Recent monitoring of the Waituna Lagoon in Southland has revealed high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in sediments, largely attributed to dairy farming in the region.
Environment Southland Chairwoman Ali Timms said it was at high risk of irreversible damage because of intensification of land use in the surrounding catchment, and that steps might be taken by the regional council to try to halt further development in Waituna catchment.
Waituna is a popular brown-trout fishing destination, drawing over 2,000 angling visits per year. The lagoon is part of the Waituna Wetlands which was one of the first sites in the world to be named “a wetland of international significance” under the RAMSAR Convention, an intergovernmental treaty that was signed in Ramsar, Iran in 1971. The area is an important habitat for birds, being home to seventy six species including international migratory waders. It is also home to some very unusual plants, such as the cushion plant Donatia which normally grows in sub-alpine areas. Increased nutrient levels from intensive dairy farming are now threatening to “flip” the lagoon from an ecosystem with clear water featuring aquatic plants and fish species to one with murky, turbid water dominated by algae.
When water quality scientist Kirsten Meijer visited the lagoon with the Southland Times this month, she pointed out black mud on the edges of a tributary to the lagoon.
“There’s a lot of sediment going into the lagoon and the mud goes black (instead of being brown). It smells like sulphur, no oxygen, nothing can live in it,” she said. This in a stream that flows into an area of international significance!
One of the ideas being put forward by Environment Southland to combat this pressing problem is to not allow any more dairy farms in the area in the interim. In response to this, Federated Farmers Southland dairy chairman Vaughan Templeton has stated “We would rather see people who are (farming) there do so under certain conditions that don’t have runoff. We have to put things in place to try to minimise it.”
But just what will be put in place? Several agencies, including the Waituna Landcare Group, have been working to try to improve land management practices in the Waituna Catchment but their efforts have not been enough to halt and reverse the decline in water quality. Environment Southland is under immense pressure from Federated Farmers and the dairying industry to allow continuation of dairy development in the region.
What is needed here is clear guidance from the government and clean water rules NOW. It just so happens that Environment Minister Nick Smith is sitting on a Draft National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management that would provide this much needed guidance to regional and district councils on protecting our waterways, but he won’t sign it as it may just upset the polluting industries. Russel Norman will be in the region in April rafting the Oreti River as part of his Dirty and Threatened Rivers Tour and will speak with local people about the issues, drawing attention to the threats posed by the dairy industry in Southland.