Coming clean

FORESEEN DANGER: David Hamilton says the situation was not unexpected, but problems with the Rotorua lakes were predicted 30 years ago.
FORESEEN DANGER: David Hamilton says the situation was not unexpected, but problems with the Rotorua lakes were predicted 30 years ago.

Alistair Bone looks at the state of our fresh water. 

The annual Freshwater Sciences Society meeting wrapped up in Dunedin last week. Its final report was as dire as many others through the years. An international expert presented "a grim picture". Speakers, all of them experts, talked of a "clear record of decline" with "land use intensification" as the prime culprit.

Lots of things make our water dirty, but dairy farming is the ringleader. The scientists said they know how to fix it. They even think they can do it without its hitting profits but, for various reasons, they're not sure it's going to happen.

Waikato University Professor David Hamilton is the society's president. He says the current situation took no one by surprise. The experts have forecast this type of thing for years.

"The science foreshadowed as long ago as 30 years that there would be problems with the Rotorua lakes. But there was a feeling that we'd be OK making some gradual changes. That was not the case." The 12 Rotorua lakes are stacked with nitrogen and phosphate, nutrients that feed algal blooms which kill or sicken most other things that live in them. A major source of the nitrogen and phosphates is agricultural run-offs. The cleanup will cost the public purse around $200 million. Hamilton says we can't keep ignoring the known effects and then getting people who weren't responsible for it to pay.

"We are already paying huge costs at the Rotorua lakes and the Waikato River and Lake Ellesmere. There has to be political will to drive through progressive changes over 30 to 40 years rather than all of a sudden having to make a major commercial investment to reverse some of the trends."

The Dairying and Clean Streams Accord ran from 2003 to 2012. It was supposed to stop the fouling of waterways by the dairy industry. The latest figures, from December 2011, show farmer compliance improving in some areas but getting worse in others. Countrywide, significant noncompliance with the accord targets dropped to 11 per cent from 16 per cent.

The new plan is the Government's National Policy Statement on Freshwater (NPSF), which came out last year. It operates under the Resource Management Act and allows the Government to provide direction on specific issues.

The Government has told regional councils to get together with their communities and set freshwater objectives and limits and manage discharges. Everything in the catchment that affects water will be subject to it, including dairy farms. It is a big deal.

Locally, it has already seen the Waikato Regional Council commit to spending $1.8m a year for three years, largely driven by changes to the regional plan needed to accommodate the NPSF.

Federated Farmers helped put it together and is quite happy with it, others less so. Dr Mike Joy, director of Massey University's Centre for Freshwater Ecosystem Management and Modelling, is the most outspoken critic of New Zealand's water purity. When the NPSF came out he was unsparing, pointing out it had no set national standards and didn't look to stop farm intensification. The NPSF is a guide, but leaves councils ultimately responsible for setting local rules. "Regional councils will [if they chose to] be able to regulate the main impact on freshwater quality - farming intensity," said Joy. "However, given that prior to the NPSF the councils chose not to control intensification even though it is obviously having a detrimental effect on water quality, it seems unlikely this will change. Thus, we can expect no overall change in water quality any time soon."

Hamilton says it could work and expects most councils to adopt the NPSF by 2014. "It needs political will and best management practices. Leaders in the farming community are good on the environment and make money." But he says a "recalcitrant few" can't afford it or are just belligerent towards environmental requirements. For her part, Minister of the Environment Amy Adams is promising to be hands-on and involved as the standards are set.

"There may be the need for regulation to achieve the desired environmental outcomes," says Hamilton. "The community will set goals for streams and rivers and lakes. And from there it will be a matter of working back into the catchment to achieve the desired levels of nutrients and sediment and lack of faecal contamination from the major sources."

Close to home, he says the Waikato River needs some help.

"The lower lakes and parts of the lower river have gone through pretty serious degradation and the extent suggests that we need to do something fairly serious about it."

The Waikato River Authority is already working on that. It has $220m to spend over 27 years cleaning up the river as part of Tainui's Treaty settlement. The authority gives money to people with projects to clean up the river and the first tranche of payments was handed out earlier this year. The major recipient was the dairy farmers' representative body, DairyNZ, which received $685,000 to reduce nutrient and sediment loads in the upper Karapiro region of the river.

River Authority chief executive Bob Penter says the money does not mean it is singling out the dairy industry.

"We don't actually have a position on that. We know from the Waikato River Independent Scoping Study that the causes of the river being degraded are very complex. There is not one reason."

The authority's money for the project is matched by about $1.3m from DairyNZ, whose chairman, John Luxton, is also co-chairman of the river authority.

"What we are trying to do is restore the health and well-being of the river and its catchment, but at the same time not impede economic progress. So partnering closely with industries associated with the river is important to us," says Penter.

He denies the authority is paying farmers to do something they should be doing anyway. "If it is a regulatory requirement, we are pretty loathe to fund it. But where it's doing work or it's a project that is over and above what would be expected, we are happy to step in because it speeds up the timeframe it might otherwise occur in.

"The Upper Karapiro individual farm environmental plans might not be a requirement now, but could be in the future. So this is a great way for us to get on the front foot."

Penter puts the "recalcitrant few" farmers who are unwilling to change at 5 to 10 per cent.

"Projects like DairyNZ's start with people who are motivated to make a change or to lift their game and the performance of their farm. Those people become what you might call apostles who then go and talk to other farmers. If they can hear from people over the fence who are having success and their business is benefiting too, that is where you can start to have some real cultural and behavioural changes."

The DairyNZ scheme will have consultants do environmental audits on farms. About 20 consultants have been trained and between 70 and 100 farms will have been audited by Christmas.

Dr Rick Pridmore was once the chief executive of Niwa. Now he is strategy and investment leader for sustainability at DairyNZ and in charge of the Upper Karapiro programme. He says the programme hopes to do 250 farms a year during the next three years.

Pridmore says every dairy farm stream in the country is on track to be fenced within the next few years. The environmental consultants will be paid by DairyNZ and the River Authority. Their advice will be free to farmers, but putting their advice into action will not be. "Farmers have a lot of skin in the game," says Pridmore, "in terms of money and time."

If farmers refuse to do what the consultants suggest: "We would say they are not toeing the line."

Like Mike Joy, he also points the finger at the councils - which will now be responsible for making sure our water is clean.

"They had all the forecasting models a decade ago and the regional councils did zip. There were too many farms and it was too crowded. They wouldn't stop the dairy conversions and a lot of farmers weren't aware of what was going on.

But given the state we're in, he says fixing it might not be as simple as just getting rid of dairy farms.

Pridmore says dairy conversions take land from being low loss to high loss in terms of nitrogen. A forest block will leach an average of 4 kilogram to 6kg of nitrogen per hectare per year into the water. Even with best management practices, a sheep and beef farm will lose 15kg and dairy farms double that.

Pridmore says dairy gets the blame for fouling the water because it is the only thing that has been growing and intensifying in New Zealand and the obvious target. He says the modelling suggests the blunt instrument approach may not be the smartest.

"Sheep and beef lose half the nitrogen but use three times the land. So why not convert dry stock to dairy and forestry?"

Whatever the solution, under the NPSF, it will be locals who decide what they want to see in their own area.

"You have to go catchment to catchment to get a balance between the level of footprint and wealth you want."

Pridmore says the Waikato is a working river. The dams stretch the time of its natural flow from Taupo to the sea from a week to more than a month, giving the added nutrients plenty of time to do more damage.

He modelled the Waikato as a young scientist. "It improved dramatically when we got rid of point [residential and commercial] sources like Kinleith. It is better than it was in the '80s and '90s. The state it is in now is quite acceptable, but we should try to not make it worse."

The chances the river will ever be what it was again are slim. A Niwa study gave a range of options including the cost of returning it to the way it was 100 years ago. That came in at $2.2 billion. River authority chief Penter says even Niwa's cheaper $1b option is a hard ask, despite the authority's attracting 75 cents of co-funding for every dollar it puts up.

"It is a long game we are playing rather than a short game. We are a starting point."

Rick Pridmore says balancing iwi expectations and societal expectations is going to be hard.

Hamilton says the time to fix the water varies throughout the country. Significant improvements have been seen in some places in as little as three years.

"In the case of the Rotorua lakes and possibly the Waikato River system, then the time scale may be 30 to 40 years or so. What we do today will be seen by future generations.

"We have set ourselves an enormous challenge of being able to maintain intensive agriculture and have a swimmable and fishable lower river."

So we can't actually do it? "I think it needs discussion. It's a goal and a lofty goal at that, but yeah, I wonder."

Waikato Times