Forensic testing of water next step in battle

Rick Burke, chairman of Farmers for Positive Change.

Comprehensive in-stream monitoring and environmental forensics to clearly determine where contaminant sources are entering waterways will be employed by Farmers For Positive Change in high priority catchments as part of its battle against the Waikato Regional Council’s Plan Change 1.

“We want clear, scientific evidence about which farms are adversely affecting water quality to demonstrate that the plan’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ rules are wrong,” says Rick Burke, chairman of F4PC.

The group will work with a laboratory whose staff are skilled at testing water to extract and analyse the DNA content of contaminants to show if they come from dairy cows, sheep or beef cattle, or even human sources.

“We want to use sound and credible science to challenge Plan Change 1 and expose it as failed and unfair,” says Rick.

Under Plan Change 1, all rural properties with an area greater than two hectares will need to register with Waikato Regional Council between September 1, 2018 and March 31, 2019. Along with providing the key information about each property, the process is designed to allow council to gain a better picture of land use across the catchments for more effective future planning.

Nitrogen leaching

Most properties greater than 20 hectares and commercial vegetable growers will need to provide a Nitrogen Reference Point (known as a NRP) to council by March 31, 2019.

A NRP is an estimate of the highest annual amount of nitrogen leaching from the property during the reference period 2014/15 and 2015/16 financial years, or the average annual amount between July 1, 2006 to June 30, 2016 for commercial vegetable growers. The NRP is usually estimated using the computer model Overseer which uses management and physical information about the property to estimate the nitrogen leaching loss. The NRP will need to be approved by a Certified Farm Nutrient Advisor, an expert in understanding and modelling nitrogen leaching losses.

Rick says F4PC believes the system is flawed and unfairly discriminates against drystock farmers and those dairy farmers who have made significant changes to reduce their environmental impacts.

Locking in the NRP at levels leached by farms in the 2014-2016 period means high-leaching farmers are being rewarded by having little impact on their farming systems, while those who already farm in environmentally sustainable ways are restricted in improving profitability because they cannot optimise land use by improving farm systems or by changing stock classes, even though they may be farming within the ecosystem health limits of their sub-catchment.

Redesign farm

“The same applies to low nitrogen-leaching farmers who may have significant environmental work to carry out via their Farm Environment Plans. They have little opportunity to improve profitability needed to redesign their farms to protect environmentally sensitive areas and optimise land use.”

While the regional council states that “the proposed plan change has been developed using a collaborative process that means those who are most affected by the changes have been at the table developing the policy”, Rick says the process was dominated by the dairy industry with its representatives determined to protect intensive farming and high milk production.

“Both Fonterra and DairyNZ support the grandparenting model because it will ensure the continuation of intensive farming and the supply of milk for Fonterra. In my view these organisations’ support for Plan Change 1 is morally wrong.

“I speak to many dairy farmers from around the country and almost all have said they support the stand taken by Farmers for Positive Change, but I believe many are reluctant to speak out because of peer pressure within their own industry.

“What would win the hearts and minds of the New Zealand public would be for Fonterra’s $8 million man – CEO Theo Spierings – to admit that Fonterra has pushed unsustainable production too far and that Fonterra will take responsibility for what intensive dairying is doing to our waterways and therefore reject the grandparenting model notified in PC1 in the Waikato.

Hide real issues

“This might save them and their shareholder farmers a truckload of money with their present advertising campaign where they are trying to hide the real issues facing our deteriorating water quality. New Zealanders – both farmers and the public – aren’t stupid and can see right through this corporate propaganda.”

Rick also believes that the concept of regional councils setting and having to police rules is outdated, legally cumbersome and costly.

“While bottom line rules are required, farmer environmental responsibility should be driven by the companies to which they supply product. Companies such as Fonterra and Silver Fern Farms and other meat companies can more effectively drive change by paying more for supply from farms that achieve specified environmental standards and penalise those who don’t to the point of refusing to accept their supply.

“An ISO accredited certification scheme should be used so that claims made about sustainable farming practices are credible.”

Rick also believes that companies such as Fonterra need to walk the talk before making claims around sustainably sourced product. For example, not addressing the fact that a significant number of their farmers have cowshed effluent disposal systems that do not meet their own best practice guidelines.

Divided farmers

Rick says PC1 in the Waikato has driven a wedge between dairying and drystock farmers with little incentive for them to work together to achieve the desired outcomes of improved water quality.

“In Otago’s Pomahaka catchment, where no grandparenting limits have been imposed, DairyNZ, Beef + Lamb and local drystock and dairy farmers have worked together to achieve significant improvements in water quality. The same could happen in the Waikato if grandparenting provisions were removed.”

Instead of grandparenting, Farmers for Positive Change is advocating a catchment-by-catchment approach where farmers and rural communities work together using science and local knowledge to establish sources of water pollution and come up with ways significantly reducing them within workable time frames.

“To date the Waikato Regional Council has spent close to $25 million of ratepayers’ money on Plan Change 1 but none of that money has been used to clean up waterways,” says Rick.

Response from the Council

Plan change 1 strongly advocates sub-catchment approaches to align works and services, improve efficiency, integrate action, support research and coordinate funding, says Vaughan Payne, Waikato Regional Council chief executive.

“It also recognises that the nature and scale of actions identified in individual Farm Environmental Plans to address contaminant loss should recognise and reflect the state of water quality in that sub-catchment.

“However, it does not provide for each catchment community to set its own preferred limits and targets as that process must take into account the cumulative effects on water quality as it flows through the catchment,” he says.

Vaughan is responding to comments made by Rick Burke, chair of Farmers for Positive Change (see page 3).

Vaughan says the plan change has undertaken analysis and identified 10-year and 80-year targets for each sub-catchment. “The sub-catchment approach is therefore focused on finding and implementing the best local solutions.”

He disagrees with Rick’s comments that the plan disadvantages those who farm in environmentally sustainable ways.

“The NRP is worked out on a ‘whole farm’ basis so if retiring land or fencing riparian margins causes the area of land actually farmed to be reduced, then the NRP doesn’t reduce – it simply means the total nitrogen loss allowed can be spread more intensively over the land that is farmed.

“The levels of nitrogen entering waterways have been increasing over time due to the increasing intensity of farming in the catchment. Healthy Rivers/Wai Ora: Proposed Plan Change 1 addresses this by holding most farms at the level of intensity that existed at the time the plan was notified, but also requiring the top 25 per cent of emitters to reduce. This will allow time for further work to assess alternative methods for allocating nitrogen leaching at a property scale.”

Stock numbers

The level of nitrogen leaching is strongly associated with stock numbers, so if the farm grazes the same stock on a smaller, effective area the farm’s total nitrogen leaching will remain essentially the same unless other factors also change, says Vaughan.

In many cases the fencing of waterways improves the efficiency of the remaining productive land because the fencing and associated reticulated water supply allows better stock and pasture management.

While the proposed plan change includes rules to manage nitrogen, it also focuses on three other contaminants: phosphorus, sediment, and microbial pathogens. “Put simply, what we do on the land impacts our water quality and some land uses are more strongly associated with certain types of contaminant losses. Many factors impact the risk for contaminant loss including soil type, farm practices, and land use.

“Additionally, the proposed plan change focuses on the next 10 years. Future plan changes for Healthy Rivers/Wai Ora may treat NRP levels differently.

Community initiatives

“Many voluntary community-led initiatives across the region make a difference to their local environment and the Pomahaka catchment group is a good example of this. In the Waikato there are over 40 land care groups that work on local environmental issues, however nitrogen, sediment, phosphorus, and bacteria levels in our waterways continue to rise.

“In order to have a significant impact on reducing contaminants and improving water quality everyone in the Waikato and Waipa river catchment needs to do their part. PPC1 sets limits and targets to ensure everyone in the catchment is working to improve water quality,” says Vaughan.

“With regard to grandparenting, the Collaborative Stakeholder Group recommended Nitrogen Reference Points as an interim measure to transition from current activity to a new allocation approach that will be established in the future.

“The CSG didn’t want people locked into their current use based on historical choices or factors, and didn’t want to reward those who had pursued land development with a high level of discharges by giving those properties a higher discharge allocation based on current use.

“They have signalled in the proposed plan change principles including land suitability as a starting point for allocation in any future plan changes where property level limits are set. In the meantime, to meet short term targets for nitrogen in the water, it was important to the CSG that current nitrogen discharges are held and reduced. The Nitrogen Reference Point is a tool to do this.

“Council is developing a Farm Environment Plan template and guide for farm environment planners. We’re also working with industry to develop Industry Schemes and certification programmes for Certified Farm Nutrient Advisors and Certified Farm Environment Planners, which are expected in early 2018. A web portal is also being developed.”

Total costs

The total cost of the Plan Change 1 project to June 30, 2017 was $16.234 million, comprising:

$5.5 million direct costs

$4.530 million staff labour costs

$6.198 million of corporate overheads. These costs begin from the 2012/13 year.  

The council received 1023 submissions on the proposed plan change but says the submissions have not been analysed in a way to show percentage of those in favour or opposed to the proposed changes.


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