Farmers must be at table - not on menu

If farmers are not at the table for regional water quality discussions, they will be “on the menu” warns Mid Canterbury Federated Farmers provincial president Chris Allen.

And keeping economics at the forefront of all discussions is vital. “There’s no point in having the highest quality water in the world if farmers go bankrupt and the lights are turned out in rural and provincial towns,” he told the annual Bay of Plenty Federated Farmers Conference in Edgecumbe.

Water quality issues are a balancing act believes Federated Farmers senior policy advisor Elizabeth McGruddy and Mid Canterbury Federated Farmers provincial president Chris Allen.

Throughout the country regional councils are working to meet the requirements of the Nation Policy Statement for Fresh Water Management to establish freshwater objectives and set water quality and quantity limits for all bodies of freshwater.  

As part of the process councils are setting up catchment committees with representatives from a wide range of sectors, which will help establish the values for fresh water quality and the rules.

The Bay of Plenty Regional Council has already identified the Kaituna/Pongakawa and Rangitaiki as the first two catchments to be addressed in the region.

Chris says Bay of Plenty farmers should learn from the experience of others who’ve gone through, or are going through the process – including in his own region.

“Farmers need to be actively engaged all the way and ensure there are science experts involved that are respected by the primary sector.

 “Keep the process simple. There are three key steps: science, values and rules. Ensure your values are well heard and agree on the values before progressing.

“Support those representing farmers.”

Chris says working closely with all primary sector organisations including HortNZ, DairyNZ and Beef & Lamb is important as each has access to a wide range of resources and information.

Levy bodies
“Use the expertise of the primary sector levy bodies and stay together with a clear voice,” say Chris.

“Keep the primary sector working as parts of a jigsaw. There will be tensions. “However, you might find you 90 per cent agree with other parties. The hard stuff is the 10 per cent.”

Chris says water allocation methods need to recognise past investment and include forward thinking to avoid effects on land values and not stifle future opportunities.

“Ensure that council focus is on managing the contaminants that affect water quality – not farming directly. Don’t forget water quality improvements in recent history. Some like to conveniently forget them.”

The majority of Bay of Plenty waterways, including those which run through farmland, have good stable water quality, says Federated Farmers senior policy advisor Elizabeth McGruddy.

Measured against a range of tests which included those for nitrate and phosphorus, water clarity, plus swimming quality, about 80 per cent of region’s freshwater sources are of good or high quality, she told the annual conference in Edgecumbe.

This puts the region in a strong position as it works towards meeting the conditions of the Nation Policy Statement for Fresh Water Management.

“In this region it’s an 80/20 game and there’s a need to prioritise the ‘hotspots’. Drill back to understand the patterns and drivers [of problems]. Go back up the catchment, go back in time, and use local knowledge to understand what’s happening.

Surprising results
“The Bay of Plenty Regional Council has done a good piece of work on the Rangitaiki waterways. It has data going back to the 1970s and 1980s which show the aquatic life in the waterways has been stable,” says Elizabeth.

The council’s 2014 report on the ecological assessment of the Rangitaiki waterways says in part: “The finding of so many streams either good or excellent was surprising, especially given that 83 were in catchments dominated by exotic forest or pasture”.

Pasture streams flowing through productive farmland on the Galatea Plains in particular had good ecological conditions. Of 10 streams, four were excellent and six were good.

Elizabeth says data produced last year from 29 monitored sites in rivers, 20 sites in lakes and 15 from coastal sites showed 64 per cent of rivers and 95 per cent of lake and coastal sites had water quality suitable for swimming.

She also quoted a DairyNZ report which says trends in the Bay of Plenty highlight stable or improving water quality across most indicators. Tauranga waterways are largely stable or improving, except for an increase in phosphorus in most sites, especially at Omanawa.

All six monitored sites in the western region are also stable or improving in quality except the Puarenga Steam at Rotorua. In the eastern central region, seven monitored sites are stable or improving, except the Rangitaiki at Murupara and the Tarawera at Boyce Park. All five of the eastern region sites are stable or improving.

All too often farming is blamed for poor water quality but Elizabeth says experience in other regions shows water quality problem ‘hotspots’ often have other causes.  

When it comes to deciding on the water quality in individual regions, Elizabeth says it’s about finding a working balance between the wishes of local communities, requirements of aquatic life, recreational use of waterways and the needs of farming and irrigators.


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