A big shout out to Sir Peter Gluckman for reporting that farming intensification and urbanisation has resulted in dire consequences for New Zealand's waterways.

A pity, Sir Peter's independent report comes so late in the piece when some of those waterways may already be at or over the tipping point.

But it serves as a reminder there is always a price to pay for unbridled growth.

China made its wealth through being the "world's factory". But now its people frequently choke from breathing the pernicious smog that comes from the many coal-fired power stations and steelworks that supply large-scale factories.


Many of these were off-shored to China to take advantage of its cheaper labour and supply costs. The Chinese Government has embarked on a cleanup but this will take time.

Now New Zealand is finding that an ambition to be one of the "world's farms" - with the capacity to feed anything from 20 million to 200 million people if major irrigation projects are approved - also comes with a price.

The major cleanup of our waterways which Sir Peter wants is already expected to be an expensive saga and will take many years to achieve.

There is a need for a major debate on whether being a "farm for Asia" or the "planet's pilot farm" is really in New Zealand's national interest given we have not (so far) managed the existing downstream costs of farming intensification.

Cashing in on the "White Gold Rush" resulted in too much intensification in the dairy sector.

While Fonterra has worked with its farmers to ensure waterways are fenced off, this does not fully address the fundamental problems posed by intensification.

New farming models - like housing stock indoors and bringing feed to them under a 'cut and carry' model coupled with collecting waste to convert to biogas - would have a major transformative effect. But that requires investment, more human capital and an even bigger focus on higher value products.

There are also questions being raised about our mounting tourism levels. Our conservation estate is a precious jewel which requires funds to be preserved. But the Government has been loath to step in and ensure adequate regulation occurs to protect that asset for New Zealanders to enjoy and to apply tourism fees where warranted.

Others have made these points before. They are obvious.

As I wrote in 2009, "New Zealand faces a horrible irony: our No 1 export earner dairy is also the source of far too much of our greenhouse gases, and is ruining many of the pristine waterways that once underpinned the previous top earner: tourism."

But we don't wear the mantle of being the Prime Minister's chief science adviser: Sir Peter does.

This status automatically confers a responsibility on Bill English to take the findings seriously and to make sure the Government does something about them. Based on past performance - and the recent and risible approach to making our waterways swimmable - there will be little real progress unless the mounting environmental degradation in New Zealand becomes an election issue.

Those paid to ensure adequate infrastructure is in place for urban expansion have failed.


As the Herald reported, the two big culprits singled out in Sir Peter's report were urban expansion - polluting rivers and streams with stormwater and industrial waste - and the rapid intensification of agriculture like dairy farming, hitting waterways with nitrogen, phosphate, and sediment, faecal contamination from livestock and extra pressure from irrigation.

The saddest part about Sir Peter's report is that those paid to ensure adequate infrastructure is in place for urban expansion have failed.

Immigration has spurred welcome economic growth.

But it has also contributed to the house price explosion which has made the traditional Kiwi value of "owning your own home" a debt nightmare for younger generations.

This has been a major issue in the past five years.

But increased immigration also increases the financial pressures at both Government and local authority levels to fund the investment in new storm water and sewerage infrastructure.

None of these costs can be kicked down the road for other generations to fund.

It's time they were addressed head on now.