www.stuff.co.nz 29 April 2106

Critics of Environment Canterbury’s approach to water quality often make three claims.

The first is that although we have, for the first time, imposed limits on the loss of contaminants from farmland, we have also promoted irrigation. This suggests that those engaging in irrigation are in some way exempt from the nutrient limits. That is not the case.

Secondly, it is claimed that ECan is not enforcing its own rules. This is not true either, as I hope to demonstrate.

Thirdly, as a result of the first two alleged failings, it is suggested that ECan is indifferent to the challenge of improving water quality and quantity. Nothing could be more untrue.

Whether our long-term goal should be to make our rivers, lakes and streams wadeable, swimmable or drinkable, to improve Canterbury’s water quality we must reduce the contaminants lost to our water, by changing farm practices. And we must improve urban water quality, by changes in household behaviour that reduce urban runoff.

The Canterbury Water Management Strategy acknowledges the water quality problem in Canterbury and sets out the means to address it effectively.

ECan has made a start – particularly on the task of setting environmental limits. Nutrient limits have been in place since September last year, having been notified in 2012 and taken through public hearings, requiring the resolution of several appeals. It takes time to create enforceable rules, given the important requirements of public processes.

We are now following the recommendations of the Land and Water Forum and our Zone Committees and incorporating into our rules the obligation to follow “good management practices” in areas such as effluent disposal and irrigation. These have been defined and agreed by national industry groups, and the resulting nutrient management rules have been notified and will be the subject of public hearings later this year.

In several catchments even stricter rules than the requirement to follow good management have been recommended by the relevant Zone Committee and adopted.

Critics of the process sometimes dismiss Zone Committees as containing too many farmers. We reject this, but it is interesting to see the committees recommending limits that will require farmers to make significant reductions in contaminant losses, which have then been approved by independent hearings panels.

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Nutrient limits apply to irrigation schemes as well as to individual farmers. The only difference is that some schemes are subject to global, aggregate limits. These are essentially the total that would have applied to their individual members. This gives the schemes and their members some flexibility should they choose to use it. Most have been focused initially on their obligation to complete Farm Environment Plans.

ECan does not have the power or the expertise to tell farmers what to farm. We are however discharging our responsibility to limit the impact of farming on the environment.

And although ECan is not directing farmers as to how they should comply with nutrient limits, there are several ways they might do this. These include:

  •  Adopting good management practices;
  •  Reducing stock numbers, which often improves rather than reduces profitability;
  •  Changing what they feed their animals. Plants with longer roots, such as legumes, absorb more nutrient;
  •  Selecting stock for nitrate efficiency and not just total production;
  •  Wintering off their stock. This spreads nutrient losses over a wider area, in effect averaging losses in the same way that arable farmers will average across their crops;
  •  Adopting precision agriculture, matching water and fertiliser precisely to plant need;
  •  Using herd homes to capture effluent.

Significantly only the last of these approaches involves large capital outlay. The others may well require management changes and the adoption of new skills.

The scale of the changes required is considerable. They will take time. The usual first step is to prepare a Farm Environment Plan, identifying the particular challenges and circumstances of each farm and a plan to meet them, including the relevant nutrient limit. More than 1000 Farm Environment Plans have been completed already. Fonterra, DairyNZ, and the irrigation schemes are all helping. And once the Good Management Practice rules are in place, these plans will be independently audited.

Of course these rules (and others relating to water use, metering and stock exclusion) need to be taken seriously. It is true that ECan does not prosecute many offenders. We see our prime objective as changing behaviour, rather than collecting fines. But we do issue infringement notices, which impose monetary penalties. And we issue abatement notices, which require changes in behaviour. If necessary we will do more of all of these.

Irrigation is also part of our overall strategy. It builds resilience to droughts and to climate change. It’s even gradually improving soil quality. And it’s relieving pressure on groundwater, for example, in the Selwyn Waihora catchment. But those using irrigation and the schemes they belong to are not exempt from the new nutrient limits.

Finally I look forward to the review of our approach that will undoubtedly occur when elected councillors take their place at the regional council table at the end of this year. I am confident that the basic elements of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy, which was agreed before the Commissioners were appointed, will be reaffirmed.

I am equally confident that in the coming years water quality will improve. The next big challenge in this respect lies in our towns and cities.

David Caygill is the deputy chairman of Environment Canterbury.