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Speech: Achieving better lake water quality

Gifford McFadden

President of Rotorua/Taupo Federated Farmers


Lakes Water Quality Society Symposium - Rotorua

Achieving better lake water quality together

Establishing common ground
Farmers, just like the people here at this symposium today, enjoy swimming and fishing in rivers and lakes. Farmers in this area have baches on the shores of the lakes, use their boats and kayaks on the water; they swim and they fish just like you do.

I’m Gifford McFadden and I represent Federated Farmers. I am a local dairy farmer and recreational user of lakes in the area. As a dairy farmer I support the voluntary Clean Streams Accord. I have fenced off large areas of my farmland, retiring these for the improvement of water quality in my catchment of Reporoa.

Let’s remember New Zealand’s position is not all doom and gloom. New Zealand farmers, because of their grass based systems, have a very low environmental footprint. This is supported by a 2002 OECD report rating New Zealand water as third best after Norway and Sweden.

To give you a localised example of the effects of agriculture on water quality let’s look at the Waikato River after it has run through the biggest dairy catchment in New Zealand. Environment Waikato monitors the water quality of the river and results at the Tuakau bridge show that the nitrate and phosphate levels are low by world standards. In fact the water quality is so good that Auckland city uses this water for drinking with minimal treatment needed.

Even though we have good world standards there is always room for improvement. I want to assure you to today that, like you, farmers care about the environment. Like you, they want better water quality. I would also like to assure everyone that farmers remain committed to creating a clean and pristine environment.

Clean water is essential to farming businesses. Farmers are passionate about their farms and need to use their resources effectively and efficiently.

I believe there is common ground and we are not as far apart in our goals as is sometimes portrayed. Let us look at how we can work together to achieve what everyone wants: cleaner water.

First let me tell you about some of the things farmers have been doing.

What have farmers done so far to improve water quality?

A local example is a joint venture between Rotorua/Taupo Federated Farmers and Te Arawa Federation of Maori Authorities called the Rotorua Land and Lakes Trust.

This partnership was formed four years ago to focus on what the owners of the land in this catchment can do to improve the local environment. The trust’s aim is to have clear lakes and a prosperous community.

Initial findings were that nearly all the time, money and research up till then had been used on identifying problems and developing regulations, rather than on developing sustainable solutions.

The trust set up its own research projects to work towards finding practical solutions.

The trust was funded by the Sustainable Farming Fund and Sustainable Management Fund from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the Ministry for the Environment.

These monies and our time and resources have been put towards research with the aim of finding solutions. The following are examples of research conducted by NIWA and AgResearch.

Experiment One

The straw bale experiment

This experiment was designed to slow down water flow and filter out phosphate in dry water courses – where water only runs in times of heavy rain.

Unfortunately hay bales were used instead of straw bales; apparently only farmers know the difference between straw and hay.

Straw would have lasted a year or two. But the hay bales were rotting within weeks and released more phosphate into the water then they captured.

Wooden sills
In the same experiment second time around, the researchers used a wooden plank to make a level sill to dissipate the water over a large flat area. This reduced the water velocity and was highly successful at reducing phosphate loss from the catchment.

The work on this concept is still continuing and I will cover it in more detail later on.

Experiment Two

Grass filter strip

This is a modification of the wooden sills experiment. The aim is to have a very simple process that farmers can implement at moderate cost. The concept is to again slow the water down and filter out phosphate and sediment from any runoff. Farmers know from practical experience that the grass filter strip concept works but we need to quantify the results.

Work on this project continues.

Experiment Three

Nitrogen trials

These trials looked at three wintering systems used by dairy farmers. Nitrogen loss can be highest during the winter grazing period. Researchers studied the effects of three farming practices.

Wintering systems are the way farmers graze their cows over the winter season.

The first system is grazing cows on the farm. The second system is wintering cows off the dairy farm. The third system is using nitrogen inhibitors to reduce nitrogen loss

Results showed wintering off farm has a positive effect but transfers the problem to another catchment. Use of nitrogen inhibitors can have a positive effect but the results are variable depending on rainfall, soil temperature and soil type.

Experiment Four

Watercress project

This trial is ongoing but after a year it looks very promising. Stream water is passed through troughs that are growing watercress. The growth of the watercress uses the nitrogen and phosphate from the water, effectively taking the nutrients out of the water. Results show watercress removes up to 60 percent of phosphate and nitrogen in summer.

These findings are based on a year’s data so are preliminary and have to be confirmed with further testing over the next two years.

Well that's some of the work the trust is doing. Elsewhere, another research project initiated by Federated Farmers and funded by DairyNZ and Meat & Wool New Zealand is farm benchmarking.

All dairy farms in the Rotorua catchment and three sheep farms had full nutrient budgets (Overseer) and economic analysis done. This benchmarked the current practice and then looked at the options available to farmers to allow practices that could reduce nitrogen loss. There were 12 practices including wintering off, nitrogen inhibitors, optimising stocking rates and optimising effluent disposal areas.

The environmental and the economic effects of any change were analysed and reported back to farmers, allowing farmers to look at the various options that could work for them.

These are local examples but nationally dairy farmers are also looking at a strategic approach to managing phosphate, nitrogen and bacteria losses from farms.

DairyNZ has a strategy for environmental research that is a direct investment from dairy farmer levies. It is more than $8 million annually.

Barriers to farmers using technologies
The barriers for farmers adopting these options and technologies are often the regulatory environment that some regional councils are implementing. Current regulation such as Rule 11 in the Rotorua catchment and Variation 6 in the Taupo catchment are causing uncertainty for the future of farming in these regions. Farmers are hesitating to invest in new technology that costs money because they don’t know if they be able to continue farming, let alone recoup their investment costs.

It would be like you purchasing a new Range Rover 4WD and then a law being passed saying you can only use it every second day or you will have to sell for half of what it is worth and trade down to a Smart Car.

Today’s symposium is about further regulation. Federated Farmers' view is that ill-conceived regulation will not achieve the community’s goals. Federated Farmers believes there is a better way and the community must identify sensible and effective solutions before regulation is contemplated.

What has been proposed here today are regulations not solutions. Federated Farmers predicts the result will be inappropriate and ineffective regulation that discourages farmers.

The unintended consequences of these regulations are that technologies and solutions will not be adopted to the same extent than if a facilitative environment is promoted.

Anybody who has watched reality TV and those nanny programmes know that good behaviour should be rewarded and encouraged. And works far better than shouting or smacking.

Federated Farmers says encourage and praise good environmental practice, and make it easy for farmers to achieve these environmental outcomes.

What will farmers be doing in the future?

Farmers want to focus on solutions, but to do that they have to have confidence in the regulatory process.

Farmers will always push for an ‘adequate’ cost benefit analysis of any proposal to ensure that the net effect is of benefit to society. For example, any solution will cost money so a positive result is when the benefits are greater than the costs.

The trouble, however, is more often than not any solution costs the individual and the whole community benefits. There is a fine balance between recognising individual and community costs and individual and community benefits. Acceptable solutions are ones that have an overall benefit without creating another unfairness.

All too often when the word sustainable is used, economic and social wellbeing is forgotten and this just slows the process of achieving acceptable solutions that have that benefit after cost.

Farmers believe the following areas are where the solutions to environmental problems will be found. These are not in order of importance.

Continued modifications of farm systems (wintering pads and high sugar grasses): Modification of farm systems will continue to lead to positive effects on the environment. How much improvement will depend on what is already being done on the farm. However, the barriers to farmers adopting these technologies need to be removed.

Animal biology – reduction of nitrite in urine: AgResearch is working on animal biology to reduce nitrogen in urine. The research is still many years away from completion. Genetic modification of rumen bacteria may allow faster development in this area.

Phosphate movement over ground and in water: At present the focus is on nitrogen but phosphate is 10 times more likely to stimulate algal growth. The trials mentioned above as well overseas research show that reducing phosphate input into the lakes should be a priority. Phosphate moves primarily in the surface water so is much easier to manage than nitrogen.

Stream attenuation - active management of riparian areas: More research is needed to look into the planting and harvesting of streams and banks so to effectively remove nutrients. Our trials show there are many areas that have not been fully explored. Fencing off waterways and then not managing them is almost as bad as not fencing them at all. I am sure you know of examples of riparian areas covered in blackberry. Blackberry does nothing towards improving water quality as it has no low ground cover to filter the water. Planting the right type of plant and actively managing the area is the key to this solution.

Further nutrient harvesting: Trials with watercress point toward some very cost-effective and efficient methods of taking nutrients out of the water. Small, well-managed wetlands where plants are harvested may solve many problems as the plants remove both nitrogen and phosphate.

Soil biology: Some evidence suggests that if the depth of topsoil is increased, plant and animal life in soil will not only reduce nutrient loss but also have a huge benefit in carbon sequestration. In theory this should have a positive effect on carbon balance and improve water quality. More research needs to focus on the benefits of increasing topsoil and methods to support this solution.

Farmers will continue to take results of scientific information and incorporate it into their farming systems. However, farmers will need to have confidence that the investments are not wasted by regulations preventing viable farming.

In-lake actions
Farmers, like the rest of the community, want in-lake actions to be evaluated based on effectiveness and likelihood of success. Examples of this are aeration of bottom lake waters; dredging; and capping the sediment.

Oxygenation of lake waters is a proven and effective way to solve problems of algae blooms. There are many aeration methods employed around the world. Some of this technology is becoming very cost-effective and could be used to improve our lakes. The German technology that maintains oxygen in lower water levels looks very promising and indications are that it could be successful for Lake Rotorua for a capital cost of less than a million dollars.

Sediment capping and/or dredging of Lake Rotorua
Sediment capping and/or dredging technologies are to deal with the legacy of grandma and granddad’s poo.

A full analysis of these options haven’t been made available to the community. Solutions as cost-effective as these need to be taken seriously by decision-makers and fully and openly evaluated.

Surely it would cost the community less to employ solutions like these than close down every dairy farm in the catchment?

Farmers advocate for robust processes and full disclosure to have confidence in the outcome. I am sure you will agree we all want to have the maximum effect for the limited money available.

So how can we all work better together to achieve improved water quality?

As owners and managers of land resources, farmers believe a partnership approach is the only approach that will be sustainable in the long-term.

Regulations in district and regional plans need to be flexible to ensure the best land is kept for food production and income for New Zealand while at the same time allowing for land use change that has improved environmental and economic outcomes.

Farmers are willing to continue engaging with planners and policy people for sensible outcomes. As this speech has highlighted, there are many and varied potential solutions. What is needed is an analysis of all the potential solutions available to reduce algae growth in the lakes and rivers. The analysis cannot be limited to just phosphate and nitrogen loss from land but all options to find the best things to target.

A full cost-benefit analysis of all potential options needs to be carried out in full consultation with the resource owners.

From the analysis will emerge a list of the most cost-effective and efficient solutions that maximise benefits to society.

The next question that has to be asked is: how much can the community and the country afford to pay? And what are the resources available to pay for the work?

The only study that Federated Farmers is aware of that asked local residents how much they are prepared to pay for improvements in water quality is the Nimmo Bell report on improving the water quality in Lake Rotorua. The community answered $18 per household per year or 35c per week. This issue will need looking into further but it must be appreciated that communities do not have unlimited resources

With a robust and open processes to find a range of solutions, the whole community could have confidence to move forward together to achieve the outcomes we all desire.

The outcomes must be community solutions, with shared costs and benefits. The community can continue to prosper and the lake water quality is improved.

Let’s stop facing off, instead let us work together for solutions. We want the most cost-effective solution in the shortest timeframe.

Federated Farmers asks that before regulation is considered, the full extent of solutions discussed in this speech is acted upon. Regulation should be used to bring the tardy few into line. Federated Farmers is confident that an approach focused on solutions will have the best outcome for the whole community.


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