by Eugenie Sage
Rivers and sustainable agriculture had a win this week with the Environment Court’s interim decisions on the Manawatu-Wanganui Regional Council’s One Plan. Media coverage included TV3’s Firstline and News.
As the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has said we want fertile soils, not fertile rivers. When nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus end up in rivers and lakes they stimulate aquatic plant growth. This can cause thick slimy algal mats which deplete oxygen as they decay, and make rivers unfit for fish, swimming and recreation.
The Environment Court’s decision upholds provisions in the Manawatu-Regional Plan which control nutrient losses from intensive agriculture. The plan establishes nitrogen leaching loss limits which reduce over time. The limits are based on soil quality or Land Use Capability.
As the Court said, “We know what is causing the decline, and we know how to stop it, and reverse it. To fail to take available and appropriate steps within the terms of the legislation … would be inexcusable.”
The decision is significant because it confirms that business as usual is not an option and that voluntary efforts such as Fonterra’s Clean Streams Accord aren’t enough to tackle water pollution. They need to be supported by regulation and clear rules.
The Court rejected the “it’s too hard and complex” excuse which some other parties such as Federated Farmers and Fonterra used to argue against the nutrient limits and other rules.
The decision notes that the Court was “more than a little surprised” to hear from Fonterra that some farmers may be unaware of the need to manage nutrient losses. Fonterra’s own Clean Streams Accord 2003 includes a target of 100% of dairy farms to have in place systems to manage nutrient inputs and outputs by 2007.
As the decision noted, “We can only assume that if these unaware land managers do exist, they have been farming in some form of information vacuum for the last 20 years, and certainly for the nine years since the Accord was signed.”
If all land users take nutrient management seriously we can improve the health of our rivers and lakes. The decision is a win for sustainable agriculture because the nutrient leaching limits are targeted not just at dairying but also cropping, irrigated sheep and cattle farming and commercial vegetable growing.
The Court also encouraged the Council to consider limits for nutrient losses from traditional extensive sheep and cattle farming. While nitrogen losses per hectare are lower than from dairying, such farming occurs over a larger area so contributes significantly to nutrient pollution in the region’s streams and lakes.
Films such as River Dog have highlighted the ongoing problems of stock access to streams. As the Court notes, “Keeping stock out of waterways is such a basic step in protecting waterways from effluent that it must be regarded as an absolute requirement. Seeking to do so is simply not good enough.”
Fish and Game and the Department of Conservation deserve congratulations for taking the appeals which resulted in the Court decision. This highlights the value of RMA advocacy by both organisations and the importance of the Environment Court in reviewing Council plan decisions.
The Court essentially reversed decisions by the joint hearing panel of councillors and external commissioners which had weakened the original plan as it was notified in 2007.
It is disappointing that the provincial branch of Federated Farmers has claimed the Court directed changes to the Plan rules will result in farmers “buying one way tickets to Western Australia or Chile.” As the Court noted, the economic costs for most farms were manageable across a span of years and “thoroughly justified by the desired outcome.”
Sustainable farming is about ensuring we safeguard our rivers and soils while growing food and fibre. Agriculture relies on New Zealand’s clean green reputation to market and sell its produce internationally. The Environment Court’s decision and Fish and Game and DoC’s advocacy is a step towards healthy rivers and lakes and making the brand real.