Report exposes 'extremely concerning' lack of dairy farm monitoring

Half of New Zealand's regional councils do not inspect all their dairy farms annually, a new report has claimed. Those regions account for three-quarters of the country's dairy farms.

Forest & Bird released its Cleaning Up: Fixing Compliance, Monitoring and Enforcement in the Dairy Sector report on Monday, and it points to some key failings in how councils enforce environmental protection.

Federated Farmers dairy industry chair Chris Lewis said there are "a few gaps in the system" and the findings are "not good enough". He told The AM Show on Monday Federated Farmers has been encouraging the regional councils to get out there and do on-farm inspections. 

According to the report, there appear to be large gaps when the councils haven't done on-farm inspections. Mr Lewis said these gaps occurred because the councils favoured helicopter inspections over on-farm inspections. 

However, Waikato Regional Council says the report contains information which is "outdated, inaccurate and misleading" and that Forest & Bird should reconsider its methodology.

"It is apparent there has been no peer review of the report from anybody experienced in compliance, monitoring and enforcement of the Resource Management Act (RMA)," said council resource use director Dr Chris McLay. 

Forest & Bird report findings

Five thousand dairy farms went entirely unmonitored in 2017, including 3350 in the Waikato alone, the report says. Waikato has the country's highest number of dairy farms, with 4250 in the region.

Nine of those Waikato farms were seriously non-compliant with rules around effluent discharge, and had not been inspected for more than 10 years, according to the report.

Twenty-five out of 29 farms in their third year of serious non-compliance were in Northland. Ten of those farms did not receive any enforcement action, the report says.

One offending Northland farm had received four abatement notices and eight infringement notices, yet had not been prosecuted.

According to the report, almost two of every five farms found to be in serious non-compliance didn't receive any formal enforcement action. Just 55 percent of serious-non-compliance cases had a follow-up visit in the same year, which report co-author Annabeth Cohen says is "extremely concerning".

"'Serious non-compliance' means serious damage to the environment has either occurred or was imminent. We are facing a freshwater crisis, and yet too many councils are letting farmers get away with breaking the rules," she said.

Forest & Bird has issued each regional council a 'report card' to assess their response to dairy effluence serious non-compliance. Major dairying regions Waikato and Southland were graded F and E respectively.

"When councils don't address poor farming practice, it's unfair to the many farmers who are doing great work and following the rules," Ms Cohen says.

She says the report indicates inconsistencies in how councils protect the environment from the dairy industry, and claims the Government must take stronger action against poorly performing councils.

"Regional councils are supposed to protect our rivers, lakes and wetlands. But when it comes to managing the significant environmental risks posed by dairy effluent, some councils are failing even the basics."

'Inaccurate and misleading'

Waikato Regional Council has slammed the report, with council resource use director Dr Chris McLay claiming it contains information which is "outdated, inaccurate and misleading" and that Forest & Bird should reconsider its methodology.

The council says it gave Forest & Bird the wrong information about prosecutions, saying that there had been none in the 2016-2017 period when in fact there were more than 180 enforcement actions against dairy farms for breaching the RMA - including four prosecutions.

"In an ideal world, we would inspect every farm every year - however that would be a huge burden on ratepayers of the Waikato," Dr McLay says.

"While no one likes to be rated poorly, I am confident we are doing a good job. The Waikato farming sector is well aware that when we find non-compliance, we hold people to account."

In June 2018, Waikato Regional Council announced it would be adopting a more risk-based monitoring programme including aerial inspections from satellite imagery, aircraft and drones.

Forest & Bird has set out recommendations for the Government to address the gaps in the councils' environmental protection, including establishing a ministry RMA oversight unit to properly monitor and report councils' performances.

'Let's give farmers a bit of credit'

National Party leader Simon Bridges told The AM Show on Monday farmers deserve "credit" for the efforts they've taken to clean up their act in recent years.

"If you're a farmer, you should comply with the rules. If you're a regional council, you should enforce them.

"All of that said, let's give farmers a bit of credit - they've spent a billion bucks over the last half-a-dozen years… they're fenced from here to Chicago and back. They've planted more trees than anyone else. They've done the effluent ponds."

Mr Bridges said the country's dirtiest water could be found in Auckland city, not on farms.