The intensification of farming in the Mackenzie Basin is a disgrace and a crime, says angler and former Fish and Game national council member, Dave Witherow.
The Southlander was in Nelson this week where he spoke on the declining quality of the country’s rivers at the Nelson-Marlborough Fish and Game’s Richmond rooms.
His comment on the Mackenzie, made in a separate interview, followed the Environment Court finding intensive farming and conversions to dairying in the basin are unsustainable.
Witherow said the blame for the degradation of national freshwater did not lie exclusively with dairy farming.
“But dairy is the biggest problem so far.”
The last decade’s freshwater decline mirrored the country’s move from sustainable dairy practices, he said.
“Dairying used to be a grass–fed natural process where the cows ate grass on land with very little fertiliser or irrigation input. We were one of the cheapest producers in the world.
“But we were seduced by the global rise in dairy prices.
“Farmers could afford to put in irrigation and put on more fertiliser. We could bring into production land which was previously considered uneconomic – and it all looked like a wonderful scheme.
“But in the process we changed to becoming a high-cost producer and have ruined the waterways through stupid, short-sighted, unsustainable practices.”
The new land brought into production through irrigation and fertiliser tended to be on friable soils. Animal urine and fertilisers moved easily into the ground water and the nearest river, he said.
Continuing the practice demonstrated “vast national ignorance and hypocrisy”, he said.
“We keep patting ourselves on the back about our clean green image and environmental awareness and then we continue ruining amazing landscapes – like the Mackenzie.”
Witherow said the whole of Canterbury was a case study and forerunner of similar problems around other parts of the country if current farming practices continued.
“The only way out of this self-inflicted dilemma is to re-organise our agriculture to become a low–cost producer living off natural capital without depleting the environment.”
Federated Farmers fresh water spokesman, Chris Allen, said declining fresh water quality was not just a farming issue. It also occurred around urban and tourism development.
Farmers were working on how they could manage the issue, but everyone involved had to step up, he said.
Allen said human actions were forever changing the country’s landscapes and it was unrealistic to think an urban or rural view would always remain the same.
But farmers were now doing a lot of work privately and particularly through the Canterbury Water Management Strategy, to support regional biodiversity, replant and restore native areas and develop riparian vegetation.
“Landscape change is cyclic. We will always have pressures on the environment to develop for human need. The thing now is to focus on how we can do all of these things in balance.”
Farmers were now more focussed on finding solutions and ways to lessen their environmental footprint, he said.
Meanwhile, Federated Farmers has rejected the Environment Court’s call on a halt to further land sales in the Mackenzie while an environmental review is carried out across all stations.
The process of tenure review meant farmers could buy high country land they had previously leased from the government. Once freehold they could convert it to dairying.