On 21 November, the latest and most authoritative report on water quality in New Zealand from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, elegantly and pointedly describes New Zealand's most pressing environmental and economic issue - increasing pollution of our waterways from intensification of land use for agriculture. Dr Wright politely says water managers and industry are not doing enough to prevent the continuing degradation in water quality, and that the situation is just going to get worse.
Unsurprisingly, the Ministers for Primary Industry and Environment immediately released a press statement saying, "No worries, we're on it..."
Well, they're not.
The latest effort on national fresh water management "reform" has been through the Government-sponsored Land and Water Forum, a multi-party collaborative group. After three years of work and millions of dollars, the Forum informs us in their third and final report of 15 November that their considered recommendation is to "call for community decisions at catchment level – within national frameworks and bottom lines from central Government.”
What? This is nothing new. This mantra was trotted out to me when I first joined the Northland Catchment Commission (now Regional Council) 26 years ago. And the message hasn't changed. And it's not wrong. And scientifically sound water quality standards were set all those years ago by perfectly competent scientists and engineers, culminating in the Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality published in the year 2000 - 13 years ago.
What has happened since? Well, briefly, communities have been arguing about water quality standards and enforcement of them ever since. The science has been ignored and manipulated and mocked, sensible and safe water quality limits have not been respected or enforced, and the basis of more than half of New Zealand's wealth continues to literally go down the drain.
It looks like we're set to go around the mountain again, and waste millions more of taxpayers' and ratepayers' money on rediagnoses of the problem, endless ruminations and court cases on what water quality limits should be set in what rivers, legal and political pressure by powerful vested interests to push large land and water development projects and consents through, ditto for those Councils who want to take more water and discharge more poorly treated waste, sporadic and passionate protests about it all from iwi, green groups and the tourism industry, and continued accelerating worsening of land and water quality nationwide.
I understand from the grapevine that Fonterra is putting pressure on farmers to go to two cows an acre. If true, this is utter madness. The land can't take it, the water can't take it, and the farmers are exhausted enough without doubling their worries. It may create work for another generation of scientists, engineers, lawyers, and corporate managers, but New Zealand doesn't have the technology or carrying capacity to handle it. Are we going to cover the country in cows? Fonterra already has a major problem trying to deal with over $700 million in exposure to no less than three food safety scares in the past five years, and a $1.1 billion climate change charge (production loss from drought) imposed by Mother Nature. Fonterra shareholders must be bouncing off the walls. Imagine what would happen if just European and Asian customers, for example, decided to no longer buy Anchor butter and other Fonterra products because of dirty water issues, especially if a "green" competitor came along and offered genuinely 'clean green' dairy products? To be sure...the opposition is working on it.
Similarly so for the meat companies. Silver Fern Farms' recently reported latest annual loss is $28.6 million, slightly better than the previous year's $31.1 million loss. Beef margins have reportedly halved, and livestock numbers are down because of drought (climate change charges again). Total debt between Silver Fern Farms, Alliance Meats and AFFCO is running around $700 million, so there must be very grumpy shareholders in the meat sector too. What will happen there when the 'clean green' mirage finally disappears and our high margin buyers in Europe go off to buy their meat from genuinely 'greener' pastures? No customer is fooled by unsupported green claims, superficial green labelling, and cynical self-accreditation schemes, especially when their buyers come out here and have an unpleasant water experience...
Happily, there are a few organisations that understand that being more efficient, facing up to reality, and cleaning up your own mess are the same thing....examples of good practice are out there....land and water care groups soldier on and make a difference in small local examples. The Whangarei District Council has wisely planned for less water in future by putting in more storage, and for years it has been tertiary-treating its effluent through a wetland. Occasionally the forest industry puts its hand up to say, "hey, don't forget about us, we can do more..."
But what to expect now? Well, expect the eminent Dr Jan Wright to be replaced by an apologist for dirty water policy sometime next year; expect agricultural companies run by Boards with their brains hardwired into the 19th Century to continue to run interference and use delaying tactics and behind the scenes politics to keep the status quo; expect a myopic central government and emasculated local government (bar a few exceptions) to continue to waste your money by reinvestigating and relitigating the obvious; and expect the clean green mirage to disappear completely soon, with most of the huge cost of this (in export losses) to come out of your taxpayer pocket.
Do we have solutions? Yes, we do, and we have done for over 20 years. But we need attitudinal change at grassroots level, 19th Century-based Board members and politicians removed, and a major redirection of our science, engineering and marketing skills away from the lethal and lazy mirage of volume-based "more production, more production, low margin" policy into efficiency-based "high quality, genuinely green products for a premium price" policy.
Then we can be price-makers, like we used to be; not price-takers, like we are.
And maybe in 10 years' time it'll be safe to have a Christmas Day swim in the swimming hole at my brother-in-law's place on the Kerikeri River....Dreams are free...