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If we want to assure our export markets and tourists that we are actually a clean sustainable country, we actually have to prove it, freshwater ecologist Russell Death writes for The Spinoff

If we want to assure our export markets and tourists that we are actually a clean sustainable country, we actually have to prove it, freshwater ecologist Russell Death writes for The Spinoff
Photo: Alex Braae, June 2019. The Spinoff. (This a beef herd, not a dairy farm.)

By Russell Death*

According to some in the agricultural industry, the sky will fall on New Zealand agriculture if the government’s new freshwater policy becomes law. Consumers will no longer have an abundant supply of fresh vegetables and agriculture will cease to exist in parts of New Zealand. There seems to be no mention of the increased health risks both for ourselves and for the farmer’s animals because many nasty pathogens are more abundant in low water quality. My teams research on some of these waterborne pathogens show strong links between the number of ruminants in the catchment of a waterbody and the prevalence of Cryptosporidium and Giardia; while the prevalence of these and other gastrointestinal illnesses seem to be on the rise in New Zealand.

Everyone seems to agree we need immediate action to improve the state of New Zealand’s waterways – just not this! Those in the agriculture and horticulture industry seem set on their current self-regulation strategies, which don’t really seem to be working. Reports annually continue to highlight the poor state of the majority of NZ rivers and streams. Moreover, if they are working, there should not be any concern about having scientifically supported measurable targets for those activities. We all know speed kills on the road, but somehow still seem to need well signposted speed warnings to target exactly how fast we drive on different roads. How do you protect waterway health unless you know what levels are healthy?

If we reject the NPSFM (National Policy Statement Freshwater Management) and stick with self-regulation, I would love to hear an exporter trying to do a deal with a prospective supermarket client. “Yes we have very strong environmental regulations. Ah, yeah not as strong as China. But trust us a couple of farmers in Whaewepapa said they are doing a great job”.

I was always led to believe our economic advantage in the agricultural commodity market was our clean green environment. Not to mention the tourism industry that now surpasses the dairy industry in export earnings. “Come swim in our rivers and lakes, they are better than Chernobyl” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “100% pure”. If we want to assure our export markets and tourists that we are actually a clean sustainable country, we actually have to prove it. The proposed NPS would go some way towards that, bringing in environmental limits for a range of ecosystem measures very similar to what most developed countries have had for years.

One of the real sticking points seems to be nutrient limits. Nutrients are one of the critical stressors of river ecosystems that have been illogically absent from previous versions of the NPS-FM. Most countries, including China, have nutrient limits for rivers because they are one of the fundamental levers for managing healthy rivers. Just as many of us manage nutrients to keep your garden ecosystem healthy.

The new draft NPS FM will provide for the first time scientifically robust limits for nutrients to protect river ecosystem health. There seems particularly concern that a limit of 1 mg/l (rather than the current 6.5 mg/l) for nitrogen in our most degraded rivers and streams is not financially viable for current agricultural practice. I was somewhat bemused at the meeting in Palmerston North to discuss the proposed policy, where farmers were outraged at this dramatic change, when the regions One Plan already had limits of 0.44 mg/l. In fact, only 20% of current dairy land and 10% of sheep and beef land will have waterways likely to be affected by the lower bottom line.

There are some obvious issues in the proposed plan that I do think farmers have reason to feel aggrieved about. Insisting on a riparian setback of 5 m, when many have already fenced off their waterways seems a bit of overkill. Most of the benefit (~80%) to water quality protection comes in the first metre. Although these setbacks must retain the filtering riparian vegetation and thus remain unsprayed.

Sheep and beef farmers, who have had very little impact on water quality, should also feel particularly aggrieved. They are being restricted to extremely low nutrient leaching levels limiting their future options, while dairy farmers, who are the main culprits of current low water quality, retain their future flexibility being “constrained” to their very high leaching. So I can understand their concern. I just hope they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and appreciate that while there are some issues with the proposals putting in place some real environmental limits to protect our rivers and streams is in their long term benefit. We need their submissions to reflect this.

*Russell Death is professor of freshwater ecology, School of Agriculture and Environment, Massey University. This article first appeared on The Spinoff here and is used with permission.

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Perhaps the best thing scientists can do to help achieve better fresh water quality is to be facilitators rather than advocates. If I was a farmer I would be distrustful of any measures put forward by this particular scientist due to the tone of the article. Farmers will have a better understanding of the issues than me, a reasonably disinterested observer, and I'd be more inclined to go along with their view.

Excellent. And top-down, one-size-fits-all regulation certainly does not respect localism or the wide divergence in specific catchments and parts thereof....

BS, I think scientists can be both facilitators and advocates. Any farmer could contact the writer and ask him for help on getting their farm waterways and aquifiers into the best shape possible.
A lot of people want clean, swim-able waterways.
Workers in Agriculture make up 6.65% of NZ workforce but use 42% of the NZ land.

There's money to be made in manufacturing a scare and then advancing yourself as an expert/administrator of indulgences to be paid off. We see this in many many areas of our modern world (Health and safety, various moral panics and many science linked scare peddlers like meth testing, swimming pool water quality etc). But it's just repackaging the same shonky model of fear manipulation and exploitation as was used by the early church.

The real problem with comments like this is that all though sometimes there can be some truth to it, people then apply this blanket point of view to every effort to take any environmental action ever. Any scientist with a point of view of new research..... "oh they are just trying to scare people or full their pockets" A bit silly really.

The problem is that agriculture has no feed back loop to penalize their polluting activities. If my rubbish collection in town was free there'd be a mountain of trash each week, no recycling or composting etc...but I get charged by the bagful so my rubbish heap is small and I recycle and compost to minimise that charge. Farmers should be no different. Prosecute the hell out of them till they change their behaviour.

... it is a point of human nature that we don't respect that which we can use for free ... air , water .. anything provided gratis gets used and abused ...

Hence the frequent refrain from some of us about resource taxes , along with a land tax ...

. . behaviour changes when we have to pay for what we use . .

You refer to rubbish waste - rural people have rules set by regional council about waste. There's a council owned transfer station at our local hall which is free and it is always full to over flowing, so rural people do pay for waste and do recycle and compost. We and all dairy farmers in our catchment have skips for rubbish and use the local transfer station - all of which we pay for - quite willingly too. ;-) Interestingly you don't find them so much on the non dairy farms.
So now, what do you pay for the storm/waste water contamination you cause via council overflows into waterways (that they constantly want consents for so they can continue to 'legally' contaminate waterways).
edit reply to 4th estate

Discharges cheerfully granted include (but are by no means limited to) Lakes Wakatipu, Wanaka, Hawea - tourist 'unspoilt gems' all....

Metropolitain areas are being held to account and going ahead there is to be some big investment in dealing with that. In fact its already been underway for some time, stormwater detention, rain gardens, porous concrete for drives and footpaths to name a few. There is the disturbing case of a local farmer here in the waikato a few years back who stripped out a multistory commercial building that he part owned and over a period of months accumulated it all in a paddock on his farm and set fire to it one afternoon. Office fittings, lino, plastic pipe, carpet you name it. In short order, He got prosecuted by the regional council and good job too. I believe it was a dairy farm...

Of course yes, every driveway in every city, in NZ is being regulated by the CoL to have a porous driveway by 2022 raingardens by 2023 and stormwater detention by 2024. I'm not just highlighting isolated cases and applying them to everyone, not at all.

"The problem is that agriculture has no feed back loop to penalize their polluting activities..."

The problem is MOST CONSUMPTION doesnt have a suitable feedback loop
If farmers (or any producer) has to lean less hard on the environment, they must increase prices through the chain ...
And suddenly the consumer (population wise, a townie) must pay $10 for their coffees, not $5

An economic system designed to maximize consumption and extraction (in the name of standard of living for the masses = townies) is already imploding without this addition to weaken demand

What you are really calling for is "prosecuting the hell out of the consumer"until he pays

Interesting how you define healthy waterways by bacteria counts, then link this to nutrients. What exactly is the link between nutrients and bacteria? My understanding is that septic tanks are responsible for most of the harmful bacteria in waterways, not nitrogen but I'm not an activist so what would I know. Also the most polluted waterways in our country are running through cities and towns not rural NZ but that'd hardly likely to garner outraged votes so I can see why it's consigned to a black-hole.

Nutrients can come from applied fertiliser OR sh*t/urine or both. Bacteria comes out of digestive systems - ie sh*t. One dairy cow sh*t/urine is equivalent to 16 humans. 400 dairy cows = town of 6400 people. 5 million dairy cows is equivalent to 80 million people.
Land area occupied by agriculture is 42%.
86.5% of people live in urban areas occupying 1% of land.

E.coli also comes from waterfowl.....and tourists who take a dump in mountain streams....e.g. Routeburn....nary a Dairy Coo in sight there...and as for Giardia, the Abel Tasman infestation there came from walkers.....

Yes, absolutoootly. oh Deer too

Growing up in canterbury a few decades back there was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth from urban greens about fecal bacteria in a nearby river. Farmers evil! After a few years of the usual green nutters raising hell the source was tracked to a colony of waterfowl that were nesting in the riverbed and the Greens went silent. They are misanthropic religious zealots, like Stalin or Hitler they prosper by singling out and hating on small easily bullied groups of kulaks/jews in the darkly familiar pattern.

They are misanthropic religious zealots, like Stalin or Hitler they prosper by singling out and hating on small easily bullied groups of kulaks/jews in the darkly familiar pattern. decry wailing and gnashing of teeth in the same post that you include such hyperbole as this?

In the times when waterways were clear and swim-able was there not also plenty of bird life? Why is it that we have clear waterways elsewhere where there is plenty of bird life? Not to say that birds don't poop...but Judith Collins' yarning on about birds being the prime culprits polluting waterways just seems so disingenuous.

What are you talking about? The waterways are still clear and swimmable. People are just becoming paranoid about things that were never issues in the past.

I don't think you can realistically compare cow feces to human feces, I'd rather have 1 cow take a dump in my garden than 16 humans, it's not the same at all. I'd like to see what all those urbanites eat when they finally get rid of agriculture.

Russell-some bones of contention- most farmers now have a fair understanding of on farm nitrate leaching modelled per Overseer and expressed as kg/hectare of nitrate/nitrogen.They accept that this is the perceived outcome of their activities. But nowhere is there a link between this figure and the proposed standard of 1mg/litre of Dissolved Inorganic Nitrogen. Confusion abounds. Canterbury dairy farmers have previously been told that a DIN standard of 6.9 mg/litre in local waterways was something they should aspire to so to them a standard of 1 mg/litre seems impossible. Then an M of E spokesman informed the recent Ashburton meeting that the major Canterbury rivers were already below 1 mg/litre! Similarly there is no information in the public domain about the effects of the proposed standard for dissolved phosphate. The proposed 5m setback, 10m when you count both sides of a stream is simply theft by expropriation. It will not achieve its desired effect if sheep are not excluded as they will close graze right to the water's edge. There will be no long grass to act as a buffer.On the farm we had in Otago the set back would have deprived us of about 20 ha, 5% of the total area, cost about $260,000 to fence, and required the installation of a water system and numerous culverts and crossings. All up cost about $400,000, without allowing for an alternative water source and about 4km of power line to enable water to be pumped to troughs. So maybe $600k. As well as the cost of fencing there is the ongoing cost of maintenance, reinstatement after flood events, rates on land not being used and loss of production. In every other situation where landowners are expected to forgo some or all of their property rights for the public benefit compensation is payable. This situation should be no different. On a positive note, setbacks combined with plantings of native species could be an ideal outlet for the billion trees programme. There are many other aspects of the plan that various people find objectionable according to their individual circumstances, I have just mentioned two that come to mind. But how bad are our rivers? or is it just a media/ science beatup? We had three streams and the Taieri River in Otago, and once warm enough they were always swimmable. Now in Canterbury we have two streams and the Selwyn River and they are the same.

Russell please confirm that the 6.5mg/l you quote is for DIN and not nitrate. There is a lot of confusion out there because people are comparing the 6.9mg/l for nitrate with the DIN 1mg/l. Currently no one gives DIN as an indicator in reporting water quality and as you will know N03 and DIN are not the same. It is the first time I have seen 6.5mg/l quoted so I assume it is for DIN?
NZ water quality is already good by world standards. The EU doesn't measure nitrate concentrations smaller than 25mg/l nitrate so at 6.9mg/l (nitrate not DIN) NZs standards are considerably lower than EU.
WHO nitrate guidelines for drinking water is 50mg/l. pg398
Vegetables, is the greatest source of nitrate for NZers. (Which is ironic when one hears about how plant based foods/diets are promoted to be the way forward for the future. Oh, the increase in nitrate intake for everyone ;-)) The reason that vegetable growers are concerned is that they will be producing considerably less vegetables and therefore prices will have to increase to compensate for it. This then puts their industry at risk due to FTAs that allow other countries to send their veg here free of tarrifs, sell it cheaper than the locals cost of production, all the while having laxer environmental/water quality, etc rules than the NZ growers have to meet.

The govt has gone for a one size fits all policy, so why shouldn't sheep and beef be restricted to the same water quality measures that everyone else is. They make up the majority (approx two thirds) of all pastoral land use in NZ. Their issues are more around P, sediment & e-coli. Whereas dairy is nitrogen and in some regions e-coli. Having said that, S&B are in an ironic way, the collateral damage of the likes of Mike Joys anti dairy campaign which only ever talked about nitrogen. In fact the total enviro lobby campaign and this govt has been so much about nitrogen, that no one was really talking about any other water quality indicators. About a year ago Fish and Game in Southland dropped talking about nitrogen and started saying sediment is the biggest issue for Southland waterways. But it was too little too late, given the speed of regulatory change coming, for the S&B sector to really get their farmers educated on it and prepared for some of the changes coming.

With regards to pathogens - the ESR Annual notifiable disease Report for 2017 reports for Cryptosperidium:
In 2017, 1192 cases of cryptosporidiosis were notified, compared with 1062 in 2016 (Figure 5).
The 2017 notification rate (24.9 per 100,000) was significantly higher than the 2016 rate (22.6 per
In 2017, the highest notification rates for cryptosporidiosis were reported from South Canterbury, Nelson Marlborough and Tairawhiti DHBs (62.1, 55.8 and 53.6 per 100,000 respectively) (Figure 7).
Children aged 1–4 years (130.0 per 100,000) and 5–9 years (45.7 per 100,000) had the highest
notification rates. Nearly half (46.8%) of all cases were children aged less than 15 years.
Contact with farm animals and consumption of untreated water were the most common risk factors associated with cryptosporidiosis cases in 2017 (Table 6).
In 2017, 27 outbreaks of cryptosporidiosis were reported, involving 184 cases.
Giardia - DOC has giardia warnings for all waterways in its estate. Referring to the aforementioned report:
In 2017, the highest notification rates for giardiasis were reported from Tairawhiti, Wairarapa, Bay of Plenty, Lakes and Northland DHBs (78.4, 65.2, 45.3, 45.2 and 45.0 per 100,000, respectively) (Figure 10).
Children aged 1–4 years (110.0 per 100,000), adults aged 30–39 years (61.8 per 100,000) and infants aged less than 1 year (36.3 per 100,000) had the highest notification rates.
The most commonly reported risk factors for giardiasis were contact with faecal matter and contact with other symptomatic people (Table 9).
In 2017, 24 giardiasis outbreaks were reported, involving 170 cases.

You gotta love how people who are not in marketing of ag products are all 'experts' on selling NZ provenance from a marketing point of view. By world standards NZ water quality is already very good. All exporters have varying degrees of environmental conditions of supply, which are audited. Fonterra has Assure Quality audit all their suppliers every year and this includes environmental conditions. 92% of Fonterra products has total traceability from finished product back to milk supply. As I don't own animals I can't speak for what the meat processors conditions of supply are.

He lost me at the point he compared us to China.

Russell please confirm my understanding that the water quality limits are intended to apply equally to urban areas and farmland. Could you also confirm my understanding of ‘river’ which I understand is the RMA definition of the river. This is the response from MFE about where the proposed limits apply:

Where no definition is given, (which appears to be the case with the 1 mg/l limit) the definitions are as in the Resource Management Act:

bed means,—
(a) in relation to any river—the space of land which the waters of the river cover at its fullest flow without overtopping its banks

river means a continually or intermittently flowing body of fresh water; and includes a stream and modified watercourse; but does not include any artificial watercourse (including an irrigation canal, water supply race, canal for the supply of water for electricity power generation, and farm drainage canal).

So it seems likely that the 1 mg/l DIN limit will apply to streams and creeks in towns even if they flow intermittently.

We all know what a river is? Maybe not. That’s the pesky detail again. What happens if the stream at the back of your section exceeds a water quality limit? What then?

In mid-canterbury Taylor's stream would be non-compliant with 2-3mg/L nitrates in it. But that is in the water before it even reaches the canterbury plains coming from the bush and mountains of it's catchment. Proposed limit is 1mg/L. Are they going to fine mother nature for being a dirty polluter? WHO sets safe levels at 11.6mg/L, this regime is an arbitrarily manufactured attack by the economically and technically illiterate bullying urban greens on their favorite victims - the kulaks of provincial NZ, living in places they never even visit. If enacted it is going to eviscerate NZ's exports and economy, for no significant benefit. Only the hard left are capable of such sabotage and stupidity.