6 Oct 2015

Council helps farmers dodge nitrogen limits

8:50 am on 6 October 2015

Farmers in Manawatu-Whanganui are getting around tough new rules to cut down on dirty dairying.

The regional council says tighter controls on nitrate leaching under the regional plan are too hard, and it is giving farmers consents that allow them to pollute more.

The discretionary consents last for 20 years and critics say they give dirty farmers an unfair advantage over those who have met the plan's standards.

Organic Jersey cow on a Rongotea farm.

Cow urine is a leading cause of farming-related nitrogen pollution. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The so-called One Plan replaced six regional strategies and made intensive farming an activity that required consent, in an attempt to control the amount of nitrogen leaching into waterways.

But, across catchments where nitrate rules have already come into effect, the majority of farms are yet to apply for a consent.

Just 61 consents have been issued so far - of which only nine have met the controlled standard.

The remainder are restricted discretionary consents that allow far higher nitrate loadings than those set out in the plan.

Fencing equipment on an organic farm in the Manawatu.

At least 52 restricted discretionary consents, which allow more nitrate leaching than would normally be permitted, have been handed out in Manawatu-Whanganui. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Former Tararua Federated Farmers leader Andrew Day said the rules were being interpreted in a way that encouraged dirty dairying.

"It's very obviously incentivised people to increase nitrogen discharge levels," he said.

"Although I've been involved in this process right through, the brutal commercial reality is that I'm advising individual farmers not to get caught with low nitrogen leachings at the moment. It's perverse."

Mr Day said issuing discretionary consents meant targets for reducing nitrogen leaching into waterways were unlikely to be met.

"The overall objective of the plan was to get in the order of a 20 percent improvement in the level of nitrogen in the river over a 20-year timeframe

"But, by granting long-term consents at existing levels of intensity, there's not realistically going to be any great reduction."

The move to grant discretionary consents meant farms which did not meet the controlled targets would have higher resale values, Mr Day said.

"So you have immediate neighbours who have entirely different levels of resource allocated to them so there's a massive wealth transfer between immediate neighbours."

Plan didn't meet expectations - council

The regional council's strategy and regulations manager, Nic Peet, said new modelling for nitrate levels on farms had meant One Plant targets were unobtainable for many farmers.

"It's become very hard to, for a significant number of farms, to meet those targets," he said.

"If you like, it switched the estimate that the majority of farms would be able to meet the controlled activity numbers with relatively little economic impact - to, the majority of farms will probably be unable to meet them without a significant impact to the economic viability of their businesses."

Mr Peet said the One Plan included provisions for the issuing of discretionary consents and farmers would still have to reduce nitrate levels and have a nutrient management plan.

"There's a legitimate pathway to head down for restricted discretionary consents," he said.

"If you reduced from, say, I don't know, from 35 kilograms per hectare per year to 25 kilograms per hectare per year, you might not meet the controlled activity status, but you would meet restricted discretionary consents - and you've done a whole lot of mitigation on your farm to reduce your nitrogen leaching and your nitrogen load."

Fish and Game described the One Plan as a landmark in environmental protection when it was approved.

Its Wellington regional manager, Phil Teal, said opting out of the plan's targets should not be encouraged.

"The restricted discretionary [provision] was probably more as an exception.

"One of the concerns we have is that, if they look at a consent in a generous way, and if they say to the applicant just do this and you get a restricted discretionary, that's going to point people in an easy pathway rather than actually dealing with the issue properly."

Mr Teal said Fish and Game was worried the implementation of the rules and the consenting process was not following the intent of the One Plan.

"We're seeking urgent explanation from the regional council on what the current consenting process is," he said.

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