Special report: The blame game over NZ river health

You would've had to have been living under a high-country rock to miss the nasty war of words between environmental groups like Greenpeace and the dairy industry of late.

Greenpeace won the latest battle in January when the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled one of its TV ads was not misleading or untruthful when it stated: "precious drinking water supplies are being polluted by industrial dairy farming and massive irrigation schemes".

The DairyNZ complaint was one of 12 the ASA received about the ad, and all 12 were rejected - that's a massive win for Greenpeace over the dairy industry.

As Newshub reported in parts one and two of our special investigation into New Zealand's river health, the dairy industry has acknowledged the role it plays in pollution, and its farmers have spent a billion dollars trying to protect waterways from further contamination.

There are other factors to consider when it comes to river pollution.

  • The beef, lamb and venison industries are not regulated to protect waterways.
  • Other land and river-based industries such as milling are key polluters.
  • Invasive species of fish and plants are still a major problem.
  • Climate change is having a major detrimental effect as our waterways heat up.

While it would be easy for Newshub to square up the protagonists in a 'we said, they said' debate, the true facts of the matter are that all New Zealanders are responsible for the health of our waterways, even the great majority of us who live in urban areas.

We all live here, we all eat the food that is grown here, and we all go to the toilet here - it's that simple.

We are all responsible for water pollution

Freshwater ecologist Dr Kevin Simon from Auckland University told Newshub all Kiwis have a part to play.

"We spend lots of time of assigning blame and not enough time solving problems, so we need to focus more on how can we do these things better?

"I think all of New Zealand needs to step back and take ownership of this, it's not just farmers, it's not just the dairy industry, it's all of us that own this problem, and we're all going to need to step up together to try and figure out ways to do things better to fix these systems.

"It's going to take all of us to make some hard choices to do that."

Some of those hard choices will need to be made by people who live in New Zealand's cities. 

City dwellers are major polluters

Just think of the almost 1.5 million people crammed into the relatively small area of the Auckland isthmus and the pollution that causes.

Auckland skyline in New Zealand
Urban areas are major polluters of New Zealand's water. (Getty)

NIWA's chief scientist of freshwater and estuaries Dr John Quinn told Newshub city living has a massive impact on water quality, and we should all be more aware of it. 

"It is very much a 'we're all in this together' issue, but in one sector, the urban-rural split in this is not actually very helpful for people blaming each other.

"There's a lot of things that could be done better inside cities. We could be a lot better at reducing the amount of contaminant that comes off our roofs and off the impervious areas that we have."

Dr Quinn says that city carparks and roads create major pollution, as most do not have barriers, and rain water simply runs off them into the environment along with the contaminants.

Is the dairy industry receiving the credit it deserves?

Dr Quinn also believes the dairy industry has made great strides in recognising and rectifying the pollution it causes, even in the face of increasing intensification.

"I think the dairy farming community needs to receive some credit for the effort that it's put in over the last 15 years, and if we look at the results from those dairy practice catchments we looked at, we have seen improvements in water clarity amongst all of those, [and] reductions in E. coli in a number of them.

"Farmers have done a good job of getting livestock out of streams and improving effluent and nutrient management," he says.

"Giving some people credit for the effort they've put in is a much better way of getting everyone to move forward than just slagging people in a rather uninformed way."

Farmers are at ground zero in the battle for New Zealand's river health

Dr Simon says Kiwis should appreciate what farmers are trying to achieve by reducing pollution in waterways, which has gone largely unchecked since farming began in the 1800s.

"Part of the issue is that the farmers have to bear the brunt but we've got to help them. We've got to help provide them with solutions that are economically feasible and will work. Farmers don't want to pollute, they want to make a living just like the rest of us."

A dairy farm in New Zealand
The dairy farm has quickly become the epicentre of the battle over river health. (Getty)

And Dr Simon believes New Zealand's environmental issues are symptomatic of a global problem.

"We're faced with a growing human population; we're eating in a different way, so more people [are] on a western diet, and the challenge of producing food to support that while minimising the effects on the environment. 

"It's going to require changes to us as individuals and how we eat and what we demand, changes in how we do agriculture, and some technology mixed in with that. 

"It's a tough one."

A short history lesson on farming

New Zealand was the last major land mass in the world to be discovered, and Pākehā cleared 75 percent of its native forests and wetlands to create pastoral farms in the 1800s. New Zealand was essentially founded by Pākehā to create a massive farm to feed Britain.

We now export our meat, wool and dairy products all around the world - and the agricultural, forestry and fishing industries are big players in the New Zealand economy.

Much is made about the number of livestock animals we have in New Zealand to sustain the farming industries - so do we have too many?

Special report: The blame game over NZ river health

As you can see, the number of dry stock animals such as sheep and beef cattle have decreased, while the number of dairy cattle has remained stable at 6.5 million.

Dr Mike Joy teaches environmental sustainability at Massey University and says there needs to be an ideological shift in the way agriculture in New Zealand is run.

"It's not dairy farming per se, it's just the intensity of what we do it in because we subsidise it through allowing pollution, and we add so much to it by bringing in millions of tonnes of palm kernel and subsidising it with fossil-based nitrogen fertiliser and increase the stocking rates.

"Because we've probably trebled the stocking rate by bringing in all this other stuff in, we've created it."

The dairy industry says its farmers are learning fast

DairyNZ water scientist Dr Tom Stephens grew up in the United Kingdom and spent years in the US state of Florida studying that region's problems with water quality.

He believes that although the challenges facing New Zealand's waterways are unique because of its high levels of deforestation,  they can be overcome.

"Every dairy farmer I visit now has their head above water, they have sat going 'alright, what is my footprint? How is that impacting on water quality, and if it is, what can I do about it?'" 

Dairy farmer Brian Gallagher's family has farmed in Patumahoe near Auckland for generations - he's seen massive changes in the way the industry has evolved to help protect the environment.

"There's been huge differences over the last 50 to 100 years and even in the 25 that I've been here, massive differences around animal management, nutrition, but I would honestly say the biggest one would be land management and effluent management."

So it appears that dairy farmers are incredibly cognisant of the issues facing the waterways that run through their properties - and that the much needed change to protect them is indeed occurring.

The real questions though, are these: Is the change, both in attitude and application, happening fast enough - and is it happening with the right amount of intensity?

We may only find out the answers to these questions in 10 to 20 years.