Water quality in rural communities a priority

By Barbara Stuart

Small rural communities are finding strength in numbers ?as they rise to the challenge of cleaning up waterways.
Small rural communities are finding strength in numbers ?as they rise to the challenge of cleaning up waterways.

Primary industry: Farming families in the Aorere Valley of Golden Bay have led the way nationally in their response to a cross industry conflict over water quality. The Aorere River was not a badly polluted river compared to many around the country, however what was different was the presence of aquaculture marine farming in and around the river plume, where it enters the sea.

In 2004 it came as a huge surprise when it was discovered that invisible bacterial run-off from pastures was affecting water quality in the coastal marine harvesting area. This unpleasant discovery led to the involvement of NZ Landcare Trust, who stepped in to aid farmer action and assist with the formation of the Aorere Catchment Group. With this support the dairying community group sourced funding from Ministry for Primary Industries' Sustainable Farming Fund to identify best steps for farmers in the valley, and importantly 'power-up' farmer leadership and knowledge.

The farmers commissioned their own scientific report, identified best farm management practices and developed environmental farm plans. This led to huge improvements for the marine farmers, who experienced a big turnaround in the number of days they could harvest mussels; increasing from 28 per cent to 79 per cent.

Tasman District Council (TDC) has backed this positive result with the findings of their recent Dairy Farm Survey which took place between November 2012 and April 2013. This was prompted by questions from the Marine Farm Industry claiming direct discharges were still taking place. TDC took this prompting very seriously and undertook the review to establish how and where farm run-off was likely to affect shellfish harvest.

The recently published review has been received favourably by both groups and reports the 30 dairy farms with a combined stocking rate slightly lower than the national average of 2.54 cows per hectare is on track to meet the Clean Streams 2013 target. It outlines that 89 per cent of waterways are fenced as required by the Tasman Resource Management plan.

The Council has developed a helpful matrix for gauging low, medium and high risk systems based on soil types. This is a good tool for helping farmers to understand their farms and systems to reduce run-off. Both farmers and Fonterra have been very receptive to the Council's approach.

Aorere farmer and Federated Farmers Golden Bay Provincial President Sue Brown says: "Without the NZ Landcare Trust's whole catchment approach and our Sustainable Farming Fund Project, dairy farmers in the Aorere would have been slated as polluters. The project saved us, we have a model which clearly shows that it's rain events and the flushing and scouring of sediment build-up in waterways from throughout the catchment after the two most recent flood events which has changed the river. Both our industries can now continue to pro-actively minimise risks based on a clear scientific approach rather than fear."

The NZ Landcare Trust continues to work with other pro-active dairy farmer groups at Marlborough with Rai-Pelorus Catchment Group and in Tasman with the Sherry River Catchment Group which is a sub-catchment of the Motueka River. Farmers there were involved in the Motueka Integrated Management Project's study, and undertook to use the 'whole catchment farm environmental plan approach to successfully track improvements.

Sustainable Dairying: Water Accord
This month Dairy NZ launched Sustainable Dairying: Water Accord as the first part of a wider dairy industry strategy.

The Water Accord commitments include:

90% exclusion of stock from all waterways by May 2014, 100% exclusion by May 2017; 100% exclusion from significant wetlands by May 2014.
Stock crossings bridged or culverted by May 2018.
Riparian management plans for all farms by May 2020.
Nutrient management: Farms must supply their dairy company with information that will allow for the modelling of nitrogen loss and nitrogen conversion efficiency. Data collected and performance benchmarked for 100% of dairy farms by November 2015.
Effluent management and compliance: All dairy farm effluent systems must be capable of being compliant with the regional council rules 365 days per year. 100% of farms to be assessed by May 2014.

The following organisations have pledged their commitment to the Accord; Dairy Companies Association of New Zealand; New Zealand dairy companies; Fonterra; Open Country; Miraka; Synlait; Tatua; Fertiliser Association of New Zealand; Ballance Agri-Nutrients; Ravensdown Fertiliser Co-operative; Federated Farmers Dairy Section; Irrigation New Zealand; and NZ Institute of Primary Industry Management.

Barbara Stuart is the Nelson/Marlborough Regional Coordinator for NZ Landcare Trust. Stuart has extensive experience working with rural communities, especially in the dairy catchments across the region. As a farmer herself she understands the issues and challenges that face farmers today, and the need to identify sustainable land management solutions that work from both environmental and financial perspectives.

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