Editorial: Dirty dairying still major Canterbury issue despite some improvement

Dairy farmers are facing big challenges to keep waterways clean.
GRANT MATTHEW/FAIRFAX NZ

Dairy farmers are facing big challenges to keep waterways clean.

EDITORIAL: The large green circles that have spread across some of the driest land in the country are the most visible sign of the changing natural face of Canterbury.

A visitor driving across the Mackenzie Country for the first time in 20 years would be astonished at how parts of the windswept brown and orange landscape have turned a rich green. They would wonder at the "stains", as some call them, that look like crop circles and at the kilometre-long centre-pivot irrigators lining the side of State Highway 8 between Lake Ruataniwha and Omarama.

These irrigated islands of green - the result of the super-intensification of farming, notably for dairying, in the area - can even be spotted by satellites. What cannot be seen so easily from space, however, is the local and regional impacts of such intensified farming practices, and the detrimental effects the use of fertilisers and spraying of effluent can have on the water quality of nearby rivers and lakes, and also downstream.

In September it was revealed that the purity of our alpine lakes has become increasingly degraded by nutrient and phosphate-rich runoffs from intensive farming in the high country. Lakes once sparkling and blue have, over the past decade, become green and cloudy. In its report on that, Environment Canterbury concluded "nutrient loading" posed a "significant threat" to the health of 25 lakes in the upper Rakaia Gorge, the Ashburton basin and the upper reaches of the Rangitata River.

Now, in its latest report on dairy-farmer compliance around the region, ECan says there is cause for optimism that significant rule-breaking is declining. But there are still hundreds of Canterbury dairy farmers being caught paying scant regard to, or ignoring, the conditions of the resource consents that allow them to be in business.

The regional council monitored the effluent-discharging practices of 976 Canterbury farms and found that, in the past year, more than one-third had broken discharge rules. Some farms in South Canterbury appear to consider they are a law unto themselves, with more farmers in the Orari-Opihi-Pareora zone breaking the rules than following them.

Sixty-four per cent of farms surveyed complied with their consents while, of the remainder who broke the rules, about one in every 16 farms breached them significantly. Of those that then received follow-up inspections, more than 40 per cent were still breaking their consent conditions. ECan says "ponding" of dairy effluent, caused when too much has been sprayed on to land by irrigators, was the main cause of the non-compliance.

Given those results it initially seems bewildering that ECan is touting its findings as "a great result". But, as monitoring and compliance manager Marty Mortiaux explained, most of the rule breaking was minor, the number of significant breaches continues to fall, and for the second consecutive year no prosecutions were pursued.

Those victories are worth some celebration. Clearly the regional council is having some success and its efforts to work closely with farmers appear to be starting to pay off. However, toxic cow effluent leaks out far beyond farm boundaries and there are serious issues, as highlighted in the recent Environment Aotearoa 2015 report, with soil compaction on dairy holdings.

Tougher environmental guidelines and extra vigilance are going to be needed while irrigation and dairying remain at the top of this Government's agenda.

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 - Stuff

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