Muddying the nation's waterways

The biggest problem muddying New Zealand's waterways is not farming, it's  misinformation

Following the success of the Dirty Dairying campaign, and the electioneering around the Dirty Politics book, it could be time for a Murky Water investigation – to shed some light, achieve some clarity and generally uncover some facts.

New Zealand ranks highly in global analyses of water quality. The OECD’s Better Life Index reports that 89% of people say they are satisfied with the quality of their water; the OECD average is 84%. It isn’t clear in the index exactly for what use the water is being considered, and the fact that 16% aren’t satisfied might reflect confusion. The World Bank, for instance, ranks New Zealand 100% for rural population with access to water, as it does for other developed countries. The World Bank also indicates that New Zealand is one of the most water-rich developed countries on the planet. Iceland tops the ranks with 532,892 cubic meters of renewable internal freshwater resources per capita, but New Zealand has 74,230. Australia has 32,023, the USA 9,044 and the UK only 2,292… marginally more than China.

Of course population is the key: very few people live in Iceland, and the same goes for many areas of New Zealand. However, OECD calculations of the total renewable freshwater resources of New Zealand (485 billion cubic meters) and the amount used (5.2 billion cubic meters in 2010) indicates that we are not being efficient in considering water. Certainly agriculture is responsible for 74% of use, and industry 21% (so domestic consumption is approximately 4%) – but overall New Zealand is using only 1-2% of its water resources (OECD figures suggest 1.1% and World Bank estimates 1.5%).

The OECD report Work on Water, released in August this year, aligns water availability with green growth. ‘Good water management can generate huge benefits for health, and for agricultural and industrial production. It can also preserve ecosystems and the watershed services they provide, thereby avoiding the enormous costs that can be imposed by flooding, drought or the collapse of the watershed services.’

The New Zealand government has recognised the importance of water management through the Land and Water Forum, and the Freshwater Reforms, addressing both water allocation and quality of water:

‘The National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2011 requires that councils set freshwater objectives for freshwater bodies that reflect national and local aspirations, and to set flow, allocation and water quality limits to ensure those objectives are achieved. It also requires councils to manage efficiently within those limits, avoid over-allocation and address existing over-allocation. Councils must manage land use and water in an integrated way and involve iwi and hapū in freshwater decision-making.’

The statement aligns with what is being urged by the OECD for Green Growth (August 2014). Key elements of water and green growth articulated by the OECD include institutions and regulations (including allocation regimes) that support the development and diffusion of innovative techniques and water uses, incentives to adopt water-efficient techniques and practices, and the promotion of infrastructure design and financing arrangements that support change in water use and the development of new uses.

With its irrigation funding, the government has been ahead of the OECD – but in the run-up to the election new policies are being proposed by parties positioning in the public eye.

A water use charge for irrigation has been indicated by the Green Party in order to drive more efficient use of ‘precious freshwater resources’. This overlooks the costs of implementation and the opportunity cost of not installing irrigation.

IrrigationNZ has been vocal in explaining that a tax on irrigation, which has been imposed by no other country, will lead to increased food prices and is inflationary. It will also reduce money available for farmers to continue mitigating environmental impacts through new technology and nutrient management systems. “In all other countries’, says IrrigationNZ CEO Andrew Curtis, “irrigation is considered a socio-economic tool and is funded centrally.

"In New Zealand irrigators are already spending billions of dollars of private investment improving our waterways.”

Federated Farmers’ Environment Spokesman Ian Mackenzie agrees. He points out that dairy farmers have fenced off their waterways (Fonterra farmers alone have fenced over 24,000km of waterways; a recent estimate for New Zealand is 45,000 km), “except in Westland where there are unique problems to do with flooding.”

The high-profile launch of the Green Party policy beside a well-meaning farmer and featuring the release of fresh-water crayfish (koura; yabby) was a surprise to many dairy farmers who have already done the fencing and planting. The statement that ‘fencing livestock out of rivers and planting riverbanks has numerous economic benefits for farming: fewer animals in wet areas, lower vet bills, reduced costs for digging drains, weed control in riparian areas and fertiliser costs, increased land values, and better pasture quality’ is naïve – everything depends on the starting point. In addition, many of the ‘reduced costs’ are based on subjective decision.

The worst thing about the launch, however, was the implication that farmers were stupidly dragging the chain because they hadn’t embraced the obvious economic and environmental benefits.

They have, and the remarkable quality of waterways in New Zealand even though agriculture is the export economy, is testament.

The Waikato River, running through heartland dairy country has a nitrate concentration of approximately 0.44 mgN/litre. It is one of the lowest reported by the OECD for 2011; in 1995, 1996, 2008 and 2009 the reported concentration was 0.47, 0.46, 0.45 and 0.47, respectively. In 2002 it dipped to 0.26, and in 1990, the start of the reporting, was 0.40. The Thames in London during that time was consistently over 6 mgN/litre, and home to over 120 species of fish. These fish have returned to a river that was, due to sewerage discharge, considered to be biologically dead at Tower Bridge in 1985.

Phosphate concentration in the Waikato has stayed at approximately 0.06-0.07 mgP/litre since 1990; the last figure for the Thames recorded by the OECD was 0.87 (down from 2.64 in 1990). Other indicators put the Waikato in a similar or better light in comparison with the Thames – and the point is that the Thames is regarded as healthy. Over 120 species of fish concur.

In order to do even better, and across Britain, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has ‘allocated £3.5 billion to rural development schemes, which we believe is a much better way (in comparison with basic payments) of improving the environment and growing the rural economy’.

In this way DEFRA is providing the incentives recommended by the OECD.

Buffer strips (New Zealand terms them riparian zones) are part of the ‘rural development scheme’ and are defined as being next to (or parallel with and on a slope leading to) a watercourse, and having a minimum width of one metre. DEFRA states that there must be no production on the buffer strip, but it can be grazed or cut – that is, animals can be present.

New Zealand with the current dairy industry-promoted policy of animal exclusion is way ahead.

Smart intensification in New Zealand will enable economic development with ongoing improvements to the environment. Taxes are well-known to have unintended consequences and forward thinking about what might happen with policies to restrict water use and make all rivers swimmable has yet to occur.

The waters are simply becoming muddier through electioneering statements; consideration of overseas initiatives, and comparisons with data from other countries, can shed light.