On Friday I had the opportunity to attend a celebration of the Aorere Catchment Project in Golden Bay. When I had been presenting the Green New Deal in Takaka several local people had mentioned the project to me in tones of pride, so I jumped at the chance to attend the celebration.
Readers of this blog will recall that one of the projects that we included in our Green New Deal Stimulus Package – what we would do to stimulate the economy and restore the environment if we were the Government right now – was a $200m per annum investment over 9 years to protect rivers and streams with fencing and riparian planting.
Last week the urgency of this work was once more brought home by two new reports highlighting the speed with which freshwater quality has been degraded in recent years.
What has been achieved here is extraordinary. Nestled between Kahurangi National Park and the sea, the Aorere catchment is home to around 500 people, and the principle land use has been dairying. The river flows into a bay that is home to a number of mussel farms. Not so long ago tensions in Golden Bay were running high, with familiar tensions between dairy farmers, greenies and Fish and Game, augmented by a further difficulty where the aquaculture industry claimed that E. coli contamination of the river from dairy farming rendered their industry on the verge of closure.
Then something extraordinary happened. The dairy farmers in the catchment got together to do something about the problem. While not everyone was an immediate enthusiast, all agreed to be part of a project to clean up the waterways. The project has been supported by Landcare Trust and MAF’s Sustainable Farming Fund, and has involved collaboration between the dairy and the mussel farmers, scientists and technical experts from multiple agencies, and the Golden Bay Streamcare Group. This latter group comprised an amazing group of volunteers who have raised seedlings, planted them out along stream and river banks and then gone back to release and care for the plantings.
In the space of a few short years the improvement in water quality has been brilliant. This can be seen in return of biodiversity, but is perhaps even better measured by the effect on aquaculture: days where water quality conditions allowed mussel harvest improved markedly from 28% before the project to 80% now. The riparian plantings are now several metres tall in some places, and the return of bird life has been noticeable. One of the farmers I spoke to said that he hadn’t noticed any productivity changes – up or down – from the changes, but there had been animal welfare gains with greater shade for the stock from the riparian plantings.
This group is going to continue work in the Aorere and believe that more is achievable, but their model is also for export, with members of the group talking about the project with farmer groups in other parts of the country, and a new batch of Sustainable Farming funding just approved by MAF for further work in the Aorere and to use the same approach in the Rai catchment north-east of Nelson.
One of the interesting questions this all raises, of course, is what the conditions are that will best facilitate the uptake of this model in other parts of New Zealand. While those involved were anxious to say that there was nothing special about them, attempts to get the model going in a neighbouring catchment have been unsuccessful.
A couple of the farmers there took me to task about our criticism of the Clean Streams Accord and their perception that our criticism of “dirty dairying” was unfair and unhelpful. On the other hand, my observation was that several of the farmers I spoke with identified the very uncomfortable standoff that had arisen and that negative community perceptions about dairying practices as catalysts for action. Would the project have happened without these? I’d like to talk with these farmers some more about that.
What we all do agree on is the huge value of bringing everyone together and talking with those we have disagreements with – maybe a positive sign for the collaborative governance model. We also all agree on the great value of highlighting and celebrating the positive. Jeanette’s currently out there visiting farms that use good sustainability practices, so that we can do exactly that. In the meantime, it would be hard to go past the inspirational nature of the Aorere Catchment Project and all of the individuals and groups who have been associated with it.