28 May 2020

Ecologist responds to new water rules

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:17 pm on 28 May 2020

The Government has just announced it will implement new rules to improve freshwater quality, along with measures to ease the financial impact on farmers. 

The policy includes plans to temporarily block further intensification of agriculture, require farmers to keep stock out of all waterways more than 1m wide, and a cap on the use of synthetic fertiliser. 

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Photo: supplied

It also includes new rules for health standards at popular swimming spots and for urban waterways to be cleaned up. 

But Victoria University of Wellington fresh water ecologist Mike Joy says the plan leaves a lot to be desired.

“I like a lot of the rhetoric that’s in there, I like the words in it but there’s some really big problems with the implementation of it,” he told Jesse Mulligan.

“I was part of the technical advisory group that advised the minister and it’s pretty gutting for me to see that the sort of limits that can be applied have been left out.

“And so what’s in there sounds great but to the discretion of the councils to apply it, and so we know from history that they’re pretty hopeless at doing that.

“They’re easily swayed, they’re political organisations and they don’t make the tough decisions.”

The caps on the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser do not go far enough, he says. The plan proposes limiting the use of synthetic fertiliser to 190 kilos per hectare per year.

“That’s an incredibly high rate of fertiliser application, it’s like saying to someone smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a day, we’re going to make you cut down to two and a half packs a day as if that’s going to help the situation.

“Like cigarettes it’s totally unnecessary. The important thing for people to understand is synthetic nitrogen fertiliser it’s made out of fossil fuels …. So, we’re making milk out of fossil fuels.”

This wasn’t always the case, he says

“Think back a few decades we didn’t have this, we fixed nitrogen through clover in our pastures naturally and we had a natural product.

“Then along comes this industrial process … and it’s very debateable whether you gain much out of it anyway. And that’s the driver of these problems.”

The urban waterways were identified as a problem in the new rules and Joy agrees they are a problem but represent a small proportion of total waterways.

“The urban waterways are shocking. But I need to make it clear right here that less than 1 percent of the length of the waterways in New Zealand are in urban catchments. So yes, we need to do a lot, and a huge part of that problem is run down infrastructure.”

Some 150 waste water treatment plants in New Zealand discharge to fresh water, he says.

“There’s a huge failure there and it’s an infrastructure problem, it’s a shovel ready infrastructure problem, but it’s not a sexy one.

“Run-down of urban infrastructure is a key reason for urban water quality problems and I don’t see that highlighted in there.”

Reducing the pollution at source rather than cleaning up later should be the focus, he says. The new rules flag $700 million for riparian planting.

“If you spent that money on reducing the pollution then you would have a permanent win, this is mopping up at the bottom while you’re polluting.

“So you can just keep spending money forever that kind of thing.”

Farmers have been paid not to farm intensively in catchments for Lake Taupo and Rotorua, he says.

“We tax payers, and a bit from rate payers, are in the process of paying farmers not to farm intensively, not to have intensive dairy on those catchments to protect those two lakes.

What it does is it stops the nutrients getting in there and then the lakes can recover.”

Planting trees is the equivalent of an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff, Joy says.