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

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