Unfair to blame farmers over water

“Swimmable” rivers and water quality have been hot topics for some time now.   Last week, my colleague, Lauran Bergin put forward that water quality is in decline and endorsed the view that this problem needs to be addressed by charging tax on large commercial users of water – including farmers.

Is this fair?  Should farmers, who are the backbone of the economy, bear the brunt of addressing what is perceived to be a major threat to our water quality - our “clean, green “image, river life and future generations? 

There exists a rural/urban divide on this subject with a lot of finger-pointing at the farmers from the wider public.  Urban communities are not seeing the huge amount of work that farmers, in particular, undertake to manage water quality – not only on their own farms but also downstream.  

Labour Party spokesman, David Parker, has levelled blame on not only the farmers but also on regional councils who have “let us down” in managing our water quality.  However, this is certainly not the case in Taranaki. 

The Taranaki Regional Council has been working hard for over two decades to ensure that our rivers and streams support good ecological health with regular monitoring of popular swimming spots each summer. According to TRC’s October 2017 “Healthy Waterways” report, the trends from their latest analysis results (for the 21 years to June 2016) are the best ever recorded. They show improving stream health at 46 (78% of total) sites – an increase from 44 sites the previous year.

Farmers are voluntarily investing their time, energy and money into thousands of kilometres of riparian planting to ensure that the waterways on the Taranaki ring plain are protected.   The Riparian Management Programme in Taranaki has no equal in New Zealand.  It is transforming the region’s landscape as well as protecting and enhancing waterway quality.

This programme covers 14,900 km of streambank mainly on the ring plain with 85% (12,685 km) now fenced, 70% (8,003 km) protected with riparian vegetation and includes 99% of Taranaki’s dairy farmers. Over 4.6m plants have been supplied over the life of the programme.  TRC also thoroughly investigates pollution complaints with appropriate enforcement action being taken.

Some farmers are also investing in sophisticated technology to address the quality of their farm water (such as assessing nutrient losses in the system), as well as changing their farming practices. Taking all the above initiatives into account, having an additional “water tax” for our farmers is excessive.

Finally, it should be noted that urban waterways are significantly more polluted than their rural counterparts, a problem the proposed “water tax” all but ignored.

To target all farmers and regional councils is unfair, particularly when some are making great strides in this area. There needs to be more of a national awareness and conversation of what is already being done and for all New Zealanders - including farmers, commercial water bottlers, all agricultural industries and even city dwellers, to carry some responsibility for the costs of cleaning up New Zealand’s rivers.

The content of this document is necessarily general and readers should seek specific advice on particular matters and not rely solely on this document. 

If you would like more information on any of the topics in this document, please contact your usual Auld Brewer Mazengarb & McEwen adviser. 

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Diana Koorts