Rachel Stewart: Dairy packs real punch - you better believe it

By Rachel Stewart

The regional council, aided and abetted by a rabidly pro-irrigation Government, is making dam(n) sure cows are not the problem.
The regional council, aided and abetted by a rabidly pro-irrigation Government, is making dam(n) sure cows are not the problem.

Watching the Havelock North water contamination debacle unfold is a salutary lesson in just how much power the dairy industry wields.

When the story broke that masses of people were becoming ill, the Hastings District Council was quickly put under the media pump. The Hawke's Bay Regional Council was, for a time, largely left in peace.

I set myself a goal. Look for just one statement, one press release, one sound bite where any politician or bureaucrat from either council uses the word 'cow'. At all.

Certainly, within the first two weeks of the campylobacter outbreak, I found zero examples. The words employed, and only if pushed, were cattle and livestock.

Sure, it was way too early to tell where the source of the contamination originated. Yet, the wilful non existence of that most sacred word rang my alarm bells.

The dairy industry cheerleaders were clearly getting ahead of the game.

When I say cheerleaders, what do I mean?

The regional council has been out and proud about their love of, and big bucks bet on, the Ruataniwha dam project going ahead. Make no mistake, the existence of the dam would ensure further intensification of dairy in an area that least needs it climate-wise.

The new-look council may or may not put the kibosh on it but, if the past is anything to go by, their chief executive is one determined critter. On the dam issue, he reminds me of my dog going after a rabbit. Hard to call back.

The other glitch is that the regional council is both the Bay's environmental regulator - I use the term 'regulator' loosely - and a major investor in the scheme. This is a problem for them, but also one for Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule.

His other leadership role is Local Government New Zealand's president. Despite that, he has been nothing short of adamant that he wants to see the Ruataniwha dam go ahead.

He speaks of jobs, growth, the future-proofing of farming - the rhetoric all irrigation proponents like to stick on repeat.

Against this backdrop it's not hard to see why the 'cow' word was left unsaid.. Even when the contamination results came back as positively stemming from a ruminant of some sort - which only leaves goats, deer, sheep and cattle/cows - the 'C' word remained unsaid.

Not only that, every vested interest between here and the black stump went into overdrive about dairy farming not being terribly large around the area of contamination.

Trust me, it's large enough.

A mushroom farmer also got the side eye from all and sundry after it was falsely and prematurely suggested that his property might be the source. He is still paying heavily for that.

In keeping with the general weirdness, last week the regional council laid charges against Hastings District Council, alleging the unlawful taking of water from the aquifer arising from the alleged failure to meet wellhead maintenance conditions for what they contend are resource consent breaches.

Which they're entitled to do, of course. But Lawrence Yule said he was caught completely unawares by the charges, and that in the monitoring of consent conditions the regional council consistently reported that the condition in question had been complied with. Not to mention that there are far more common and conciliatory ways of dealing with any said breaches.

Yule makes the valid point that he believes it is for the Government inquiry to determine the cause of the contamination event. I find it hard to disagree.

That would be because the regional council, in taking this preemptive strike, have sent a direct message to the gullible and ill-informed. That message is stark and simple. Look over there, because we sure as hell don't want you looking at us here.

Various hydrologists and freshwater scientists, who don't work for the regional council, have concerns about the nearby Tukituki River, and which sports one of the poorest ecological health scores in the country.

It was a dry winter after another Hawke's Bay summer. The silty clays on the riverbed and banks were seen to have deep cracks. Contaminated surface water carried by heavy rain would have entered those cracks. It's not too difficult to figure out what might have happened next.

Yet, very early in the crisis, IrrigationNZ took out an ad in newspapers saying 'Fact:

Farming has not caused the Havelock North issue, infrastructure is the problem.'
Wow. There's a leap into the abyss of vested interests if I've ever seen one. Tell me again how they suddenly came to be scientists, not dairy intensification enablers?

And therein lies the problem. The regional council, aided and abetted by a rabidly pro-irrigation Government, is making dam(n) sure cows are not the problem. Even if they are.

The Government inquiry, now delayed, will inevitably reach the same conclusion.

- NZ Herald

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