New Zealand's waterways are mostly pretty good in terms of being clean to swim in. Certainly, I know of no deaths or even serious illness directly or indirectly attributed to swimming in a dirty New Zealand river.
The discussion has largely been about contamination from dairy farms, which was driven by Fish and Game, possibly to divert attention from E. coli contamination from water fowl. I believe Fish and Game has successfully but unfairly planted the notion of dirty dairying in the minds of many people.
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The freshwater discussion document has met with negative reaction among farmers because the minister failed to involve industry organisations, e.g. Hort NZ in preparing the document. Instead, he used academics with zero farming experience or who were negative towards farming.
Several regulations have been proposed that experienced farmers know won't work;
will render their farming operation less economically viable; and make it even more difficult to attract good quality people to agriculture.
Any proposed change to how people alter their current practice needs co-operation and contribution from the participants to ensure the changes are necessary and will achieve the desired results. The document fails on both counts.
If implemented in its entirety we are likely to see drastic reduction (my guess is 30 per cent) in export earnings from agriculture because, without adequate applications of artificial nitrogen and phosphate, production will drop markedly.
The loss of grassland farms to forestry will also mean fewer export earnings from meat and dairy. Additionally, the enclosure of waterways and the planting of trees along waterways will result in land encroachment by water beyond the 5m either side of waterways and result in larger areas of reversion to swampland with a consequent loss of production.
The fact that neither cattle nor sheep enter waterways without reason has been ignored. Only in the extreme heat of summer and in pursuit of water to drink do beef cattle enter waterways. Sheep never voluntarily enter a waterway. They are a dry land animal.
Dairy farming where animals are intensely grazed is a different proposition and NZ dairy farmers have already fenced their waterways.
One of the problems with total stock exclusion on sheep and beef farms is the weed invasion, particularly wild blackberry, broom and gorse making rivers inaccessible.
E. coli pollution in waterways won't be much reduced by total stock exclusion. The real culprits in this regard are waterfowl and discharge from partially functioning sewerage treatment plants.
The highest E. coli reading in any waterway in my area is the Waitangi stream at Waiouru, which has no farmland in its catchment.
Many NZ sewage plants are adjacent to rivers and result in raised E. coli and phosphate levels.
The proposed rules around land use change are also counterproductive to good farming practice. Ohakune sheep and beef farmers and growers swap land in the interests of crop rotation to avoid the build-up of pathogens peculiar to a particular crop.
That we should be required to obtain a consent just adds one more onerous task to the already overwhelming burden of compliance faced by farmers.
We are never going to return our waterways to pre-European times when the islands supported a total population estimated at 100-120,000 people.
It is a stark choice here: we could proceed with the current proposals and create social and economic distress of a scale not seen since the 1930s. Or, we could leave stock exclusion on sheep and beef farms unchanged except that farmers remove cattle from near waterways they might enter in peak summer.
Farm environmental plans are not a panacea but will require another layer of bureaucratic box ticking and unproductive employment.
Phosphate fertiliser is key to NZ's farming productivity. It doesn't move much through the soil profile and farmers already avoid applying it to waterways. Landcare-measured phosphate movement in a field of carrots on our farm some years ago and found minimal movement of phosphate in any direction.
Lastly, we could give credit to the farming community for the measures they have already taken. Distressing people dealing daily with difficult jobs and adding mental anguish to their lives is unwarranted and unfair.
• Ron Frew is an Ohakune market gardener, dairy and sheep/beef farmer and contractor