Dairy conversions causing more pollution than ever, report shows

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) released two reports on freshwater quality and management last Friday. The water quality report shows that dairy conversions are hurting water quality and says that despite great efforts with fencing and planting, large increases in cow numbers are resulting in excess nitrogen and thus pollution in water ways. In other words, cow urine leaches into water and waterways become slimy and ridden with algae. The Waikato region shows the most dramatic increases in dairy, followed by Canterbury and Southland, which is why the Greens are calling for a moratorium on conversions.

The second report is more technical and is an examination of the National Policy Statement (NPS) on Freshwater Monitoring. The statement is being reviewed by the Government next year but the PCE report has some great suggestions on how the NPS could be improved. We agree with the PCE that this NPS and its associated National Objectives Framework (NOF) need a major overhaul because they are unclear, don’t assist councils to prioritise work, and are based on some bad ideas. The worst idea is called “overs and unders”, which tells regional councils that they can allow water pollution in some parts of their region so long as they clean up in others and meet an ‘overall’ objective for clean water. This is dangerous and unhelpful because nature doesn’t operate in this bizarre manner. A dirty river, lake or estuary anywhere in a region needs cleaning up! Of course the clean up will take time but nowhere should be deliberately sacrificed. It also seems like a breach of Te Tiriti o Waitangi to say some awa can be polluted. The PCE says this concept should be dropped from the NPS and we agree.

The Green Party has a bigger problem with the NPS than the unclear implementation messages, we have a problem with a national statement that says water only needs to be clean enough for wading and boating. We have called for swimmable rivers as a minimum. Some regional councils are consulting on “mahinga kai” (food gathering) as a standard for their rivers.

The PCE reports are useful as they also call for better rules for waterways including estuaries, lakes and rivers. But until we stop conversions to intensive dairying in sensitive catchments, it’s all just more dirty water heading downstream.