Change is daunting, uncomfortable and challenging but it is also inevitable. Nothing remains the same and it requires strong, skilled and sympathetic leadership to guide people through change with a minimum of fear and disruption.

Unfortunately, when it comes to cleaning up our waterways and protecting the environment from further harm, some sectors of the farming community fear any change to what they are doing.

Add an election into this already volatile mix and fear-mongering politicians are all too ready to leap in and exploit farmers' fears for their own ends - anything goes if it gets a vote.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the election campaign meetings held in the northern Wairarapa and Manawatu regions.

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Newspapers have been filled with lurid tales from the hustings, liberally highlighted with fear-inducing headlines starkly warning that having clean rivers will mean towns are "smashed" and farmers "ruined."

And yet nothing could be further from the truth.

This cynical vote-grabbing exploitation of a rural community's fears is doubly disappointing because change isn't coming, it has already arrived.

All the signs are there.

Water New Zealand has just released a survey showing nearly three-quarters - 73 per cent - of New Zealanders are concerned about poor water quality in our rivers and lakes.

Whether they are scrambling for votes or trying to represent all their constituents, rabble-rousing politicians should take careful note of that figure. It isn't just urban dwellers wanting clean water - that figure includes country people, a fact that deftly undermines hard-line farmers' claims and dark mutterings of the mythical "urban-rural divide".

In my position, I deal with many people, including farmers. Many of them work hard to protect the environment, do the right thing by the public and ensure rivers aren't polluted.

They care about the legacy they are leaving their children and grandchildren and resent being tarred with the same brush as the minority of farmers who deny there is any water quality problem or defiantly want to continue with what they see as their right to pollute.

That sort of hard-line, uncompromising attitude is counter-productive and has accelerated the public's demand for change.

New Zealanders are fed up with having their rivers, lakes and streams polluted. It doesn't matter who is doing the polluting, city or farm, they want it stopped.

Farming leaders now accept that.

It was heartening to see only a few weeks ago, farming leaders coming together on the banks of Hawke's Bay's Ngaruroro River and pledging to make all New Zealand rivers swimmable.

These industry leaders - including Federated Farmers, Fonterra, Dairy NZ, Meat Industry Association and Beef and Lamb NZ - admitted the country's rivers are not in good condition and promised to restore them so people could once again swim in them.

The leaders, who represent 80 per cent of the pastoral farming industry, said farming hadn't always got it right on water quality and fixing the problem was the right thing to do.

It is now time these leaders showed their leadership qualities. They will have to ignore
the rabble-rousers and anti-environment campaigners and help their reluctant members through the necessary change to new farming methods.

It won't always be easy but the science is there.

Lincoln University research has shown that it is possible to cut nitrate leaching by nearly a third, reduce cow numbers by 11 per cent and remain profitable.

These new farming methods won't "smash towns" or "ruin farmers". They and other similar practices will help protect both the environment and the economy.

In the Horizons region, they will contribute to making the One Plan work properly, as required by the recent Environment Court decision.

And they will allow farmers to be recognised for the value they contribute to the economy and the significant effort they have made to clean up their act - and our rivers.

It will also signal an end to the cynical political exploitation of farmers' fears of change.

Bryce Johnson is Fish & Game NZ's chief executive. Views expressed here are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's. Email: editor@hbtoday.co.nz