Do we have the resolve to face the issues raised in the freshwater report?

by The Listener / 12 April, 2017

Bridal Veil Falls (Waireinga), Waikato. Photo/Getty Images

Another long report on the state of New Zealand’s fresh water thumped onto the desks of the nation’s policy makers and media this week.

Issued by the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, it adds to the mounting pile of recently published independent advice on the worrying state of New Zealand’s environment.

At first glance, some may roll their eyes at the Gluckman report and question what it contributes to the long-running debate about fresh-water management. Certainly, many of the salient points are well known to those who have watched with alarm as pre-1970s end-of-pipe pollutants from the likes of freezing works and tanneries have been replaced by invisible nutrients from intensively farmed land.

But Gluckman’s report is important, given the gravitas of his role. In part, it is a recitation of the blindingly obvious – that New Zealand’s rivers, lakes and aquifers are under stress because of what happens on the land around them; that our wetlands have been ravaged and hydro dams have damaged catchments; that water quality is worse where there is intensive agriculture and urban development; and that the major cause of declining water quality is agriculture (mainly dairying).

It notes that run-off from city roads and driveways pollutes streams; heavy metals from old industries, weathering roofs and brake linings get washed into urban waterways; leaky septic tanks and ageing sewage schemes leach nutrients. These urban ills – often cited by put-upon farmers who feel unfairly targeted by allegations of dirty dairying – are acknowledged as significant.

But the report – scrupulously careful and apolitical – also points out that although urban rivers are typically among the sickest in the country, they make up just a small proportion of our waterways. Rivers and streams flowing through farmland account for a far greater proportion, and many are damaged by agriculture’s triumvirate of pollutants: nutrients that flush across or leach through paddocks, pathogens such as E coli deposited in the faeces of free-range animals, and fine sediment washed from eroding hills and pugged-up farmland.

For those who spend their lives studying and defending our rivers, all of this is old news. And if not for a single question buried deep in this carefully peer-reviewed report summarising the science of fresh-water pollution and the challenge of restoration, it might not cause much of a ripple.

But Gluckman points to a core policy dilemma. Controlling the pollution from intensively farmed landscapes requires big changes: reducing inputs (lower stock numbers, less fertiliser); costly mitigation measures such as artificial wetlands, herd homes and better management of dairy-shed waste; and banning certain land use on sensitive land. Yet at the same time, the Government is driving continued farm intensification and has $400 million in subsidised finance on tap for big irrigation schemes.

So, Gluckman asks, can land-use intensification continue, matched by improved methods to mitigate pollution, “or will the drive to agricultural intensification need to be reviewed”?

“Is it really possible to have our cake and eat it? As a nation, do we have the scientific understanding, the management tools, the policy solutions and the resolve to do it?”

Gluckman’s questions are gravely complex and important. For years, farmers were free to convert from less-polluting land uses to highly polluting dairying with no real limits on their activity. Only recently have attempts begun to impose regulatory limits on the volume of nutrients they are permitted to expel from their paddocks – and those limits are often designed to shield those who already have large amounts of capital sunk into overpriced farmland and intensive production systems.

Enthusiastic lending policies from bankers, the normalisation of intensive farm inputs such as palm kernel and urea, and the euphoria triggered by a milk payout that spiked to $8.50 in 2014 are among the factors that have conspired to create a farming model that has long since burst through its environmental limits.

As noted by the OECD in its recent report on New Zealand’s environment, nitrogen leaching into soil from agriculture increased by almost a third from 1990 to 2012. Three-quarters of our native fish species are threatened with extinction. Groundwater contamination by nitrates and pathogens is a proven risk to human health.

For too long, the resolve that Gluckman seeks has been missing. It is time that changed.

This column was first published in the April 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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