Are we quick enough?

Murray Rodgers
Murray Rodgers

The longer we dither on the issue of water quality, the bigger the problem will become, writes MURRAY RODGERS.

Professor Ian Shaw in his article 'Too much nitrate can be toxic' (Nov 19), again raises an issue that should be of huge concern to Cantabrians. We have known of this growing menace for many years now, yet seem to be locked firmly into a "she'll be right" mindset as we tinker around the edges of the problem in the pretence that we are doing something about it.

Professor Shaw does not mention the impact of dairy farming as the major contributor to the growing nitrate levels in our rivers, lakes and aquifers, no doubt leaving the gate open for others to walk through. One urine deposit from one dairy cow carries a concentration equivalent to 1000kg of nitrate per hectare onto the land, accruing at an estimated rate of 25 litres of urine per cow per day, from eight to 12 urinations per day.

We currently have 770,000 cows across the plains, (increasing from around 600,000 in 2009) These animals are contributing most of the nitrate that is entering our water systems. Typically, a quarter of the urinary nitrogen is leached into our water systems.

Other forms of livestock farming, horticultural, and arable farming contribute too, but have a lesser impact than intensive dairy farming

ECan scientists Raymond Ford and Ken Taylor, in their 2006 report Managing nitrate leaching to groundwater warned that "An extrapolation of current trends suggests that within 30 years nitrate concentrations of many shallow unconfined aquifers could exceed the limit set in the Drinking Water Standards for NZ".

As Professor Shaw points out, already "some of the nitrate levels in rural Canterbury shallow bores are high enough to lead to blue baby syndrome". He draws attention to the carcinogenic properties of nitrate, and that nitrate levels in the deeper aquifers are increasing.

It can take decades for the contamination to reach these deeper, slow moving waters, and the increases currently evident may result from farming practices dating from the 1950s. So, what might we expect our groundwaters to be like in 20, 50 or 100 years from now, after the massive increase in dairy farming across the plains from around 1990?

There has been a reluctant but growing acceptance among those in the dairy industry that there is indeed a problem that needs to be fixed.

Lincoln University believed they had discovered a means of mitigating the impact of nitrate build up with a branded product called Eco-n, but this was withdrawn from the market earlier this year when some dairy products were found to contain traces of dicyandiamide (DCD).

Dairy NZ report another way of decreasing the nitrate impact from dairy cows is to restrict the grazing time for cows by having stand-off pads for herds.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, bluntly says in her report Water quality in New Zealand, released November 21, that "mitigation cannot offset the increase in nutrients that comes from large scale change to more intensive land uses".

Her predecessor, Dr Morgan Williams, highlighted the problem, and pointed a way forward in Growing for Good, published in 2004, but this report was ignored or denigrated by the rural sector, rather than grappled with, adapted and built upon.

Willie Leferink of Federated Farmers (The Press, Nov 29) talks of urban and rural people "all being in the same waka" when it comes to water quality and that urban waterways are also badly polluted.

In Christchurch, that may be so, but there is also much effort going in to fixing this situation. Besides, you can't use our temporary urban contamination as an excuse for elements of the rural sector to continue their leisurely approach to fixing the much larger, constantly growing and essentially permanent damage the sector is perpetrating.

In our right to enjoy and protect the resource, however, we are indisputably in the same waka.

Leferink also points out that predictive models can overstate the size of a problem. They can also understate it. We are taking an enormous risk with the future welfare of our grandchildren and theirs in our lackadaisical approach.

So are we moving swiftly and effectively enough, or is it already too late?

The 10 zone committees in Canterbury, under the guidance of the ECan commissioners, are struggling to gain acceptance of the need for major change in farming practices across the plains.

Doubtless, they are doing their best, but it is likely not to be nearly good enough.

The time is past due when a reckoning on the adequacy of our current approach is carried out, with the view to putting in place strategies that will produce the required results.

We certainly need to act sooner rather than later to reduce and limit the number of cows urinating on the plains to sustainable levels, catchment by catchment, and require best practice farming standards from all farmers - not just those who are recent entrants to the dairy sector.

The woeful level of compliance by many dairy farmers on effluent management over many years of monitoring and publicity by ECan augurs poorly for adherence to the nitrate limits, due to come into force shortly.

The longer we dither around, the bigger the problem will become as we continue to lock ourselves into more capital intensive dairy farming, from which it will not be easy to withdraw.

It can be done. It must be done.

No-one is claiming it will be easy to secure the best of both worlds - clean rivers, streams and aquifers and a thriving economy, but this is what we must grapple with, now.

We must drive the solutions home with absolute commitment to success. Otherwise we will continue to flounder in a no-man's land, putting in lots of effort and money to no avail.

Are our Government appointed ECan commissioners up to the job? They are certainly taking their time about adequately addressing the nub of a problem that was clearly evident from well before the time they first took up their positions.

Murray Rodgers writes on behalf of the Water Rights Trust and the Coalition for Clean Water. The coalition comprises the Orari River Protection Group, Our Water Our Vote, Malvern Hills Protection Society, Canterbury Aoraki Conservation Board, North Canterbury Fish & Game and Forest & Bird.

The Press