Freshwater: what’s being done in Canterbury?

What’s being done to protect and improve freshwater quality and ecosystem health in Canterbury? What are farmers doing and is it enough? Should we be doing more? And who pays for what needs to be done?

Steve Lowndes Environment Canterbury ChairWe live in an age when each and every one of us is being asked to be aware of our impacts on the environment. Emissions such as carbon dioxide from transport is a big one, single-use plastics is another, burning coal is no longer socially acceptable and copper brake pads need to go.

The farming community has long been in the gun – remember the Fart Tax? Once upon a time, we treated our waterways as little more than drains, a convenient way to get rid of all sorts of waste. This practice has stopped and is now rigorously policed.

We are tackling the cumulative effects of diffuse discharges from intensive farming, principally nitrogen which comes from cows’ excreta as well as from fertiliser.

Our approach for rural land users has been to put limits on the nitrate pollution leaving a farm through groundwater leaching – we use a sophisticated computer model (OVERSEER™) to measure and manage this. We don’t have a mandate to tell farmers what they can do on their land, just what they can release to the environment as a by-product of their activities.

It’s our job to make sure individual farms work within the limits we set – we use farm environment plans, on-farm and audited monitoring to do this. It’s also our job to make sure the cumulative effects of farming will not result in the further decline of water quality across Canterbury – we use scientific monitoring and modelling to do this.

We have prioritised where we need to act – starting with the farm systems causing most of the pollution, and our most sensitive catchments. We communicate directly with every farmer explaining clearly what they need to do, and what support is available to help them. We have the backing of the farming sector, although we do recognise that some individual farmers find the need to change challenging.

We are moving as fast as we can and encouraging farmers to respond. We are not, however, trying to put farmers out of business. We recognise the economic benefits to the region from sustainable farming, and that farmers will only be able to make environmental improvements if they understand what is needed and have the money to invest in better environmental outcomes.

We also recognise that farming is a cyclical business – driven by the weather and markets – and we take that into account.

Most of what is happening in rural communities is not appreciated by people living in cities and towns, but it is sharply front-of-mind for the farmers.

Managing pollution starts with good measurement and good practices

We started by making farmers measure their nitrogen leaching over a four-year period (2009-13). This sets an upper limit for each farm, that they are not allowed to go over. While this ‘holds the line’ and stops things from getting worse – it doesn’t fix polluted waterways in the long-term.

So, the next step was to require farmers to adopt what we call ‘good management practices’, an industry-agreed programme to minimise pollution from nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment, and faecal sources.

The third step – in areas that have high or rising nitrate levels – is to reduce the nitrate leaching over time. This may require land managers to go further than just adopting good management practices, and they may need to look at changing some of their land to a different farm type, make significant improvements to systems, or reduce the number of animals on-farm.

We are ensuring that farmers do what they need to do, through what we call our ‘consent-to-farm programme’. We started in 2017 with the highest impact farms – nearly 1100 farms with more 50ha of irrigation, as well as a small number (23) of farms in sensitive high-country lake catchments.

Nearly all (99%) of this initial group of farms have been contacted by us, and either have a consent-to-farm, or are on-track to get one. Around one-quarter of farms are covered by what we called ‘permitted activity rules’ which simply means they don’t need an individual consent but are still covered by the rules and conditions in the relevant plan.

Each consent-to-farm requires an accompanying farm environment plan (FEP) which sets out how a land manager will address and deal with environmental risks. FEPs are independently audited and we work with those who receive an A or B grade (acceptable) to maintain and improve their performance. We work more closely with those who receive a C or D grade (not-acceptable), which includes scheduling more frequent compliance visits and audits.

This year we have targeted another 320 farms in the South Coastal Canterbury Streams area (Waimate to Wainono Lagoon and surrounds) as well as 451 farms with less than 50ha of irrigation in the Hinds Plains area south of Ashburton (which has high nitrate levels in shallow groundwater).

Progress helped by broad co-operation

The progress we are seeing has been helped by the co-operation of all the farmer sector groups: DairyNZ; Foundation for Arable Research (cropping); NZ Pork; Beef+Lamb; Horticulture NZ; and Deer Industry NZ. The farming sector knows they need to protect the environment, meet societal expectations, and meet the demands of overseas markets for sustainably produced foods.

How do we know all this is working, particularly when our scientists tell us that nitrate pollution and ecosystem health may get worse in some areas before it starts to improve, due to the lag time in pollutants reaching waterways? Although there are many differing opinions out there on the state of our rivers and lakes, what we must rely on is evidence, and we do have quite a bit.

A recent report we commissioned on the long-term trend in freshwater quality suggests we are seeing improvements, particularly over the past five to 10 years. We recognise this is only part of the overall picture – it covers nutrients, toxins and faecal pollution, not the ecological health – but it’s an important part and something we can quite easily measure. The picture around ecological health is not as clear and we need to do more work in this area.

In answer to the questions I started with – there is a huge amount happening to protect and improve freshwater quality and ecosystem health, particularly in rural areas. Farmers are being encouraged and required to improve their environmental performance, but this is just the start. We need to do even more – what we need to do will become apparent as we undertake more science and get better data to measure the state and trends in our natural systems.

What we are seeing today is the result of 150 years of farming on the plains – it will take time, perhaps decades, to see improvements because of remedial action being taken now.

In the past, the environment has paid the price, with declining water quality, a loss of biodiversity and ecosystem health. Today, farmers are bearing a lot of the immediate economic cost to bring about change.