Environment Canterbury responds to criticism over water quality

David Caygill, the deputy chair of Environment Canterbury.

David Caygill, the deputy chair of Environment Canterbury.

OPINION: I agree with your editorial's headline (28 December) that it is "time for urgent action on water". I disagree with the implication that this is not happening.

First a small point about the figures you quoted. One third of the river sites that Environment Canterbury (ECan) is monitoring this summer are unsafe for swimming. Five years ago one quarter were unsafe. ECan monitors where people want to swim, so the sites we monitor now are not all the same as those we monitored five years ago. These figures don't quite compare like with like.

Nevertheless there is no denying that the quality of Canterbury's water has deteriorated. The key questions are "Why?" and "What is being done about this?"

As you said, the poor quality of water where people want to swim is largely a result of toxic algae. (Sometimes also E. coli — from birds, animals and even human sources.)  Algae result from higher levels of nitrate and, to a lesser extent, phosphorus. Undoubtedly these result in turn from more intensive farming, principally, though not just, more dairying. To reduce the level of nitrate we need to change the way we farm.

We do not need any more reports before we act. We are acting now.

Our power to combat pollution lies solely in the law, which rightly requires public hearings. Three years ago ECan notified a legal cap on the amount of nitrate that most Canterbury farms can discharge from their properties. Farms must now stay at or below the average nitrate level they discharged between 2009-13. In effect this has imposed the moratorium on dairy farm conversions that the Water Rights Trust and others have called for, as few sheep or arable farmers will be able to convert to dairying while staying within their previous average nitrate loss level.

Although it was notified in 2012 as part of ECan's Land and Water Regional Plan, the nitrate discharge limits have only recently come fully into force. They were the subject of public hearings in 2013 and made operative following the resolution of several appeals earlier this year. They will now be enforced through farm environment plans, which will demonstrate how each farm intends to meet its nitrate limit – as well as address any other environmental issues on each farm. Most farmers do not yet have to produce a farm environment plan, though many have and more will be required to next year and the year after depending on their water quality zone. Compliance with the plans will be independently audited.

This year ECan will notify and take through public hearings changes to reduce the limit on each farm further to ensure that farmers are meeting limits that reflect good farming practices, such as the efficient use of water and the reasonable application of fertiliser. In some catchments, such as Selwyn/Waihora, even lower limits have already been agreed and are being put in place.

These rules will help, but rules by themselves aren't enough, and the behaviour changes we ultimately need won't happen overnight. But they are happening.

The banks of most rural streams are now almost all fenced, and many are now being planted. Farm effluent is being managed more responsibly than was often the case 20 years ago. Water is being used far more efficiently than when border dykes were the predominant form of irrigation. Ahead we can expect changes in what cattle are fed, the selection of cattle on the basis of their efficiency in processing nitrate, and in some cases a reduction in the numbers of cattle that farmers choose to raise. 

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It's important that we acknowledge the nature of the water quality challenge. This is not akin to the extraction of shingle or the removal of weeds — it's not a matter of annual maintenance that might be carried out each summer before people go on their holidays. Canterbury's water quality problem — both rural and urban — is caused by run-off from adjacent land. In a rural context, more intensive farming has highlighted the importance of nitrate leaching. In an urban context the problem is the mix of run-off we refer to as "stormwater", with the added extra in post-earthquake Christchurch of human sewage. As Bryan Jenkins, former CEO of ECan, wrote in The Press last week, stormwater has been a problem for Christchurch for the last 100 years.

Unless we understand the nature of the problem we condemn ourselves to misunderstanding and disappointment — not least the disappointment of missed targets. Farmers need to change how they farm and urban residents need to change the way we live. At the risk of being provocative, right now there is arguably more evidence of changes in farming practice (stock fencing, effluent management and efficient irrigation) than in urban lifestyles. The main urban change so far has been the restoration post-earthquake of Christchurch's sewerage system. To see a significant improvement in the Avon and the Heathcote will require a corresponding improvement in the quality of waste we still pour thoughtlessly from our homes.

Cleaning up Canterbury's water is a lot like cleaning up its air. The challenge of facing Christchurch's smog was first accepted in the 1970s when Parliament first empowered councils to create clean air zones and ban open fires. Forty years later our air is much less polluted, but still does not meet international health standards. Change has come through a combination of regulation and individual action.

So too with water quality. ECan will continue to set the water quantity and quality limits the environment requires. Meeting these limits and improving our water will also require farmers – and city residents - to change their behaviour. Working together – in the same collaborative spirit that produced the Canterbury Water Management Strategy – I am very confident that we can achieve these goals.

David Caygill is the deputy chair of Environment Canterbury.

 - Stuff


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