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.

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