the overall scheme of things we seldom win - money generally does. But the Environment Court's recent ruling on the Manawatu-Wanganui Regional Council's (Horizons) One Plan was as sweet a victory as it gets.
A column can't do justice to the 79-page ruling, but let's have a peek at the contents and see why farmers are bellowing like hungry cows.
The language employed in the decision might provide a clue as to how big a kick up the bum they got.
The three largest polluters - Fonterra, Ravensdown and Federated Farmers - objected to the idea of setting limits to control nutrient runoff based on soil types. This was despite the stated aim of Horizons to find a balance between economic growth and water quality targets.
Various legal tactics were employed throughout. Fonterra tried their hand at holding up the voluntary Dairying and Clean Streams Accord as a great example of solving the pollution problems, but the court found "they are laudable as far as they go. But history suggests plainly enough that alone they do not suffice to effectively deal with the problem".
The decision also noted the court was "more than a little surprised" to hear from Fonterra some farmers may be unaware of the need to manage nutrient losses.
"We can only assume that if these unaware land managers do exist, they have been farming in some form of information vacuum for the last 20 years, and certainly for the nine years since the accord was signed."
The decision confirms the One Plan must now be seen by all regional councils as a precedent-setting document, for the manner in which pollution from farms into waterways is managed.
It is appropriate, too, that Horizons has shown the courage to initiate a regime in a region the court says had ''urgent water quality issues that require immediate action''.
''We also know what is causing that decline, and we know how to stop it, and reverse it'' and to fail to take available steps ''would be inexcusable'', it says.
The council can now apply a ''land-use capability'' regulatory regime for the amount of nitrogen applied to land used for dairying, intensive sheep and beef farming, and horticulture.
When other regional councils throughout the country review their individual regional water plans, this decision only further reinforces how important it is to set measurable water quality objectives and limits.
The recent Government-approved National Policy Statement for Fresh Water Management requires it and councils will at least have to look like they're trying.
They will need to sit down with their respective communities and seriously consult. For example, if water within certain catchments is over-allocated for irrigation purposes or heavily polluted from dairy farm runoff, the public can put pressure on regional councils to clean them up - which is, and let us not forget, their job.
If people value the ability to swim or fish safely over and above the economic imperatives, then they, too, can achieve good outcomes.
Environmentalists and scientists have known for some time that truth is not a prerequisite of Fonterra and DairyNZ's marketing plans.
What struck me most about the court's ruling was that the huge gap between the dairy industry spin and the reality on the ground was finally exposed - and it wasn't ''greenies'' having to say it.
Predictably, Federated Farmers opposed the proposed regime, which it said was ''fatally flawed'' and would make dairy farming less profitable or even uneconomic.
The decision found no evidence to support that argument and says that if farmers cannot meet the required levels, they may have to change their farming category, or intensity, or ''move somewhere else''.
''Those are the same options that might face the operator of any business in a changing rules regime, and there is nothing that gives farmers a privileged place in the scheme of things.''
In response, the Federated Farmers Manawatu-Rangitikei provincial president said, ''many farmers will not be spending money anywhere because they will be bankrupt and heading either for the nearest Work and Income office or buying one-way tickets to Western Australia or Chile.''
The subtext that could be read here - if we can't freely pollute unhindered here, then we'll go someplace else and do it.
This speaks volumes about where dairy farmers see their place in New Zealand society - hallowed and unquestioned.
Will they appeal? Only points of law can be challenged so I doubt it. However, if Fonterra and/or Federated Farmers decide to have another crack it says only one thing.
All their talk about voluntary riparian planting and the Clean Streams Accord, education versus regulation and insisting they are cleaning up their act, has been an utter sham. In this they are aided and abetted by most regional councils.
Instead of expending energy and dollars fighting the inevitable, they should make authentic strides towards the clean water that society is now demanding they want back.
Just get on with it and stop the whining.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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