Water forum has big impact
OPINION: It has taken years for the community to begin talking without acrimony about water issues.
I believe the foresight of the Orari River Protection Group bringing together a panel of five expert speakers last Sunday to address water issues in the local region was important.
It resulted in the Geraldine Cinema being packed as if the audience expected a blockbuster movie - but they got better than that - being treated to four hours of open-handed and honest discussion that gave water issues more transparency and integrity than has been received in the past decade.
It was a public meeting focused on facts rather than opinion.
The audience comprised all age groups and a wide range of community interests.
Despite half the audience admitting it was their first appearance at a water meeting, the meeting never developed into a "them and us" or a "grandstanding event".
People came to listen and appraise the wise words offered by the panelists.
Hearty congratulations to the organisers. I hope they are encouraged to run more public meetings focused on water issues!
The following is my prcis of what I tape-recorded as the panelists addressed the major points. Further issues will be addressed in upcoming columns.
Panelists revealed their innermost thoughts about water - its importance in the community, and its necessity for life.
Jane Demeter (committee member on the Canterbury Water Management Scheme and a former Environment Canterbury councillor) made sure all questions were addressed with honesty and answers were to the point.
Willy Leferink (Federated Farmers dairy chairman and local dairy farmer) revealed his desire to get rid of the dirty dairying attitude.
"We are now embarking on water quality issues," he said.
"All waterways in Canterbury will be fenced by August.
"Ecan is a little back-to-front . . . It is only of late that we have seen good discussions. Everyone has responsibilities and not all issues relate to farmers," he said.
Canterbury medical officer of health, Dr Alistair Humphrey, was adamant, "we need to protect our source water from contaminants".
He added that "the health of the communities needs to be at the forefront of water management".
He noted that water issues will take decades to fix.
"It's not about them and us - it's about us, all of us. Today we are having a conversation and listening better than we would have 10 or 15 years ago."
Dr Mike Joy (senior lecturer; environmental science/ecology at Massey University) put the concerns bluntly when he said "nitrogen is a problem", and noted "the secondary effect of nutrient in the rivers is the growth of algae and the increase in toxicity that results from the interaction of algal matter and nutrients".
He added that "long before water reaches the toxic level the fish and invertebrates have suffered from a lack of oxygen in the water. They depart or die!"
John Donkers (chairman of Irrigation NZ and local farmer) said: "It is no longer business as usual. Farm conversion will likely become more expensive with the Government now setting output limits.
"We cannot keep doing what we have been doing for the past 20 years.
"The issues are not insurmountable but they won't be solved overnight. I believe that new technology and science means we can have it all," he said.
Later, he said "the impact of the intensification is what counts".
Leferink, said the National Policy Statement (NPS) and the Land and Water Management Plan won't allow an increased nutrient level in the community, and that he foresees this impacting on those who have yet to consider any land change to dairying.
This brought comments from the audience about the potential for a moratorium on nitrogen use.
The speaker noted, "we are in a red zone in our local rivers. They are already overloaded from the intensity of dairy farming.
"How many rivers are safe for swimming and for fishing?"
Turning to the panelists she asked, "why is there not a moratorium on nitrate use?"
Geoff Simmons (economist with the Morgan Foundation), said: "I agree that a moratorium on any further dairy conversions is the way to go."
He said a lot of farmers could farm less intensively.
"If they pull back stock numbers and increase water efficiency it has the potential to improve sustainability and maintain economic results. In areas where intensification has gone too far, the crucial question is who pays?"
Simmons thought taxpayers would be picking up the bill.
A former Dunedin farmer received some support when he asked "why is there no organic farmer on this panel?"
Joy said that in areas heavily farmed with superphosphate, the contamination of some animal body parts meant it's illegal to sell them to the public.
With regard to nitrates, he provided an analysis of the huge economic cost of cleaning it from the environment.
Humphrey reminded the audience that just 100 head of cattle produce a large tonnage of faeces per day and "we have to protect our source water". He added, "there are a lot of hidden community costs resulting from bad water. Shallow bores and intensified farming is a problem."
It was his view that "we will continue to pay the price for the burst of dairy activity in the recent decade or two. We are seeing nitrates build up and that will continue for many years because it takes a very long time for nitrates to leak through the ground. It is probably a good thing that land change is becoming more difficult."
Joy said there is a lack of independent science. "Universities should be taking interest in these issues," he said. "And there is a real lack of understanding by media in these issues."
Simmons agreed, saying he recently asked a group of young people about their reason for removing a lot of rubbish from a river.
"We just wanted the river to look nice," they told him. Simmons was astounded to find they had no concept of water quality issues.
He also reminded the audience of a recent conversation he had with a Spanish woman who told him, "you don't know what you have got until it is gone!"
It's just my opinion, but I'm sure the audience will think long and hard upon such statements.
- The Timaru Herald