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.