Ngāti Pāoa has an immediate goal to restore the badly polluted Waihou, Piako and Waitoa rivers, targeting what they say is government-sanctioned overuse of fertiliser on Hauraki Plains farms.
Oxygen-depleted and murky, the Waitoa and Piako rivers contain particularly high concentrations of total nitrogen and total phosphorous and E. coli, a Waikato Regional Council report confirmed after 25 years of testing.
Ngāti Pāoa kaitiaki Tau Hikaiti Paora met the council to pitch for $2 million of its recently awarded "shovel ready project" money.
The iwi wants to work alongside up to 40 farmers on the plains to clean up the catchment.
The council got $23.8m from the Government to boost Covid-19 recovery, labelled as benefiting climate-change-resilience projects.
But the millions are going on continued drainage of land and a focus on protecting infrastructure.
"When I met WRC, I was out looking at pumps," said Paora. "What the hell has that got to do with addressing climate change?"
WRC will use government funding for 10 flood-protection and catchment projects, among $103.7m for so-called climate-resilience projects across New Zealand.
Waikato's funding within Hauraki would contribute to:
• Completion of Muggeridge's pump station and replacing five pumps to allow for safe fish passage.
• Upgrading the east and west foreshore stopbanks in the Hauraki Plains, and the Mill Rd pump station and Roger Harris pump station that protects Paeroa.
• Upgrading the Piako scheme's right stopbanks.
• Building a replacement barge for use in river and flood protection maintenance.
• Upgrading Ngātea's stopbanks
Announcing the funding in August, State Owned Enterprise Minister Winston Peters said climate change posed a real danger to the regions through extreme weather, coastal inundation, erosion, flooding and the destruction of infrastructure.
Council chairman Russ Rimmington said flood protection was one of the top priorities for the council among its bids for shovel-ready funding because its schemes safeguard 3000sq km of high-value food-producing land and protect services and infrastructure.
Lynne Hoey, a Māori agri-scientist working with the iwi, said it was a missed opportunity.
A soil-health focus that supported farmers to reduce the nitrogen and phosphorous overload leaching off farms was the only way to make progress on protecting the land and people, she said.
"Obviously if we've got a nitrate and phosphorous overload in the waterways, what do you do? You stop using it. There's nothing scientific about that. We just needed to develop a reduction pathway."
A baseline report to see how much unnecessary fertiliser is entering waterways
could be established by March next year, she said.
Among cleanup actions are creating local plant nurseries and composting units, support for farmers to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous, educating the
community and "trees in the ground on every possible, reasonable area of land".
The iwi has gathered details of all discharge consents into the waterways, and
is starting independent monitoring
to determine the impact on soil health and micro-organisms from rates of chemical fertiliser.
Tau raised the iwi's hope to gain funding for its own climate action plan when he met the regional and district councils but said the response was always "there's no budget".
He said the iwi could not wait.
"As kaitiaki we have a responsibility to start making noise."
It was developing its climate-change response and seeking to manage a budget to clean up the waterways alongside farmers.
"It is urgent. This is the throat. The Waihou had heaps of issues last year with the drought and we're facing another. When you look at the peat flats, it's being diminished and lifting, and all of the waterways are de-oxygenated.
"I speak on behalf of thousands of us, and that's just within my iwi. As the kaitiaki and as Ngāti Pāoa, this is how we see it - our grandchildren unable to swim because it is so polluted."
All except two of the waterways in the rohe have
seriously degraded water quality, the regional council's report found.
"We've got to keep putting those red flags in front of decision makers, because it's not going away, where do you go after a red?" said Lynne.
"It's catchment to catchment time for localisation - because of the distress that our papatuanuku
is in. The fungi is being diminished, the muri iti are being diminished because of the application of urea, nitrogen and phosphorous at high rates."
Lynne said a good data system within a catchment to report the progress or non-progress allowed councils to properly budget for mitigation.
She believed farmers on the Hauraki Plains would get on board.
The whenua down here is historically one of the most intensively farmed catchments in Aotearoa. Two little waterways in this whole catchment don't have a red flag, how bad is that?
"The [authorities] keep blaming the cows, I'm sick of it. In my day when a cow pat landed on the ground, the muri itis came up and had a good feed and it wasn't there by lunchtime, next minute you got mushrooms coming up. They're not coming up anymore because it's a fungi that's being dealt to. And fungi is the medicine, the rongoa for Papatuanuku. Enough is enough."
Lynne said she believed the soil test used across agriculture - the olsen p test - should be broadened to give land users a proper reading of what's happening on soils with heavy applications of fertiliser.
She also questioned Overseer, which is promoted by The Fertiliser Association of New Zealand as a tool for sustainable farming,
because farmers cannot input
Ballance Agri-Nutrients and Ravensdown Limited manufacture, distribute and market around 98 per cent of all fertilisers sold in New Zealand and are farmer-owned co-operatives.
On the Companies Office, New Zealand Phospate Company limited is a 50 per cent joint venture between Ravensdown and Balance Agri-nutrients. The SEO Landcorp has a 0.43 per cent stake in Ravensdown.
The Fertiliser Association of NZ chief executive Vera Power said it's necessary to replace the nutrients removed with the produce from the land.
Application of nitrogen fertiliser to land contributes 2.5 per cent of NZ greenhouse gas emissions and the industry was working to reduce it.
"Fertiliser is one of the largest farm expenses and so it is very much in a farmer's best interests to use it sustainably, responsibly and efficiently," she said.
Multiple regulations cover fertiliser use in NZ, including the RMA, but generally requirements are set through regional council's plan and consenting processes.
"Recently the government introduced a cap on nitrogen fertiliser, which applies to dairy farms. From 2025 greenhouse gas emissions associated with fertiliser application to land will be priced under the Climate Change (Agriculture Sector) Regulations. This means that farmers will need to pay a price associated with agricultural emissions including fertiliser," said Power.
"The fertiliser industry supports careful management of farm systems to reduce farm-system nutrient losses and to minimise impact on the environment."
She said Overseer allowed farmers to explore a range of scenarios for their farm including zero application of fertiliser. Crown Research Institutes are not shareholders, she said.
Lynne said she believed for too long farmers have been encouraged with rebates from fertiliser companies to continue applying chemicals.
"Twice a year - up to 350kg per ha."
Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is primarily used by the dairy industry to ramp up grass growth.
Farmers got $122m in fertiliser cheques for the year to May 2020, paid through share profits for their purchase of 1.6m tonnes of fertiliser from Ballance Agri-Nutrients. The company generated profits before the rebate and tax of $68.9m.
Ag Restore had meanwhile worked with farmers in two case studies that were being monitored for the next five years. One, a kiwifruit producer, had reduced the application of chemicals from 350kg per ha to 40kg per ha after learning his land was oversaturated with phosphorous and needed no more for three to five years.
"In phase 2 the company wants to measure 20 farms that have already been farming this way and using correct measures up against the NPK farmer."
Last week, Greenpeace called on all political parties to make phasing out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser a bottom line when forming the next government.
The organisation points to a major new paper, just published in the prestigious science journal Nature, showing the overuse of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is pushing levels of nitrous oxide - a potent greenhouse gas - far beyond natural limits, fuelling the climate crisis.
Greenpeace executive director Russel Norman said New Zealand's farming methods must change with phasing out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.
Use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser in New Zealand has climbed 627 per cent since 1990 - about half a million tonnes is now used every year.
He said industrial dairying harboured "a dangerous addiction" to synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.
"If we want to have any hope of tackling the climate crisis, the government must phase out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, bring in a price on agriculture's climate emissions, and shift Aotearoa to regenerative farming," said Norman.
Nitrous oxide's effect on global heating is 300 times that of carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas.