Farmers are seeing red at what they see as trigger-happy councils prosecuting rural waterway spills while turning a blind eye to serious urban and city water pollution.
But Auckland and Waikato councils say that's not the case - and that their figures support it.
The rural red flag's been raised by Auckland businessman and Open Country Dairy chairman Laurie Margrain, who said there was a "vast sense of frustration" among farmers as regular headlines report farmers being hauled into court by councils while cities like Auckland have waterway discharge issues so bad some beaches are closed to swimming.
"The pollution of beaches, harbours and rivers (by cities and towns) is not being addressed with the same voracity as it is on farm. Farmers aren't pushing back on the need to do this - we must improve and have improved enormously. But the whole country needs to march to the same drumbeat.
"Pressure is being applied unevenly."
The cost to farmers of meeting new council environmental standards for waterways is said to be adding to the financial pressures many are feeling as Australian banks tighten lending, apparently turning their backs on the dairy farmers they were encouraging to borrow up large not so long ago.
Margrain said the cost of upgrading aging city and urban wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, crumbling under the pressure of population growth, could be shared among ratepayers - if local politicians were brave enough to insist - but farm upgrades, costing up to tens of thousands of dollars, were being shouldered by individual farmers.
Auckland Council manager, regulatory compliance, Steve Pearce said the council, which polices the greater Auckland region, had taken 25 prosecutions for illegal discharges since January 2010.
Of those, only two defendants were farmers. One, who discharged dairy shed wastewater illegally, was sentenced to 120 hours of community service. The other, a sharemilker who pled guilty to filling in a wetland, was sentenced to 187 hours of community service.
By comparison, in the 2014 case Auckland Council v Jenners Worldwide Freight, the company was fined $103,561 and ordered to pay $25,000 costs to the council for discharging a food dye into an urban stream, said Pearce.
More recently the property owner and site manager of Brother Developments were collectively fined $67,800 for discharging sediment off their construction site in Remuera.
"Auckland's biggest compliance challenges are urban, particularly the effect of construction on the environment. As a result we have undertaken targeted programmes to focus our compliance effort on these issues," Pearce said.
"Our small site construction project has resulted in significant enforcement effort with thousands of sites inspected and more than 1300 infringement notices issues following non-compliance."
Illegal discharges in dairying heartland the Waikato seem often in the headlines.
Margrain's own Open Country was last year prosecuted by the Waikato Regional Council for discharging an objectionable odour, and unlawfully discharging wastewater into a river, from its Waharoa cheese factory. It was fined $221,250 by the court, a record for prosecutions in the region.
In July last year a burst underground water main which led to break in a sewerage pipe resulted in 800,000 litres of wastewater, including raw sewage, flowing into Lake Taupo.
Waikato Regional Council, after a five month investigation, decided not to prosecute, concluding it was the result of an accident and that the Resource Management Act, which the council polices, provided for "accidents". A burst underground water main had eroded a section of cliff face, which caused a footpath to collapse onto a sewerage pipe, breaking it.
Asked to respond to farmer concerns about bias, the council investigations manager Patrick Lynch said though the number of dairy farms being prosecuted in the region may seem high, at a proportionate level local authorities were "far more likely" to be prosecuted.
This was because there were 11 territorial authorities in the region that collectively managed 60 wastewater treatment plants. There were more than 4000 dairy farms that had to manage their own wastewater.
Four of the 11 authorities, 36.3 per cent, had been prosecuted in the past 10 years for unlawful discharges of sewage into the environment, Lynch said.
One had been prosecuted twice.
Over the same 10 years, a total of 58 dairy farms had been prosecuted. Based on an approximate number of 4200 dairy farms, this equated to a 1.3 per cent prosecution rate, he said.
The courts would take into account the seriousness of the offending but also the personal circumstances of the offender, he said.
"Though there have been significant fines imposed in dairy effluent cases, there have also been discharges without conviction. It is potentially misleading to draw conclusions from comparing single figures from each industry as a complex process has been followed by the courts to arrive at each individual outcome."
Lynch said regional councils were obligated to respond to allegations about potential breaches of the RMA. Most allegations came from the public.
It wasn't possible to respond to all allegations or police all RMA consents and permitted activity conditions, so they were prioritised.
In the 2018-2019 year, the council received 1838 notifications from the public about potential environmental breaches, Lynch said.
The council proactively monitored permitted activity conditions on 975 farms and monitored 1157 resource consents.
Auckland Council, which took over the responsibilities of the Auckland regional council when it was created in 2010, said in its 2018-2028 10 year Budget that "Auckland has a significant issue of pollution of its waterways across the region".
"There are areas of Auckland's beaches, harbours, streams and aquifiers that are significantly affected by poor water quality.
"Many waters and beaches are unsafe for swimming after storm events and some beaches are permanently closed to swimming. "
The reason, said the Budget, was pollution from a number of sources, including wastewater overflows from the combined Auckland sewer network when stormwater overwhelmed the system capacity; pollution from road run-off; sedimentation from urban and rural land use; farming impacts; old or poorly maintained septic tanks.
The council said its Healthy Waters Department managed water quality management infrastructure to the value of more than $300m.
General manager Craig McIlroy said the department spent between $3m and $5m a year on treatment device operation and maintenance.
The existing stormwater network had grown over 150 years to its current condition, he said.
The council was investing heavily in improving water quality in older parts of the network and work had been undertaken to separate stormwater and wastewater networks where they had been combined in the past. Part of this work involved a $2 billion project which was in the design phase, while the Western Isthmus programme was investing an additional $360m over 10 years.
Investment was also being made in a programme to locate at-risk areas like cross connections to reduce wastewater inputs, and in a programme to better manage non-reticulated areas on septic tanks.