Saturday, 22 March 2014

Nearing the End of the Golden Weather: A Bitter Sweet Time in Canterbury

I've been walking for a long time now but I really am not concerned with writing about the ins and outs of life on the trail. If you want to know more about that, read the book that I will be writing when I get home. Originally this article was to be entitled: The Canterbury Tales, Corporate Power Grabs and The Decline of Democracy in New Zealand. Unfortunately that article disappeared into cyber space back in Christchurch. It was all about how Environment Canterbury was declared dysfunctional by the government due to the fact that it was putting the brakes on new irrigation schemes in the Canterbury region. This democratically elected group was disbanded in the most blatantly unscrupulous manner by the current government on advice from dairy insider and former National party MP Wyatt Creech. I'm low on time so I'm going to quote Wikipedia here which is terrible but if you can prove these facts wrong please do so.

"Following his retirement from politics, Creech headed up a small group that took advantage of the opportunities created by the deregulation of the dairy industry by the founding of the Open Country Cheese Company located near Matamata, in Waikato. This has now grown into Open Country Dairy Co Ltd with both milk powder and cheese production facilities in Waharoa (near Matamata), Waikato, Awarua (near Invercargill) and Wanganui... In 2009-10, Creech was commissioned by the Minister for the Environment and the Minister of Local Government to head a review of the performance of Environment Canterbury.[7] Their report was highly critical of the performance and capability of the organisation, and while the recommendations were controversial, were fully implemented by the government... As former directors of failed investment and property company Blue Chip run by Mark Bryers, Creech and John Luxton are included (2012) in two lawsuits which allege breach of their duty to investors.[9] "

 Pretty Standard stuff there really. These are not conspiracy theories, just conspiracies. The further I go the more my mind is being blown by the way that democracy has been bulldozed out of the way in order to allow for more intensive dairy farming. This is being perpetrated by the very people charged with protecting our environment such as Environment Minister and Dairy investor extraordinaire Amy Adams. Apparently Mike Hosking said recently that people going on about the dairy industry should be silent because it is making us a lot of money. Making who a lot of money? Anyway I wrote to a new friend recently about an issue that I have learned about while walking. I thought for the purposes of saving time that I'd post it here. Me mate Dave won't like it but I do appreciate that he seems to be the only one reading this blog so cheers, Dave. Hopefully we can have a beer when I get back and forget about water quality for awhile.

An  issue that I want to highlight is the importation of foreign labour to keep costs down for dairy. The "we're providing jobs" argument won't fly. Firstly, converting a dry stock farm into a dairy farm does not provide new jobs to New Zealanders as the lobbyists like Federated Farmers claim. All this does is change the nature of the work performed. On the one hand, lobbyists claim that they are providing jobs to New Zealanders but on the other they say that New Zealanders won't do the work (we're too lazy) and are not qualified enough. They can't have it both ways. 

The reality is that the industry wants to pay low wages to trained people. If the industry paid a realistic rate, more Kiwis would work in the industry but kiwis don't want to do 60 hour weeks for "$46,246 or $49,159 (including total package value)" (Federated Farmers remuneration report) Even at the top rate this equates to as little as $16 per hour. Why would kiwis do this when they can go to Australia and make similar money labouring for 40 hours a week? If the rates went up to meet the real NZ market value for labour, people would start moving toward these jobs and we wouldn't have a situation where we are bringing in cheap labour while New Zealanders go elsewhere, at least not to the same extent. 

The only reason that we (water advocates around the country) make this point is that the industry use the "we're providing jobs" argument all the time as an excuse for pollution. Also, on the one hand the lobbyists crow about dairy being New Zealand's top bread winner with over $13 billion contribution to GDP. Anyone from the industry who were to read this would then cry foul, saying I want to drive them broke. It's all just duplicitous spin. I don't have an issue with the average farmer making a living, in fact I support them, but this has become a huge corporate gold rush with our waterways as the victim. Ordinary farmers who have been at it for generations will be the victims when this bubble bursts.

Anyway, this whole thing has made me even more jaded than I already was. I'm really tired physically So here's the good: I LOVED walking Hayman Road along lake Pukaki. It is truly one of the most serene and beautiful places I've been to even if it is man made. Mount Cook looks straight down on the lake in it's timeless splendour; I wish I could have stayed longer. In fact, Canterbury has been so far the most outstanding place in New Zealand. Next up, Otago.

Lance Talstra

Friday, 28 February 2014

Best Practice in Mangawhai: A Guest Success Story from Gary Henwood.

My parents bought the land in 2000 and started the fencing of waterways in about 2003.  I am noticing that the regeneration is just starting to take off. There aren't many medium sized plants but there are literally thousands of small plants and new seedlings at the back of their property. Just before we moved here in 2008 I started trapping possums and planting the fenced off areas. 

We've planted around 3000 trees and hope to do another 3000 in the next two years.  We used a number of different species found locally with the majority of what we planted being manuka. It supports both groups of mycrohizzal fungi, provides a lot of mulch and is relatively cheap, making it the perfect choice for native regeneration. We've noticed a substantial increase in native bird life since we started trapping.

We don't use and fertiliser on the land as it is very lightly stocked. Dad used lime and liquid fertiliser on his dairy farm in Kerikeri. His stocking rate was also on the low side. Their production was still high however due to a good breeding programme which resulted in record sale prices when their herd was sold. The main barrier here has just been time. Being a landscaper has helped. The Kaipara council also refunded the money for the fences and these areas have been covenanted. 

I had many more photos of the property but unfortunately a phone fatality has left only this one remaining.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Water Quality at the Crossroads, Half Way Down but a Long Way to Go

The lines are drawn on water quality in NZ. Most people who know me now know that for the last four months I have been walking from Cape Reinga to Bluff in order to generate awareness about water pollution. By the time I reached Wellington I had come to understand, more clearly than ever, that moving our lowland rural areas away from water pollution towards a cleaner future is not high on the agenda for our government or the agriculture lobby. I am actually well over half way down now, having travelled 1930 of the 3054 kilometres that the Te Araroa Trail spans. While in Wellington I had the opportunity to discuss water quality with Connor English, CEO of Federated Farmers and also with Susan Guthrie of the Morgan Foundation's Clean River Awards. These meetings occured within minutes of each other and the stroll up and down Featherston Street was a trip across enemy lines. Anyone who saw Gareth Morgan and Connor English slogging it out over water quality in their televised counterpoint session would understand that the two don't go for beers together after work.

From what I gather, being a CEO is a pretty busy job and Mr English was very generous in spending an hour with me (some scruffy looking random in hiking gear with a backpack) on the morning that he had announced his resignation as CEO of Federated Farmers. Honestly, I had nothing to do with it. I did jokingly suggest that our worsening water quality issue might be too much of a headache to deal with. He shrugged this off casually and commenced to let me know plenty about the Fed's position on this issue before I had a chance to start recording. By the time I managed to get the audio recorder going we were on to the subject of Mike Joy's criticism of the dairy industry. Connor was, in a word, scathing of Dr Joy's outspoken media presence and I started to feel like a kid in the principal's office being warned not to run with the wrong crowd. While he made some good points and seemed a very decent guy, it is clear that the organisation's overriding goal is to push for a situation where the largest possible revenue can be generated at the lowest possible cost; this is not sustainable.

On top of this we have a government that, far from acting to adequately regulate pollution which is now spiralling out of control, is actively pursuing measures (such as the proposed ammendments to the RMA and the National Policy Statement for Fresh Water Management) that will allow for even greater levels of pollution in our waterways. This is not surprising considering that many current ministers have significant investment in the dairy industry. I have made this point already but it is worth repeating: This entire issue is about dollars not sense. The rise in dairy commodity prices driven by foreign demand has got dollar signs in the eyes of those who are charged with protecting our waterways. What is happening is an abuse of a public amenity for private profit. But who can blame dairy farmers for doing what they are entitled to do within the confines of the law? We now need stricter regulations in place regarding land use for dairy farming which control stocking levels and nutrient levels. The current system whereby the taxpayer is left to pick up the clean up bill for "iconic" waterways such as Taupo and the Rotorua lakes to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars is nothing but a wealth transfer. Just today in Te Anau I spoke with an ex farmer of thirty plus years who said what we are dealing with is a "tsunami of s*#t" much of which is coming straight from the mouths of politicians.

Thankfully there is an ever increasing group of principled individuals who are working to combat this situation. I spoke with Susan Guthrie of the Morgan Foundation's River Awards and she was obviously passionate about promoting the positive stories that are sprouting up at the grass roots level around the country. The aim is to grow this initiative so that it becomes a nationally renowned competition promoting health and sustainable use of our waterways. Susan is an economist and we talked at length about the current pattern of externalising the cost of pollution, meaning that the true cost is born by the public rather than the industry. It is thus very encouraging to see that there are a huge number of rural people who are doing their best to improve the waterways in their area and in many cases pressuring those who drag their heels. In some places we are seeing the return of native freshwater fish, macro invertebrates and the larger native creatures such as the whio (blue duck) which feed on them. These grass roots initiatives are growing in number and the hard working people who are involved are to be commended.

Having spoken with people at various levels on both sides of the debate over water quality, I can see that there is some genuine animosity which only seems to be growing. To me the situation grows more and more transparent all of the time. There are many different factors contributing to water pollution in this country; this cannot be argued against. By far the largest and fastest growing source is the dairy industry; this is also indisputable. The fact is, that the dairy industry is our highest export revenue generator due to high dairy commodity prices driven by demand from foreign countries, in particular China. The better the money gets, the more encouragment there is to turn forestry and dry stock land into dairy farms with more than 600,000 additional hectares destined to be converted over the next ten years. Dramatically increasing the size of our largest water pollution source will not reduce pollution and there is no credible way to argue this. The only way forward to a cleaner future for our waterways is polluter pays regulation governing the dairy industry.

If we do take clear, decisive action now to reverse this terrible trend of water pollution in our beautiful country, we can look forward to a future of clean, lowland waterways throughout the country and the survival of our chain of bio diversity that sustains not only iconic creatures such as the blue duck, which graces our ten dollar bill, but a whole host of other creatures. We will be able to swim and fish safely in places like the Waikato and the Manawatu Rivers. Our tourism industry can only stand to benefit from an enhanced reputation and best of all, I won't have to walk all the way back from Bluff.

Lance Talstra,

Still walking for water quality.

Pelorus river heading up into the bush
Lowland stream running through unfenced dairy farms

Saturday, 8 February 2014

A Yarn to Dr Mike Joy, Freshwater Ecologist and Water Quality Expert part 2

When Dr Joy arrived at Cafe Cuba in Palmerston North I was half reading the paper and half anticipating his arrival. When he did arrive he was, with beard and longish hair, looking more like a long distance hiker than me. He was on a first name basis with the staff and got his usual, plus "whatever this scruffy bugger is having." I had the mince on toast. Mike seems to have a naturally jovial nature but this appears partially buried beneath a pile of concern about the state of our waterways and anxiety about the likely future based on current policy moves by government.

When I asked him about the potential impacts of the proposed ammendments to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management his head dropped and both hands covered his face in a gesture of pure frustration. These ammendments would allow a national, bottom-line, median figure for nitrate pollution of 6.9 mg per liter of water. To put this into perspective, the current median level for the Waikato River at Huntly is .355 mg/L, almost 20 times lower than the proposed bottom line. The news gets worse though, in that this median target applies across regions rather than individual waterways meaning that more pristine rivers and streams can bump up the average for the region, even if others have concentrations higher than the required median level of 6.9 mg/L. A particularly potent source of concentrated nitrates is cow urine. We now have close to seven million dairy cattle in New Zealand and the number continues to grow. The average dairy cow consumes up to 100 litres of water a day and produces up to fourteen times the effluent of a human. Some basic arithmetic shows us that dairy cattle consume up to seven hundred million litres of water a day in New Zealand and produce the equivalent effluent of nearly one hundred million humans. This has the dual effect of reducing existing water supplies while increasing nitrate concentrations. Everyone has to make a living but it is pretty easy to see where this is heading.

Dr Joy took the time to explain that while the prospect of toxic levels of nitrogen in our waterways are alarming enough, this is just where problems really begin. Excessive levels of nutrients contribute to a process called eutrophication. Just as nitrogen helps grass to grow, it also fosters growth in aquatic plants. Gradually, excessive plant growth chokes slower moving water bodies and the death and decomposition of plants saps oxygen from the water, causing the area to become unsuitable as a habitat for many animals. New Zealand has a wide array of native freshwater species that require highly oxygenated water in order to survive. Currently, more than 60% of native freshwater fish are considered threatened species and continued loss of suitable habitats due to pollution can only serve to diminish the populations of native species.

Unfortunately, the fate of fish is not of interest to some people but Mike also made mention of real threats to human health due to excess nitrogen entering ground water. He specifically referred to warnings from the Caterbury Medical Officer of Health who recently warned of the potential of blue baby syndrome in the Canterbury region due to high concentrations of nitrates in some rural ground water. While Federated Farmers were quick to dismiss this as "alarmist", a report by the Environment Ministry from 2007 identified that a third of ground water sites tested around New Zealand had high nitrate levels and 20% showed signs of contamination from faecal matter. He also talked about the prospect of high nitrate concentrations in ground water causing damage to the renal system. This is something that needs to be looked at very closely.

Another concern of many people in NZ is fracking. I put this to Mike and his response was "Yes, it may become a serious and widespread problem but we already have a big problem that is growing by the day and it is the increase and intensification of dairy farming." According to Dr Joy there is no magic bullet or any form of mitigation that can offset the vast environmental impact of converting millions of hectares of land into high intensity dairy farms. The Parliamentary Commisioner for the Environment had a similar conclusion in her recent report on the effect of nutrients on water quality with her conclusion that we have reached a classic environment versus economy scenario. It seems that in order to reach the government target of doubling the value of agricultural exports by 2025 there is a high price to pay. 

Upon parting company I noticed that, contrary to what some online commenters say, Mike certainly does not appear to be creaming it with a cushy high paid government position made possible by perpetuating his own reality about water quality. His passion for this country's unique natural environment and frustration at it's continuing degradation sometimes makes him controversial. He is certainly hard working but drives what I think was a slightly beat up nineties Toyota. All in all, Mike seems to be a pretty humble joker.  Funnily enough he actually said "I wish I was doing what you're doing." The sentiment is mutual.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Walking and Talking Water Quality in Horowhenua

The trail from Palmerston North ambles up through a little bush track around Massey University and on up past the Turitea Water Treatment Facility. This is where Palmerston North draws much of its drinking water from. You then walk mostly on the road and end up following the course of the Kahuterawa stream, which winds its way down a long valley, through the hills that rise southward along the eastern edge of the Manawatu and Horowhenua. I decided to camp at the picturesque Kahuterawa Reserve and was, to my surprise, later joined by a group of four other hikers. Laura, Pieter, Johanna, and Emmanuel were all TA hikers as well and it was good to have a chat with them before retiring.

Unfortunately for us, this spot was more popular than we thought and we were invaded around eleven PM (on a Thursday!) by a group of teenagers hellbent on getting absolutely plastered until 5:30 in the morning. I would have gotten up and said something about the noise if it wasn't for the undeniable fact that I've done the same thing myself. We left around eight the next day but not before I played some powerful, yet poor harmonica for our new friends. The Kahuterawa stream is not only subject to noise pollution however and it's lower path is now beset with severe weed and pest issues. Sadly, Manawatu has experienced native biodiversity loss of up to 95%. Apparently there is a joint venture between the Army (who occupy nearby Linton Army base) and Massey University to restore the Kahuterawa stream which was formerly home to large numbers of native fish.

We followed the stream along the road for about forty minutes and found that there was actually another good camping area about 4 km down the track which really ground my gears. I walked on ahead of the others for about three hours of easy road and dirt road walking. When I sat down to see how far I'd come, I was dismayed to see it was a paltry ten kilometers. Still can't understand that one, as I had really been moving. I walked on up through some forestry roads and up to Burtons's track, named for Jim Burton who farmed the area between 1908 and 1941. The area is all regenerating bush now and after about three hours you arrrive at a memorial to Jim, who fell from a suspension bridge that he had built over the nearby stream. Jim broke his leg and sustained other injuries in an eight meter fall onto rocks below. He managed to get back to his whare to feed his dog before making what could only have been an excruciating twelve hour walk along his track for the final time. Jim made it to his nearest neighbour's place but died in hospital shortly after.

That night we camped by the Tokumaru number three reservoir. I found out later that the dam provides water to the Mangahao power station on the other side of the hill which has a pretty impressive white water park nearby. The next day involved a solid bush walk through the Tararua Forest park before emerging onto Gladstone Road. At the corner of Gladstone And Poads Road, Nick Simmons picked me up. I can only describe Nick as a thoroughly good bugger. I have been staying with he and his wife Victoria for the last couple of nights waiting out some bad weather on the ranges. They have been amazingly helpful, friendly and encouraging and I am looking forward to working with them on environmental issues into the future.

Victoria is on the Levin city council and she and Nick have given me plenty of information on the local environment. Also, I got a chance to visit a white water event over by Shannon with them and on top of that Victoria put me in touch with the Mayor Brendan Duffy. We had a chat about local water issues and one of the major challenges in the area is the clean up of lake Horowhenua which is owned by the Maupoko iwi. Between 1952 and 1987 the lake had treated sewage dumped into it resulting in eutrophication. The resulting destruction of the lake's biodiversity is a great shame. Brendan made it clear that the restoration of the lake is a very challenging process partly because there are many parties involved, including Horizons Regional Council, local iwi and the Levin City Council. Another difficulty is that the lake is also being filled by sediment from the surrounding area and in addition, the tributaries that fill the lake have been reduced in flow due to irrigation and other water uses.

It is a shame that we have ruined many of our lakes, but what is more saddening is that many of the processes that have contributed to this type of degradation are still happening and in some cases are accelerating. Based on the Ministry for the Environment's Trophic Level Index for Lakes, of the 134 monitored sites, one third have high nutrient levels or have poor water quality. Some places where people once went on holiday during their childhood such as lake Hakanoa near Huntly ( I believe the Lange family may have holidayed there when David and Peter were kids) are now degraded to hypertrophic levels and are completely unsuitable for any use by humans. While many restoration projects are going on all around the country we are still polluting at an increasing rate in many areas across New Zealand. If you want to change this situation please consider clicking this link to make a submission on the proposed ammendments to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

A Yarn to Dr Mike Joy, Freshwater Ecologist and Water Quality Expert, Part 1

The Horizons region, which incorporates Whanganui and the Manawatu is home to some of New Zealand's most polluted waterways and, seemingly as a consequence, one of our staunchest advocates for clean water. Dr Mike Joy is a Senior Lecturer at Massey University's Institute of Agriculture and Environment and today he shouted me breakfast and answered a few questions about Water Quality. I think that the first time I heard about Mike was after his criticism of the "100% Pure New Zealand" branding. A somewhat annoyed John Key was confronted by Hard Talk's Stephen Sachur, on BBC World, with Joy's views on this slogan, based on his research. Key's dismissal of the facts in this interview were nothing short of astounding. Truth be told, it was after watching John Key flippantly dismiss Joy's research as "his opinion," that I also got annoyed, annoyed enough to walk the length of the country. And now I have reached Palmerston North.

Instead of recording the interview, we had a chat about various issues and a bit of a laugh. I listened and asked questions as I made my way through some tasty mince on toast. While I was in Whanganui I met Horizons regional councillor Rod Pearce who told me that all four major rivers (the Whanganui, Whangaehu, Turakina and Rangitikei) in the region had shown decreased levels of nitrates in the water this year. I put this to Mike and he agreed that this may be true but that this improvement is minimal when you consider that these rivers had extremely high concentrations and had effectively gone from terrible to not quite so terrible. In 2009 the Manawatu quite famously ranked as one of the most polluted rivers in the western world.

The thing about water pollution is that groups tend to deny it is happening or pretend that it is everyone else's issue. I asked Dr Joy if dairy diffuse pollution really was responsible for the majority of the water quality degradation in the area; his response was "yes." He mentioned that he is often criticised for unfairly picking on the dairy industry but asserted "I'm not anti dairy" backing this up by citing some of the other targets of his scrutiny such as the Fielding waste water treatment system, which has repeatedly violated it's consent criteria over the years (so much for 14 times New Zealand's most beautiful town).

When you talk with him, it is clear that Dr Joy's agenda is simply clean water and that isn't surprising given the state of the water where he lives. Now, I'm sorry to quote Wikipedia, and it isn't very scolarly of me, but time is of the essence when you are trying to get to Bluff before Easter. 'In 2011, A report by the Ministry for the Environment ranked 76 New Zealand sites for water clarity and E. coli levels. Using those measures, they found four other New Zealand rivers rate worse than the Manawatu (the Waitara, Whanganui, Waipa and Rangitikei).' That's three of our five worst rivers in the Horizons region.

Much of the Whanganui's pollution problem has arisen from prolific numbers of point source discharges from industry and waste water systems but many of these have been eliminated. What has increased dramatically is dairy intensification in the upper catchments of the river. Removing one source of pollution only to increase another seems ludicrous. We chatted for a while on pending changes in environment law, which will dramatically impact on our environment. While recent moves by Fonterra to fence waterways have been a dramatic step, and Federated Farmers have made big strides to change their rhetoric from "there is no problem" to "there is a problem", the proposed changes to the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management will allow nitrate concentrations to approach toxic levels. This, is in addition to changes to the Resource Managment Act, which will, according to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment," alter the functions of the RMA and erode its environmental protections."  These changes amount to a pollution bonanza and if we are already facing almost universal degradation of our lowland fresh water, where will this lead us? When you consider these alarming facts, Dr Joy's opinion was, unsurprisingly, as dubious as my own regarding a change in industry rhetoric, in that it is more about spinning the issue to soften public opinion, than a genuine intention to change. He points out that if regulations are this slack, then people can't really be blamed for doing what they are legally entitled to do in order to make money.

*There is much more to cover from our conversation which I will publish in a second part of this interview when I reach Wellington in around two weeks time. My apologies to any grammar fiends out there; I am in a rush. Right now the library is about to close and I must go to get groceries and find a place to camp. Tomorrow it's up into the Tararuas! Many thanks to Mike who really is a great Kiwi. Have a look at some of his stuff online.