Making the Waikato River Swimable - TOP

We must make the Waikato River swimmable again. Even putting to one side the obligation to do so under Treaty settlements; it is just common sense. All our waterways should reach that same standard; and I mean truly swimmable not the watered down version of swimmable the Government has proposed. Most Kiwis can agree on that point.

Something has to change. The real question is how we get there, and who bears the burden of that change. That conversation is a lot more complex than the overall vision, but it is still incredibly important that we have it. 

There are a number of practical challenges in returning the Waikato River to a swimmable state:

  1. Fencing and planting waterways to stop poo getting in. Keeping stock out of rivers is the one thing that the Government is doing the bare minimum on (for the larger rivers at least) although some farmers have until 2030 (*#@!) to finish the job.
  2. Planting native trees on steep slopes. This is a no brainer to stop the loss of soil, improve rivers and store carbon dioxide, but both the Government and Waikato Regional Council are silent on this issue.
  3. By far the biggest challenge of all is nitrogen leaching into our waterways, contributing to algae growth. Nitrogen is leached by sewage treatment plants, most animal farming and some crops, but the major cause in most areas is intensive farming operations (usually dairy).

The last point is by far the biggest challenge, but the Government, in fact all other political parties, are completely absent on how to solve it. Their silence means this largest of freshwater problems has been “hospital” passed to Regional Councils, who have been left to work it out on their own. This has played into the hands of dairy industry (Dairy NZ and Fonterra), who have been working behind the scenes to secure the most favourable outcome for their members and shareholders.

Depending on the circumstances, rivers and lakes can only receive so much nitrogen (from any source) without algal blooms happening. This means that if we want to make the Waikato swimmable, there has to be a limit to the nitrogen that can be leached by farms in the catchment. Setting the limit is a question for scientists and the public, but once we have decided that limit the curly question becomes who is going to reduce their pollution to reach it?

The fairest thing to do of course would be to set a ‘tolerable’ level of pollution for each farm, perhaps accounting for the fact that some land is better for farming than others. Then you could charge the worst polluters, giving them an incentive to reduce their pollution and use that same money to reward those that have reduced pollution below the ‘acceptable’ level. That common sense approach is exactly what The Opportunities Party is proposing.  A similar solution has been put forward by the Waikato group, Farmers for Positive Change. They also want to see a pragmatic approach taken to manage our pastoral landscapes.

These two kinds of outcomes would both sting the most intensive polluters, and reward the least – and in so doing change the land values between best practice and worst practice land use. However the dairy industry has been lobbying hard to protect the land values of all their farmers, irrespective of their pollution practices. Their preferred outcome, which has been accepted by Waikato Regional Council in Plan Change One is that all landowners (including those who don’t pollute) share the burden of reducing their pollution. The mechanism they propose is known as “grandparenting”; essentially allowing people to keep on doing what they are doing now and impact every land user in the area the same. Under this plan only the very top polluters must reduce their nitrogen leaching, and only to the 75th percentile.

It’s nuts of course because it means that today’s big polluters are saved from having to make the largest adjustment and those who today are polluting the least – sheep & beef farmers, foresters and the dairy farmers that have worked hard to reduce their footprint – get hammered anyway. There is no reward for being less polluting. The proposal reeks of vested interest, it certainly has no economic merit.

We did the same with fishing; we shut the gate to newcomers and handed valuable fishing quota (now worth $4b) to the fishers who had done the biggest damage to our inshore fisheries. Do we really want to make the same mistake with allocating the rights to pollute? This is big money we are talking about, these rights will have a huge impact on land prices.

Some argue that grandparenting is fair because the highest polluters have made a bigger investment in their farms. This is at best an argument for a transition period while those investments depreciate, not a permanent right to pollute. But the claim is dubious anyway, many of the best dairy farmers have invested a lot of money in ensuring that they have low rates of pollution. The grandparenting option doesn’t protect that investment at all, it penalises it.

Even worse, the baseline for leaching in Plan Change One was set at 2014 – you might remember that was in the heady days when the milk price was over $8 and dairy farmers were furiously throwing fertilizer and palm kernel at their farm to make more milk. So for many of the biggest polluters a 10% reduction on that baseline will require no work at all.

Worst of all is the message Plan Change One sends the rest of the country. If this approach is rolled out over the country, you can expect land owners in other regions to cut down their trees and put as many stock on the land as they can prior to the new scheme taking effect. Such vandalism, all in an effort to secure the right to pollute more forever is an environmental crime. But it is the rational thing to do to push up their land price, and maximise tax-free capital gain –  disgusting lobbying behavior by the dairy industry.

It isn’t surprising that Waikato Regional Council’s Plan Change One has failed to stand up to the dairy industry. We need a government that provides some leadership and helps Regional Council resolve these thorny fresh water issues. Otherwise poor decisions will be made that will be incredibly expensive to unwind in coming years. Continuing down the road of grandparenting is tantamount to environmental terrorism.