Comment: The Government might be barking up the wrong tree if it is trying to rewind to our waterways to last century's standards, writes Federated Farmers Senior Policy Adviser, Elizabeth McGruddy.

The government has been pilloried in recent times for the rise – and fall – of big hairy audacious goals.

Perhaps that accounts for the modest ambition expressed by Ministers Parker and O'Connor in the latest set of national water proposals.

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The Ministers want water quality to be as it was in our parents' and grandparents' day. Of course that means it would go flat out backwards.

For the better part of last century our parents and grandparents routinely discharged all the human, industrial and farm waste into the nearest river or lake. Think Lake Horowhenua, conveniently close to Levin. Or Lake Rotorua, conveniently close to the city.

In the Wairarapa, think the freezing works, which discharged waste to the Waingawa River for most of last century.

Read more from Federated Farmers here.

Think the flax mills which were still operating in South Wairarapa through to the 1960s, discharging strippings to the Ruamahanga River.

Think the old-time family dairy farms – most with a piggery attached – discharging wastewater to the creek. Same for rural septic tanks.

If the plan is to rewind the clock, should Masterton District Council rewind the $50 million it just spent trying to get Masterton wastewater out of the Ruamahanga?

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Of course that would be silly. Perhaps we can agree all sectors have made good progress on reducing direct discharges to rivers and none of us really want to turn the clock back to our parents' day.

That's direct discharges. What about "diffuse" discharges to land which can leak through to groundwater? Was it better in our parents' day? Was nitrate a problem back then or not really?

Actually it was.

The old DSIR and Ministry of Works publications from the 1980s or earlier report elevated nitrate in groundwater, clustered in horticultural areas (think Pukekohe, Horowhenua), in dairying areas (Waikato basin), and on the Canterbury Plains (in the days of leaky border dyke irrigation systems supporting arable and finishing farms).

In this region, historic hotspots included the Kapiti horticulture area - routinely above the drinking water nitrate standard back in the day, but now much reduced.

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On this side of the hill, the Waingawa Freezing Works discharged wastewater to land through the 1980s, with groundwater nitrate concentrations well above the drinking water standard at that time, before receding after the works shut down.

Again, do we want to rewind the clock to the "good old days"? Or can we agree all sectors are getting smarter and better at managing diffuse as well as direct discharges.

Didn't Minister Parker and O'Connor say it's getting worse? What does the evidence say?

First, the national evidence: hidden in the small print of the Environment Aotearoa 2019 report, NIWA assessed trends over the last ten years (2008-2017) for eight water quality attributes.

Their conclusion was that five had a majority of improving trends, while they could not be confident whether trends were generally going forwards or backwards for the other three.

Regional evidence: last year, Wellington Regional Council presented evidence to the regional plan hearing on water quality trends.

The first clear conclusion was there is no evidence of region-wide degradation over the last 5-10 years. Even better, there is a high level of confidence that a majority of sites have improving trends over the past decade for most variables.

Perhaps we are doing something right! Can we all now agree Ministers Parker and O'Connor might be barking up the wrong tree trying to rewind to last century.

So why is Federated Farmers bouncing up and down? Do we really need to drive tractors up the steps of Parliament again?

Federated Farmers Senior Policy Adviser, Elizabeth McGruddy. Photo / Supplied
Federated Farmers Senior Policy Adviser, Elizabeth McGruddy. Photo / Supplied

The answer is in the small print.

The proposed new bands and "bottom lines" for water quality are not about rewinding to last century. They are about rewinding to the time before human beings arrived in New Zealand.

If the two Ministers' big hairy audacious goal is about pre-human water quality, they need to say so. Not hide it in the fine print.

The reaction of the Regional Councils is interesting. They are on record in the Regulatory Impact Analysis as not supporting the nutrient proposals. Their "strong concern" is that they will not result in better ecological health while incurring significant cost to communities.

The reaction of the Ministry is interesting. They say in the Regulatory Impact Analysis they only received finalised advice on 24 June, that more work was required to understand costs and benefits, and that further analysis will be conducted during the consultation period.

Yeah right.

The "consultation" period is six weeks, and the Ministers want to talk to us about four other national proposals as well as their big hairy audacious goal for water at a two hour meeting.

The Ministry for the Environment's primary focus meetings on the freshwater proposals still to be held are:

• Timaru, 19 September, noon-2pm (Landing Service Conference Centre, 2 George St)

• Hamilton, 24 September, 10am-noon (Mystery Creek)

• Masterton, 26 September, noon-2pm (Solway College, TBC)