NIWA on water – the science is compelling

Interesting lead article on freshwater in the relaunched NIWA magazine, Water and Atmosphere.

Trend is worsening: NIWA states that water quality is degrading in our major rivers and that the ‘upward trend in temperature, nitrogen and phosphorus has strengthened in recent years’.

Source of the pollution: ‘pastoral farming… is undoubtedly the main source of diffuse pollution… Streams in dairy land are among the most polluted.’ 

And why the decline in water quality: ‘There is no doubt that our declining river water quality over the last 20 years is associated with intensification of pastoral farming and the conversion of drystock farmland to dairy farming, particularly in Waikato, Southland and Canterbury.’

Why is dairy such a problem: ‘dairy farming is a leaky process… the average nitrogen lost from the soil on dairy farms was 39 kg per hectare per year.’

Hence, there are limits to mitigation: ‘best management practices can only do so much’.

So should we recklessly expand dairying?: NIWA are ‘concerned about the expansion of dairying into high rainfall or heavily irrigated areas where there is a greater risk of contaminants getting washed into waters.”

And what is the government doing – well NIWA can’t say this but the Govt is planning to rapidly expand dairying in areas like Canterbury where it will result in even more dramatic pollution.

The whole article is worth a read.

13 Comments Posted

  1. Waterboy-Back in the 80’s farmers had all their subsidies cut. It was harsh for many because their farms were not run well and they depended on the subsidies to survive. The realities of market forces bit hard and farmers had to adjust to a new economic environment. Many farmers today are also subsidized because real cost of the resources they use and the environmental damage they cause is paid by others.

    In Northern Southland it is too dry to support dairy farms without intensive irrigation and the cost of doing so is minimal. The local aquifers have been so over used that Gore often has water shortages even when rainfall is at average levels. The Mataura River was once the cleanest above Gore but recently levels of contaminants are often well above acceptable levels in the northern reaches. If water was valued as the finite resource it is and if dairy farms had to meeet the full costs relating to the monitoring of effluent compliance and rectifying breaches, then farmers would have to change their practices. If Fonterra paid a premium for milk that came from farms that used more sustainable practices it would also make a huge difference, it has often threatened this but nver followed through.

    Many businesses complain about the RMA and councils’ regulatory processes yet New Zealand is 2nd in the world for the ease of establishing new businesses. According to the World Bank Group, NZ is the easiest in the world to start a business (out of 183 countries), the 3rd for registering property and the 5th easiest for getting permits. We are not over regulated, infact greater regulation may be needed to ensure sensible water use, limit over-stocking and properly control farm effluent. An OECD review of the environmental effects of dairy farming states:
    “In regions with a high concentration of milk production there is a
    larger risk of water pollution, mainly in certain regions of Europe
    and Japan, although the risk is increasing in Australia, Korea and
    New Zealand. There is evidence that some environmental
    pressures are becoming more “decoupled” from milk production
    in some countries.”
    This decoupling is is a reality in NZ where external costs are not being properly factored in the production costs at farm level.

    New Zealand also has amongst the lowest levels of organic farming in the OECD and it is accepted that the demand for organic food exceeds supply. Organic farming is far more sustainable than traditional farming practices yet there is limited government will to support it.

  2. Sprout, my point is that how would you ever practically implement your line of thinking. Sure, I accept there is solid logic in farming to the local conditions, but most of NZ farmland wouldn’t be here now if you did that. Is that your argument, get rid of all the farms that aren’t compatible with the local conditions? Or are you looking to offer some sort of practical compromise? If so, I would like to hear your ideas.

  3. Waterboy, I think if businesses had to pay for all the environmental costs of their businesses it would go a long way to creating sustainable business practices. A study on the external costs of dairying show that it is rate and tax payers who subsidise many of the costs for farmers. In Southland an attempt by Environment Southland to factor in the real costs of regulating dairy farms and managing the damage by adding it to farmers rates caused a huge protest from the farmers and resulted in a back down.

  4. I said that because I had to go to some trouble last night to make that very distinction when discussing this with a family member. It would be good if the greens were more overtly supporting these kinds of measures. Or perhaps, you just need to be sneakier than the feds 😉

  5. Waterboy-I don’t quite follow your line of reasoning. The Topoclimate study gave support to the idea that certain forms of farming would be more compatable to certain areas with little intervention or support. The fact that Southland is largely dominated by dairying, despite the region having a wide variety of soils and microclimates, is a concern. In areas where water is scarce and soils do not support heavy pasture growth there are now dairy farms that can’t be sustained without heavy irrigation and huge applications of fertilizer. This is unsustainable over the long term and is already having a negative impact on the environment.

  6. OK sprout, lets say an equivalent study was done across Christchurch. This study found that many different plants are not “suited” to grow there. Therefore you try and introduce a whole bunch of rules saying what people can and cannot grow in their back yards. Or perhaps your study would result in rules requiring everyone to get a suitability permit before they can plant anything in their backyards!

    Kevin, the link doesn’t work. But it’s news to me that the greens support barns. The greens have generated a perception that any cow inside is cubicle farming. I understand the arguments about the Mackenzie but you may have also dented support for the best practical option for reducing leaching in the process.

  7. Between 1998 and 2001 a detailed study of micro-climates and soils was done across the Southland farming region.
    This established the suitability of soils and climate for different forms of farming whether it be crops or livestock. With the advent of dairying (the new gold rush) all this knowledge that could enable and guide sustainable farming practices flew out the window. Anywhere is now a potential dairy farm and the consequences to soils and water resouces are secondary to export profits.

  8. So Russell, when did you become an expert on the science? I suspect you are not actually writing this stuff and I have a sneaking suspicion who is because I recognise the language. Herd sheds could dramatically reduce leaching from the soils by taking the animals off the soils during periods of high rainfall and low plant uptake of nitrogen. But you didn’t like those either. Like the rap song goes – stop – collaborate and listen 🙂

  9. Mitigate. Don’t we want to remove. We used to pride our selves in our stream life and ability to swim in our rivers.
    It was actually a farmer who proudly showed us the stream life on his farm and told us in other countries most of the stream life has disappeared. He had a family farm though that he intended to pass on top his kids. Wonder what he would have said about dairy farming today?

    His answers are the same as ours should by now. Stocking rates that do not deplete the land. Using fixing crops and fallow fields to fertilize and fencing off stream boundaries. Simple measures that ensure the land remains productive and you can eat eels and Koura from the streams.

  10. Thank you Russel. This is exactly the kind of issue I want and expect the Green Party to address. So what is Green Party policy on dairy effluent? How do you plan to mitigate river pollution?

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