Manawatu Water Quality Issues

April 2012

Water quality issues and farming concerns are discussed in Manawatu

Water quality in the Manawatu has been the subject of sometimes bitter debate – brought about by attempts by Horizons Regional Council to address a decline in the quality of rivers and streams in the catchment. Scientist Mike Joy takes us for a look at some of the water quality issues facing the region.

Water is an increasingly hot topic in the rural landscape. Behind the headlines there is both anxiety and a lack of information about the way we are managing one of our most precious resources.

Mike Joy is a senior lecturer in Environmental Science at Massey University and an outspoken critic of dairy pollution of rivers . He is the scientist whose research was quoted to Prime Minister John Key during an interview on the BB, where NZ’s 100% pure image was challenged.

Mike Joy applauds the improvements dairy farmers are making, but says they are caught up in the crazy industry drive to produce more and more milk. Despite the farmers’ efforts, rivers, lakes and groundwaters are getting dirtier. He says dairying is intensifying, environmentally sensitive land is being used, more cows are being milked, more fertiliser is being applied and more supplements like palm kernel extract are being used.

Mike says that the main message is that economy is more important that environment. He feels that the consenting process is one sided in favour of the farmers. He says the only part of intensive dairy farming that has to have a consent or has a condition or a limit placed on it, is what happens in the cow shed. The effluent that’s collected while cows are being milked has to be part of the consenting process but Mike says that’s only a small proportion of what the cows actually produce.

He says the community response is that the topic is too hard – that we can’t afford to deal with it so let’s do some more monitoring. Mike says our rivers are like a person who is morbidly obese. He feels that a significant part of the problem is that as a community, we have allowed development beyond the capacity of the land and rivers to cope.

As far back as 2004, the publication “Growing for Good” – a report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment – said that water quality in areas of intensive pastoral farming was poor. The report said water quality was declining markedly in pasture dominated catchments. It pointed out that many rivers draining farmland were unsuitable for swimming and that groundwater in aquifers that exist under pastoral farming areas have nitrate levels that sometimes exceed drinking water standards.

The Land and Water Forum pointed out in its report in April 2011 that NZ’s water quality and availability is deteriorating. The report said that a central difficulty is that as a nation “ we have found it hard to set or manage limits. Without limits it is hard to manage diffuse discharges (nutrients, microbes, sediment and other contaminants that wash into water from the land) and impossible to deal with the cumulative effects on water bodies of water takes on the one hand, and diffuse and direct discharges to water on the other”.

Mike says there’s been a confusion of publicity around the real status of NZ ‘s waterways. One overseas study ranked NZ second best in the world on freshwater – but that study was not undertaken by scientists and misinterpreted NZ data. Mike says a more recent and more reliable scientific paper ranking 189 countries on their environmental performance (which included water quality) put New Zealand 18th from the bottom.

Mike feels government and local bodies aren’t being tough enough on pollution. He says it is a bit like stopping speedsters and dealing to drunk drivers – media campaigns, fines, speed cameras, breath testing -all these tools were brought to bear on that problem. He wants a similar emphasis brought to the pollution problem. He’d like to see a halt on further intensification which would allow technology and improvements to catch up.

Mike says most farmers don’t realise how serious the pollution has become. “Half of our lakes are stuffed and 90 per cent of our rivers don’t meet bathing standards.”

He acknowledges that farmers are not to blame on their own but have been put together in a group. He says farms are having a big impact.

Mike says regulations to prevent Lake Taupo’s pollution getting any worse are a good guide for the rest of the country.

He says there are restrictions in place reducing cow numbers to 0.5 cows per ha (one cow every 2 ha) and although he’s not necessarily advocating that for the rest of country, reckons there are many areas of the country where dairy farms are carrying far more cows that than the land can manage. (The obese person analogy again).

He says most of the pollution occurs through the ground water and it is impossible to halt short of de-stocking. He accepts that such restrictions would mean less milk but not necessarily less income.

Rule changes would be the encouragement the dairy industry needs to shift into producing value-added products. He also says that the argument that a downturn in milk supply would harm the economy has been proved wrong.

A National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research scoping study on the Waikato River published a year ago showed the cost of cleaning up the river was almost exactly balanced by the economic stimulation that work would have for the region.

The Tararua DairyLink project was launched in June 2011 and involves three dairy farms in the Tararua region. It was set up in response to concerns from the Manawatu Regional Council (Horizon) about dairying’s impact on the water quality in the catchment. It aims to demonstrate farm practices that are efficient use of resources – reducing environmental impacts but also improving production and profitability.

Part of DairyLInk is setting nutrient management plans for the farms. The idea of the project is to try and come up with better nutrient management systems. The three farms in the project have soil test information, fertiliser history and a record of the nutrients being applied via effluent spreading.

The project is also looking at riparian planting.

Overall the project is aimed at helping farmers understand the opportunities and limitations of the natural resources on their properties – like soils, waterways and livestock.

One of the farmers involved says the main idea is to help bridge the gap between the theory of environmental responsibility and what happens on-farm, where productivity is a key driver.

He says they all agree on the need to continue to progress in different parts of the industry to achieve a better outcome.