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Now, Let’s See Some Action


31 January 2008


The State of the Environment Report released today carries the blunt message from the Minister for the Environment that the report, ‘highlights the decline in water quality New Zealand faces as a consequence of the increasing intensity of agricultural production.’

“The report is both welcome and overdue,” said Bryce Johnson, Chief Executive, Fish & Game New Zealand. “It is over ten years since the government assessed the quality of our environment, and far too long for a country that relies on the quality of its natural capital to differentiate its products (including tourism) in world markets and define itself as a nation. The report contains nothing new; the declining quality of our environment, the culprits and the solutions have been clear sine the 1997 report and repeated many times since. Now is the time for action”

Water quality
“Action is well overdue to address our deteriorating water quality. The report clearly identifies the decline in water quality in areas dominated by agricultural and urban land use. Both agriculture and local bodies must add more action to their rhetoric. It will be sad if agriculture uses urban water quality results as pretext for inaction. While the median bacteria count in urban streams is higher than the median count on rural steams, the worst rural waterways are far, far worse than the worst urban stream.

“There is no arguing with the findings that agricultural pasture makes up nearly half of New Zealand’s total land area, and the net effect of intensified land use is to increase the amount of nutrients, fertiliser, sediment and animal effluent polluting streams, rivers and lakes.

“The most nutrient-enriched rivers are located in lowland areas surrounded predominantly by pastoral farmland, nitrogen levels have increased most rapidly in rivers that are already in poor shape, and lakes surrounded by farm land has the poorest water quality of all our lakes.

Water consumption
‘The total freshwater take from our rivers and aquifers has increased by 50% since 1999 reflecting the increase in irrigated of 52%. The biggest increase is in Canterbury where water use for irrigation is already stressing both the health of the freshwater environment and relationships between farmers and the general public that depend on clean and plentiful freshwater .

‘This summer many rural and urban communities are seeing first hand declining water quantities and the poor quality of the remaining over-heated nutrient rich surface water. The consequences of a changing climate are aggravated by increasing abstraction and pollution of the remaining water. There is now an urgent need to get the mix right between water use for economic development and maintaining healthy waterways.

Land use
“A huge chunk of our GDP depends on the top 15cm of our soil, and the report addresses two main areas of concern. As an example of mismatched land use and land capability, the use of steep erosion-prone hill country for grazing results in slips resulting in the accelerated sedimentation and nutrient pollution of streams and rivers, further degrading water quality, and the downstream erosion debris causes rivers to become filled with silts and gravels, increasing the risk of flooding. And, in terms of soil health, changes over time include nitrogen build-up in some dairy pastures, coupled with high levels of phosphate.

What needs to happen?
“The good news is that there are examples of improved water quality following simple remedial action. Where action is taken, water quality has improved. Examples include waterways on the lower Taieri Plain following the cessation of direct discharge of dairy effluent into drains, the riparian planting scheme in Taranaki where 60% of dairy farms are covered by riparian plans, and the decrease in phosphorus in rivers with high levels of this nutrient since a peak in the 1990s may be due to improved farming practices. In some cases, farmers have the right to be proud of their progress.

“Today’s challenge is the same as that articulated 10 years ago in the 1997 report; “… the more difficult and pervasive problem of non-point source discharges has yet to be addressed and will require changes in land management.” Today, this primary pressure remains from increasingly intensive agriculture and urban land use where increasing pollution from non-point sources such as diffuse run off from pasture and paved surfaces poses the greatest challenge for water management on New Zealand.

“The bottom line in relation to agriculture is that New Zealand as a whole must insist that the various primary production sectors individually commit to the adoption of a mandatory requirement for environmentally sustainable world best practice in terms of their production systems, by an agreed time, with milestones and consequences for non-achievement, at both the company or sector organisation level, and the individual supplier level where such a differentiation in relevant. Markets will demand verifiable environmental sustainability.

At Government level
At the central government level, Government must put the “action” back the into the Sustainable Water Programme of Action and get the associated National Policy Statement and National Environmental Standards in place and operative, introduce a moratorium on large irrigation proposals until the NPS and NES are in place and operative, and provide the leadership by facilitating a collaborative process involving both industry, primary sectors and environmental groups together.

At Regional Council level
At the Regional Council level, rigorous and effective application of existing law by applying the RMA as parliament intended, take a precautionary approach, and take responsibility to protect and enhance the natural environment on behalf of all ratepayers, not just rural ratepayers.

In the Board Room
In the board room, primary sector companies and organisations must take responsibility for their suppliers’ and producers’ environmental footprint, and establish real and effective proscriptions against poor environmental practice in their respective sectors, promote real change in land management, as was previously signaled in the ‘Growing for Good’ report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

Some primary sector organisations are already working to ensure good environmental practice. Of note is the NZ Forest Owners Association with their mandatory code of practice. Other primary sectors such as some Horticulture and Deer farmers have also developed strong codes of best environmental practice. The dairy industry is notable for its lack of mandatory, measurable and enforceable environmental standards, and the dry stock industry has barely begun. In this regard, it is pleasing to hear the Minister say that regulations will be required to underpin a faster move to environmentally sustainable agriculture.

On the Farm
On the farm, farmers must simply take greater personal responsibility for their adverse environmental effects, and apply some peer pressure to those colleagues who are resisting change and letting the side down..

In our Towns
The very poor state of urban waterways raised in this report is a wake up call to all Kiwis; both local bodies and the general public must make healthy freshwater a priority.

We know what the problem is, we know what the causes are, and we know how to fix it. What will you say to your grandchildren when they ask, “what did you do to protect our environment?”


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