Next Government has powerful mandate to tackle water quality challenge

Making necessary changes to improve water quality will not be easy, Bryce Johnson says.

Making necessary changes to improve water quality will not be easy, Bryce Johnson says.

OPINION: As negotiations continue over which parties will form the next government, it is clear the environment – particularly water quality - has become one of the major policy issues to tackle.

It certainly figured prominently in the election campaign, with intense media and social media debate and farmers taking to the streets to protest about how they feared some water policies would impact them.

The rural community's fears were fuelled by disinformation and exploited on the election trail by politicians all too ready to make the most of rural uncertainty and anxiety in order to get a few more votes.

In the cold, hard light of a post-election day, some of the claims being bandied around can't survive even cursory scrutiny - $18 cabbages? $40 for a litre of milk? $2.80 an apple?

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Unfortunately such outrageous and truth-deficient claims do have an impact and getting people to step back and start discussing the issue calmly and rationally is going to be a challenge.

But it is a challenge we all have to face.

For New Zealand's farming organisations and industries, it is going to require strong leadership to guide their members and stakeholders through the necessary changes which lie ahead.

Change is never easy to navigate but it is inevitable. Thankfully, the farming industry accepts such change is necessary and it is getting on the front foot to lead it.

In recent weeks, farming leaders pledged on the banks of Hawke's Bay's Ngaruroro River they would make all New Zealand rivers swimmable.

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These industry leaders, including Federated Farmers, Fonterra, DairyNZ, Meat Industry Association and Beef + Lamb NZ, admitted the country's rivers are not in good condition and promised to restore them so people could once again swim in them.

These leaders, who represent 80 per cent of the pastoral farming industry, said farming hadn't always got it right on water quality and fixing the problem is the right thing to do.

I was hugely encouraged by this statement. From my private discussions with some of these same leaders, I know they want their industry to do better.

They appreciate New Zealanders are fed up with having their rivers, lakes and streams polluted.

And Water New Zealand's just released water survey provides further evidence, showing that nearly three quarters – 73 per cent - of the public are concerned about poor water quality in our rivers and lakes.

That big majority wanting clean water doesn't just live in towns and cities – the results include the views of the rural community, calling into question claims of an "urban-rural divide" on this important issue.

The survey result is valuable because it provides all New Zealand with a common vision of what needs to be done to improve our water quality.

Making the necessary changes won't be easy but there is ample evidence on the benefits of doing so.

For instance, researchers at Lincoln University have discovered farms remain profitable while cutting nitrate leaching by 30 per cent and reducing cow numbers by eleven per cent.

And in the North Island, the Horizons Regional Council is leading the way with a landmark environmental strategy – the One Plan.

The One Plan is important because it provides a way forward for other regional councils by showing how to protect a region's resources while preserving both its environment and economy.

Such examples of how to successfully navigate the necessary changes are important for the next Government's three year term.

Once negotiations over the shape of the new government are complete, I believe New Zealand will finally be able to take meaningful and practical steps to stop ruining the environment for temporary economic gain.

When it comes to improving water quality and making rivers swimmable, the next government is assured of the support of 80 per cent of farming leaders and three quarters of the public.

That's a powerful mandate and one far too valuable to squander by continuing down the present path of unthinking exploitation and pollution.

  • Bryce Johnson is the chief executive of Fish & Game.

 - Stuff

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