This week, some Waikato locals took me and intrepid photographer Amanda Rogers on a tour of some lakes and waterways in their region, and up to the massive dairy conversions in the upper catchment of the Waikato River. It was a powerful experience to start my Waikato tour at a local meeting of worried people wanting to clean up Lake Karapiro (above), and end up at a future source of its pollution – a vast plain of former forest that will be soon be another dairy farm.
During a rainstorm we drove from the iconic rowing lake at Karapiro, which had a red algae bloom for the first time last summer, through a landscape of hydro lakes that are all suffering the effects of the huge increase in dairy farms. As it’s autumn, we did not see either the red or yellow algae that now plague these lakes, but we did hear stories from people along the way about run-off from upstream farms degrading the water all the way from Lake Ohakura down to Lake Karapiro.
When we reached Whakamaru, I was amazed to see the vast areas where tree-felling machines and bulldozers were ripping out the pine forests and clearing land. The conversions were happening before our eyes creating huge green deserts of future dairy paddocks, a treeless monoculture stretching from the west side of Rotorua across toward the King Country. Not all these dairy conversions can be blamed on Landcorp but they are managing the large Waireikei Pastoral Estate blocks between Taupo and Rotorua. They’ve been assisted by the Waikato Regional Council who have facilitated these conversions at the expense of their own communities downstream. It’s all very well to be holding a meeting about cleaning up rivers in one breath, while having consented to a massive landuse change upstream that will increase the pollution of waterways. Another 29,500 dairy stock will soon be grazing on these conversions, creating 1.6 million litres of waste a day – a threat to the Waikato that could be the last straw.
As we watched them ripping out the trees at Whakamaru, a carbon sink was disappearing before our eyes to be replaced by thousands of methane emitting dairy herds. Climate change is the biggest issue of our generation but you would never guess that standing on that barren plain. Add to that the porous volcanic soils of that region will leach nutrients downstream into the Waikato river and the lakes even if they fence creeks and plant buffer zones. Phrases like “mitigation” and ” best practice” will be bandied about in numerous collaborative stakeholder meetings, while the relentless destruction continues across the region. Meanwhile, swimming in clean rivers and lakes is becoming a memory for adults, rather than an essential part of a Kiwi childhood.
The weakening dairy price might slow this down but in the meantime we need to act. The Green petition can at least target Landcorp who claim to be farming leaders while participating in this environmentally and economically dubious landuse.
On State Highway 5 heading towards Rotorua there are some imposing gateways to vast agribusiness properties but not a single sign to tell you that costs are being dumped on the climate and the waterways. But many more people are waking up to this crisis and we stand with them.
You can stand with them too – sign the petition to halt the Landcorp conversions here.
Photo credit: Amanda Rogers