Opinion: Time to put past grievances over water aside

  • Opinion
  • 05/02/2019

By Darryl Sycamore 

OPINION: Growing up in Southland and Otago offered me the luxury of working on numerous farms. Everything from high country in central to arable cropping in northern Southland. 

What I learnt is most farmers treat their land like a multi-generational family heirloom, because that is exactly what their farm often is. You can't make your living from nature and then abuse it. As technology becomes available and science advances most farmers pick it up and respond by improving their practices. 

A lot of farmers see their relationship with the land, and greater environment, as very much aligned with the idea of guardianship.

Farmers don't wake up every day thinking how can I annoy my local community? How can I put the environment at risk? They get up, look at the land they have to manage, and with the access they have to education and tools, go about meeting and in places exceeding expectations of environmental management. 

But every industry has bad apples. Every single industry.  Farming does try to wheedle them out. You just have to look at Federated Farmers' dairy chair Chris Lewis' recent statement on anyone who abuses animals.

Farmers and the rural community are among the most genuine, down-to-earth people you can meet. As Kiwis we have long been encouraged to be humble, and collectively we have a habit of downplaying our achievements. 

Having joined the Federated Farmers team almost two years ago, it has been an eye-opening experience at times observing the lack of public knowledge on water care both in urban and rural environments.

Towns throughout Otago and Southland leak human waste into our rivers and little seems to be set up to prevent urban authorities from polluting waterways they're charged with protecting. They're very happy to take your rates money though. 

Try asking a local councillor how many times in the last year human waste from your town was discharged into a local river or lake. Even better, lodge a Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act request. 

One exception however was the Queenstown Lakes District Council, who in 2018 was prosecuted for the discharge of 43,000 litres of polluting human sewage, toilet paper and "other products" into the Kawarau River. 

Even more alarming, the judge in the court case noted the wastewater system had been "deliberately designed and constructed" by the council so any overflow would go into the storm-water system and ultimately the Kawarau. Unfortunately, many of our towns' infrastructural networks are designed for deliberate overflows during rain events.

Just last week we had areas of Lake Wakatipu closed for swimming due to elevated levels of E. coli, at concentrations three times the maximum Government guidelines. 

Further water sampling confirmed the E. coli levels were from avian sources, presumably from the ducks that call Lake Wakatipu their home.

Recently Fish & Game released the findings of a poll they commissioned that confirmed most Kiwis want good water quality. Who doesn't? How weird it would have been if anyone said no. 

What would be interesting is a poll on whether the trout, ducks, Canada geese, ferrets, stoats, weasels and rabbits Fish & Game's predecessor introduced to New Zealand should be eradicated. The impacts of these animals on our indigenous biodiversity simply cannot be overstated. Have you seen a wild Kakapo lately?

Now I'm not saying every farmer has it right, but most are actively investing time and significant capital to improve their farming system. 

Farmers know they have a role in managing our rivers, improving biodiversity and managing those pest species that were introduced with little consideration of the consequences. Farmers also know the lowest water quality in our rivers is usually found downstream of urban environments.

All interest groups need to collaborate and find solutions. Both rural and urban communities are impacting on water quality. 

It is time to put past grievances aside and have farmers, councils, environmentalists and Iwi work together. 

Darryl Sycamore is a senior policy advisor at Federated Farmers.