My TOP Budget Priority for Water Quality

The TOP priority for water quality in the Budget 2019 has to be a serious boost to the Overseer tool, which many regional councils use to regulate farmers to maintain or improve water quality in their area.

In simple terms, farmers are asked a few questions about their farm and then Overseer estimates how much nitrogen (mostly from cow pee) is leaching from their soil into our rivers and lakes. The regional council then sets limits for individual farms and holds the farmer to account for any reductions needed.

It’s a big deal because the results it generates could alter land values by billions of dollars.

What’s the problem?

Overseer has had problems with reliability and accuracy for years, and it produces wildly different estimates whenever it is updated. Farmers have been well aware of this but the problem came to national prominence when it caught the attention of Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton. And since then, Eloise Gibson at Newsroom has covered the issues in depth.

Currently, Overseer is jointly owned by the Government, a Crown Research Institute, and several fertiliser companies. Since the private sector is involved, both the tool and the data it uses are jealously guarded. This has led to concerns over the data and the transparency of the tool itself.

Firstly, some fear that the data are not suitable to apply to all of New Zealand. Weather and soil types vary hugely across the country, and there are concerns that the data do not reflect these complexities. In Budget 2018, the Government allocated $5m to address this issue, but there has been no public review of any improvements achieved.

Secondly, the tool itself is a black box and isn’t open to critique. Since it is increasingly used as a regulatory mechanism with massive financial implications for farmers, there needs to be confidence in its robustness. At the very least it needs an independent review and, as Eloise Gibson points out, some are calling for the Government to take over the tool entirely. This would at minimum require buying out the fertiliser companies.

Why is Overseer so important?

Why do we need a water quality tool at all? The only alternative we have seen overseas is to establish input controls, i.e. telling farmers how to farm. For example: “On this type of soil, you can only put this many cows, unless you build a barn or plant trees beside your river…” Etcetera. For many decades, our farmers have rejected input controls, preferring to work out the best way to farm themselves. This freedom has led them to be among the most productive in the world. But it has also contributed to the parlous state of our rivers.

If we want to improve water quality and still allow farmers to find the best way to farm, then we need to regulate them on outcomes, not inputs. And this would be impossible to do without a tool like Overseer. It would simply be too expensive to set up water quality monitors under the soil or next to rivers and streams on every farm to figure out who is doing the leaching.

An improved Overseer is better than no Overseer

Farmers have been the first to write off Overseer when it performs poorly or inconsistently. Many think it should be scrapped entirely. Without action, Overseer faces a crisis of confidence.

However, farmers should realise that without a functioning tool like Overseer, we are headed down the path of European-style input controls. Most farmers would dislike that even more. Farmers should be the first people calling for Overseer to be improved, not thrown out.