Water, water, everywhere

Striking a balance between a booming dairy industry while protecting our international reputation as clean and green.

The dairy industry and the natural environment are recognised as key drivers of future growth, job creation and quality of life in New Zealand.

With national demand for fresh water almost doubling from 2000-2010, and a Government commitment to have 90% of electricity generation sourced from renewable sources by 2025, the pressure on and demand for quality waterways has never been greater. However, a recent report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment found that 62% of New Zealand’s lowland waterways are now officially classified as being unsuitable for swimming.

We spoke to Kevin Bowler (Chief Executive, Tourism New Zealand), Dr John Quinn (Principal Scientist, Freshwater Ecology, NIWA) and Theo Spierings (Chief Executive, Fonterra) to get their views on the quality of our waterways and what needs to be done to protect them. We wanted to find out: Is it possible to have a strong, growing economy while maintaining or improving the quality of our waterways, lakes and streams?

Our contributors’ answers may surprise you…

Overstating the case?

It’s hard to go a day without hearing a news report about the degradation of our waterways and how it’s going to send the country up the proverbial creek.

But is it accurate to make those claims? We asked our interviewees what they think of the current situation:

Kevin Bowler says that while we should never take our clean and green reputation for granted, he wouldn’t describe it as at risk: “None of our research suggests visitors think we aren’t delivering against the clean and green message. In fact, the highest scoring attributes in our most recent visitor survey were for the natural landscape and the environment.

“Concern from visitors about any loss of quality in the natural environment is not showing up as a factor in today’s data. There are some people who are perhaps overreacting to the current situation but even so, they are right that as a country we should strive to protect the air and waterways, and efficiently manage rubbish and waste.

“With our global reputation as a beautiful place to live and visit, New Zealand should do more than most to protect our environment, simply because it is more important to us than most other countries.”

Dr Quinn says the question of overreaction is a complex one:

“It is difficult to say for sure whether people are overreacting with concerns that a failure to improve things could hurt our sales of dairy, agricultural and horticultural products and negatively impact on tourism and how markets would react to knowledge that our waterways are continuing to be degraded by intensive land use.

“However, I consider that failure to resolve this problem will create serious risks for NZ Inc. There is much at stake because agricultural exports account for around 35% of our merchandise export earnings, international tourism earnings are equivalent to around 20% of these exports and both benefit substantially from national branding related to a well-managed, healthy, environment.”

Theo Spierings says that despite any degradation, the quality of our rivers and streams still rates well internationally and this was confirmed by the Auditor General’s report in 2011.

“However it is true that water quality is declining in some areas and that’s something we need to work on as a country. New policies around freshwater quality and the setting of limits underline this.”

Blame game: is water degradation the dairy industry’s fault?

Spierings says: “There is no single cause of water quality deterioration and it does not happen overnight. Over decades we have seen wastewater from industry and sewage treatment plants discharged to streams, rivers, and lakes, stormwater from urban areas affecting waterways and beaches and soil erosion, chemical pollutants and septic tanks have all played a part. Farming intensification has played a part and we have not shied away from taking on the challenge to ensure dairy farming is more sustainable and improve the health of New Zealand’s waterways.

Dr Quinn says that farming is certainly one of the contributors to the loss of freshwater environmental values – but the industry is also taking significant steps to invest in remediation and improvements.

“Farmers are making contributions to preventing pollution and environmental remediation through actions such as those required by the industry to meet the Sustainable Dairying Water Accord, and additional actions done either voluntarily or with assistance from regional councils in sensitive catchments.

“However, these ‘accord actions’ involve quite substantial investment in things like dairy milking shed effluent management, stream fencing and riparian planting, and stream bridges/culverts. Many of these actions have direct economic benefits to the farm through things like nutrient use efficiency (dairy effluent irrigation to pasture), ease of livestock management/reduced losses (stream fencing), and shelter during extreme weather (riparian buffers). Some farmers tend to be reluctant to implement environmental actions that are not at least cost-neutral.”

Tourists love affair with the Kiwi environment

Bowler says that from where he’s sitting, New Zealand’s pristine natural environment is as attractive and appealing to overseas visitors as it’s ever been.

“Our research shows that ‘landscapes and scenery’ and ‘clean and un-polluted’ are among the top six reasons holiday-makers choose New Zealand.

However, while these high levels of satisfaction with New Zealand from recent visitors are very positive, we should not become complacent and we should continue to do everything we can to protect this reputation”.

Reputational risks

Bowler is the first to point out how damaging any loss in reputation would be for New Zealand: “We are incredibly fortunate here because we have a relatively small population, good infrastructure, and Kiwis generally care about the environment. It seems to be inherently in our DNA and we don’t tend to do things like throw rubbish out of car windows and so on.

“However, while we are in a good position with respect to those points, any loss in reputation would be extremely damaging and difficult to repair, which is why we absolutely cannot afford to be complacent.”

When the multi-faceted and complex reasons that the quality of our water is so vital (economic, health, eco-systems, reputation, employment, trade relations, tourism to name but a few components), the importance of striking the right balance becomes increasingly – even worryingly – evident.

Sitting on the fence: a balancing act

Spierings says that balancing the economic, social and cultural values we assign to our waterways requires everyone at the table, working together to develop sensible limits and sensible timeframes to achieve them:

“Clean water and profitable dairying comes down to balancing environmental and economic expectations in each region. We could take every cow out of the Waikato, but data produced by DairyNZ, for example, shows that this would also take over $2.7 billion out of the regional economy, based on a $6.40 payout – not to mention the loss of employment.

“We need to work on minimising farming’s effect on water quality but maintaining the economic contribution. It can be done. Our farmers have done great work and I am confident we are on the right path and we are seeing good results already.”

What’s it going to take?

Dr Quinn is adamant that we can improve the nation’s waterways: “I contend that it is both possible and imperative that we resolve the challenge to maintain or improving the quality of our waterways, lakes and streams while maintaining a strong, growing economy.

“In many, not all, cases it is scientifically feasible to improve the health of degraded waterways or to protect those in a healthy state currently so that many of the services they are valued for are sustained.”

Bowler agrees there are lot of things that businesses should be doing: “It all starts with measuring outputs and environmental impact more accurately. With accurate data businesses can then take more strident steps towards reducing their environmental footprint across all settings. There’s certainly capacity for things like the fuel that vehicle fleets burn to be offset and minimised, so businesses should focus their efforts on practical steps they can take to limit the impact of their operations.”

Spierings highlights several key ways in which Fonterra is already targeting improving the quality of New Zealand’s waterways:

“Our farmers were the first to step up to fence waterways to exclude stock. We have mapped our farmer shareholders’ farms and detailed the waterways on them; this shows that over 95% of the significant waterways are now permanently stock excluded. Fonterra farmers have erected and paid for more than 23,000 km of fencing to achieve this. A number of farmers have also gone beyond these measures and excluded stock from smaller waterways and progressed riparian planting.”

Collaboration is the key to improving waterways

Each of our interviewees agrees that only by working together collaboratively and across sectors and interests can New Zealand’s waterways be protected from further degradation.

Bowler notes that in order to maintain and enhance the natural environment, we do need to invest in it and operate businesses in a sustainable manner – and not many people would disagree with that approach.

Dr Quinn notes that a collaborative, linked-up approach is the key to addressing waterway issues, saying, “It will require a concerted effort involving diverse players including marketers, farmers and the farming industry, agricultural and aquatic scientists, geographers, climatologists, iwi and planners, lawyers and of course community action groups and interest groups.”

Spierings is looking to the future: “The only way we will improve the health of New Zealand’s waterways is through collaboration and everyone doing their part. Our farmers have been taking part in the collaborative approach to develop environmental limits and many regions are developing policies to implement the required limits.

“Some of these changes through the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management will be tough for farmers, but they are acutely aware of the challenge we all face to improve water quality in New Zealand and are not just playing their part but are in some cases leading.”

Collaboration, cost-neutral or cost effective improvements, supported by targeted Government funding and a linked up, best practice approach to continually improving waters is evidently the way to bolster the quality of New Zealand’s waterways – so the question is, who should lead the charge, how long will it take – and can we do enough before it’s too late?