18/9/2020

The Government’s recently announced freshwater policy statement has been met with dissatisfaction across the board in the lead up to the election. Campaigners for higher freshwater standards say the new regulations won’t do enough, the leader of the opposition plans to do away with policy altogether and farmers and regional councils say the costs of implementing the initiatives are an additional strain on already stretched resources.

Artist, author and Southland freshwater activist Sam Mahon was well known for his criticism of the impacts of farming on Southland’s streams and rivers. Mahon had used painting, art installations and sculpture as well as community activism to highlight the plight of Southland waterways. In September 2017 he unveiled a larger than life sculpture of former Environment Minister Nick Smith defecating into a glass of water.

National party politicians had typically been the subject of Mahon’s vitriol but he was also critical of Labour’s recent attempts to be seen as tackling the decline of water quality.

“It’s a bit like asking a three pack a day smoker to cut down to two and a half,” said Mahon.

Gen Toop of Greenpeace said that the introduction of a 190kg per hectare cap on synthetic nitrogen would not be enough. In a statement issued in May, Toop pointed the finger at the farming industry and its reliance on synthetic nitrogen in fertiliser.

“Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is wreaking havoc with our rivers and our climate. Not only does it leach into our waterways directly, it props up industrial dairying’s dirty habit of putting too many cows on the land,” she said.

The Department of Conservation’s fresh water strategy revealed that between 2014 and 2018 over a quarter of the 483 groundwater sites monitored failed to meet drinking water standards and more than a third of sites showed worsening trends for nitrate-nitrogen levels.

The same document also warned of shrinking wet land areas due to development and agricultural intensification. DOC’s figures estimated that up to 5000 hectares of wetland had been lost since 2001 observing that, due to incomplete mapping, this figure could actually be much greater.

Despite such assertions National leader Judith Collins said in a press conference on August 26 that the newly introduced regulations would be “gone by lunchtime,” if National were to regain power.

Cam Henderson, North Canterbury president of the Federated Farmers also issued a statement saying that new regulations were unnecessary.

“In Canterbury the new National Environment Standard is simply not needed. Not because we don’t have intensive farming but because our current regional plan already deals with improving water quality in a much more targeted and effective way,” said Henderson.

Southland Federated Farmers president Geoffrey Young had encouraged his members to boycott the regulations. He said the time and costs associated with the new standards rendered the regulations “unworkable”.

The resources needed to comply with the new document meant that two typically opposing perspectives on freshwater had found themselves occupying similar positions.

Lucy Baker, Greater Wellington Regional Council’s manager of environmental science said that she supported the intentions of the new regulations but, like the Southern farmers, the GWRC was unlikely to have the resources to properly implement all the recommendations.

“We’re broadly supportive of the direction and it’s great to have really high aspirations but it’s a lot to put on regional councils when we know there’s not going to be a lot of money sloshing around,” said Baker.

Baker said she understood that policy initiatives that align with public sentiment are likely to win votes but the practicalities behind those initiatives could be a burden after election day.

“I don’t see many Kiwi’s saying they don’t care about water and they don’t care about the environment. There’s a clear mandate from the public. People want to see water ways cleaned up but the big question is how do we resource that? We can’t do this alone,” said Baker.