1493023321843 - Time for a moratorium on new dairy farms and irrigation schemes

Time for a moratorium on new dairy farms and irrigation schemes

OPINION: “We don’t know how lucky we are, mate. We don’t know how lucky we are”. True enough, Fred, we didn’t have a clue, did we.

The 1960s through to the1990s were as good as it got. I thought it would last forever – wandering countless river valleys with a couple of mates, often carrying a fly rod and sometimes a .303 for the chance of a deer. Drop a fish off to the local farmer at the end of the day.

We didn’t see the need to pause and think a little bit about where we were heading. Just plough the paddock and milk the cow one year to the next and we will do that forever.  

How could we have been so blindly stupid continues to puzzle me. I recall attending one of the early public meetings on water issues in Canterbury (2005) held at Lincoln University in one of their tiered-seating lecture theatres. It was well stacked with farmers, and a smattering of politicians, as well as members of the public newly concerned about the emerging debate, and chaired by ECan.

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As chair of the Water Rights Trust, I felt a responsibility to contribute, and asked: “What should New Zealand be doing about the risk of nitrate contamination of our waterways from intensive dairy farming, particularly as the European Union  saw fit to introduce its “Nitrate Directive” in 1991 out of concern for impact of farming practices on the quality of member countries water resources”. 

The response from a panel member astounded me at the time, and still resonates each time I see a farmer-led defence of their contribution to the demise of our country’s water resources: “What would they know about New Zealand farming  systems”.

The whole issue was put to bed in the minds of many that night with that one simple bit of obfuscation, a skill now matured into an art form highly prized by pro-irrigation lobbyists. In the meantime, the laws of science, which the European Union had shown some respect for, continued to work their inexorable damage here, uncontrolled by the good sense that should have limited the number of cows being carried in some parts of New Zealand.

Please note, Mr Intensive Dairy Farmer, and your big business colleagues, and political mates that science is science no matter where it comes from.  One plus one equals two in New Zealand as much as in other parts of the world, and your intentional ignorance of that relationship is creating a country that is far short of what my wife and I and a great many others had envisaged for our children and theirs. But, of course you knew what you were doing – profit and votes were what mattered, eh?

Dad was unsettled by his wartime experiences in Italy and was taught to fly fish by another soldier assigned to monitor his adjustment back into civilian life as a farmer. I followed in his footsteps, with a hand-crafted lancewood rod to begin with. I still wonder at the marvellous therapy that fly fishing held for him through into old age. 

For many years, until well into the 1990s, I followed his practice in slurping down handfuls of water in between casts, as thirst dictated, without thought. Now, we don’t dare drink from our rivers. What will it mean for the region when it is no longer safe to drink from the aquifers?

It could have been so very different, had those in authority listened to what was happening, and had the gumption and good sense to have confronted the problem back then. Is it too late to change tack? The Water Rights Trust and a host of others have tried over the last 15 odd years to get the message through; that there are alternatives to making money off the land that don’t require such destructive impacts on our water ways, but the costs of meaningful change keep getting higher as the years slide by.  

Life has taught me that there is another aspect to Fred Dagg’s assertion about being lucky – that in the long run we make our own luck.

Mr Politician, please do what you should have done many years ago and help to create the incentive for our farmers to change by imposing a moratorium on all new dairy farms and all new irrigation schemes, until such time as a satisfactorily robust plan is produced that will reduce dairy herd populations to levels fitting to the environmentally sustainable nitrate absorption capacity of our land and water, catchment by catchment. In other words, please provide leadership on the issue.

New Zealanders value their waterways too highly to let them slip away without a fight. There are a great many concerned farmers throughout New Zealand who support this viewpoint, and it is the ordinary New Zealand citizen paying the price who has had a gutsful and is demanding change. 

Murray Rodgers is a trustee of the Water Rights Trust, on behalf of the Coalition for Clean Water; comprising Forest & Bird, North Canterbury Fish & Game, and Malvern Hills Protection Society.