Improving water quality approach mooted

Farmers working together in sub-catchments would be the most effective approach to improve water quality to “swimmability and Mahinga Kai” standards in all Waikato and Waipa waterways, meeting the aim of the Waikato Regional Council’s proposed Plan Change 1. That’s the view of the group, Farmers for Positive Change Wai Ora Waipa-Waikato – also known as F4PC.

“This approach, when combined with farm environment planning, will set a direction of travel that is not as disruptive or cloaked in uncertainty, yet still provides change to water quality where required,” says Graeme Gleeson of F4PC.

It will also give effect to the vision and strategy, which is an integral part of the Treaty Settlement with the five river iwi. The recently notified Plan Change 1 sets out a staged approach to achieve these aims during 80 years, with the plan reviewed and updated every 10 years.

In response to concerns from many in the farming sector about the direction of Plan Change 1, F4PC proposes farmers in the sub-catchments of the Waikato and Waipa Rivers to work together to reduce their environmental footprints, focusing on the four contaminants nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment and E. Coli, and allowing the quality of streams that flow through and nearby their farms to improve.

Sense of ownership

“Part of the approach, as currently set out by Plan Change 1 utilising catchment-wide rules, has little bearing upon the state of water quality in a farmer’s local sub-catchment streams, wetlands, lakes and ponds so doesn’t convey awareness of or a sense of ownership about a problem – which in turn will limit needed urgency to change farm management practices that could make a positive and tangible difference,” says Graeme.

F4PC chairman Rick Burke says Graeme has invested a huge amount of time and energy into working up this proposal. “The development of a sub-catchment proposal demonstrates how F4PC is taking a positive, leadership approach to the plan changes,” says Rick.

Graeme agrees there is little point in “banging your fist on the table in frustration and pushing back without offering a credible alternative”.

Economy stalls

Rick and Graeme say there could be some potential long-term adverse impacts driven by plan changes which must be recognised now. There is a possibility that rural communities would struggle to maintain vibrancy and prosperity when the regional economy stalls due to the impact of de-intensified land use change required to bring about water quality improvement – and this hasn’t been talked about enough.

Graeme says that business-as-usual with ongoing intensification, as seen in recent years with the forestry to dairy conversions in the Upper Waikato, is also not an option.

“The middle road is the sustainable route for both the environment and rural economies.”

Quite what that “middle road” might look like is not entirely clear but Graeme says technologies and science already exist to help reduce the impacts of farming on water quality. “It is also certain that new technologies will emerge because tension and pressure always leads to innovation, but at present we don’t know what these advances might be.”

Interim targets

It is for this reason he’s also in favour of council taking a 30-year approach with clearly established interim targets and bottom-lines for water quality established upfront now.

“This will provide more certainty regarding business investment and the opportunity to analyse their land use and make appropriate change if required, in a transitional manner, rather than have a forced situation that leaves investment stranded.

“The 10-year life of the plan change and its accompanying rules is too short for farmers who need some certainty about the viability of future investment within their businesses. We demand transparency and certainty now as to what the 20-30-year future holds.”

For the sub-catchment approach to work, it will require the collaborative effort of all landowners including dairy, drystock and deer farmers, equine, pig, market gardeners, orchardists and lifestyle farmers.

It must also be recognised there has been already been a lot of mitigation work undertaken across many farms. “This work didn’t spring up overnight. It requires awareness and acknowledgement of a problem then careful planning of the work required along with having the financial wherewithal to put it all into place.”

Graeme and F4PC change members believe bringing landowners together with a sub-catchment focus would tap into valuable local knowledge and skills and enable farmers to support each other to make positive changes for the environment, while enabling their farming operations to be adaptable and so remain viable.

Submissions on Plan Change 1 close on March 8.


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