Address to Local Government New Zealand Fresh Water Forum

Dr William Rolleston
30 May, 2017
Mayor Lawrence Yule, LGNZ President, Mayors, distinguished guests Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.

Less than 3% of the water on this planet is fresh water and of that only 1/3 is directly available for human use.

We need water to grow our food – eating is one of our most fundamental needs but in our modern society it is a need many take for granted.  For a small percent of our income we can go down to the store or supermarket and purchase what we want pretty much when we like without a thought about where it came from, what resources it took to make it or what we would do if it wasn’t there.

Many countries around the world have scarce water resources.  Many countries have to share their water resources with others downstream.

New Zealand, as we all know, is blessed with abundant water and we have it to ourselves.  Water makes us the lucky country but whether we are the smart country will depend on how we harness, utilise and mange that resource for the benefit of ourselves and the environment.

I say the environment because of course we share Aotearoa with plants, animals, bugs and other critters which thrived before this land was discovered by humanity only 1,000 years or so ago.

We also share it with those living things we have caused to come here either deliberately or inadvertently.  Some in both categories we value, others we consider pests.

 We have abundant water but it is not always in the right place at the right time.  North Canterbury had for example been in drought for three years.  This not only affected farmers who had to turn their irrigators off but also the rivers like the Selwyn – the subject of intense media scrutiny over the early part of this year.   Images of green pastures deluged by water counter struck with gasping fish and choking weed made it clear who the real villain was.

In the final Selwyn River hurrah before the rains came and ruined all the fun the Christchurch Press ran a front page article on the Irwell River and how the fishing had been destroyed.  Buried deep in the article were two small observations.  Nearby Heart Creek had been destitute some ten years before but farmers have got together and rehabilitated it.  Also mentioned was that the complaining fisherman had to travel to South Canterbury’s Opihi River with not a mention that it is supplemented by the Opuha Dam which farmers built.

This brings me to the answer to the question: How is the primary sector getting on the ground behaviour change to meet the challenge of improving fresh water?

The water debate has made one thing very clear to me:  Farmers hate being told what to do but give them a problem and they want to fix it.

Farmers have seen the problem of over allocation of water in the Selwyn and are working hard to address this.  They recognise the effect nutrients are having on Te Whaihora and are working to fix that too.
In my own patch of coastal South Canterbury farmers reacted strongly and negatively to the potential imposition of rules restricting water use and allocating nutrients.  However once they had become engaged and once they understood the issues they moved quickly from reaction to pro-action.

They worked together to achieve the best solution and which in my view needed to achieve two critical tests.  The first was that any regime would not affect the business value of the high emitters and the second being that any regime would not affect the land value of the low emitters.  I think we did pretty well in those regards but only because the farmers worked from the catchment up to find solutions.

Farmers engage with each other and, for the most part, want to be good neighbours.  I say for the most part because you can always find an exception to the rule.  Unfortunately for farmers it is the exception which the media tend to paint as the “typical” as we found out on the Sunday Programme a couple of months back.

Vilifying farmers from the top only enrages and alienates them.  It pushes them further away from the problem you are trying to get them to see.   It creates winners and losers and builds resentment.

That is why I am disappointed to see NGOs dragging farmers and councils to court over technicalities as we have seen in the Horizons situation.  They may be right in law but we are beginning to ask is the law itself right.  Is the law right when councils become hamstrung, terrified of making a legal mistake because it will be pounced on.

No one is saying that farmers and farming does not have an effect on the environment.  What I am saying is that up and down the country farmers get it and are working hard to address the problem.

Dairy farmers have spent over one billion dollars fencing rivers, riparian planting and improving effluent management.  Their dryland cousins have been the main contributors to the establishment of QEII covenants protecting private land for conservation at a real and opportunity cost of 1.2 to 1.4 billion dollars, our levy bodies spend millions of dollars on research much of it now focused on water issues.  Catchment by catchment farmers and other locals are working together to come up with solutions which are sensible, practical and affordable.  They are on a journey.

Outside of water farmers spend tens of millions of dollars per year on Tb control which also helps in the fight to save our birds through possum and predator control.  Individual farmers, for example those in the high country, each spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars on pest control such as rabbits, heiracium and wilding pines.  You can argue how they got there but the fact is those landscapes would not survive without farmers.

Finally, we are starting to see the science develop tools to reduce our environmental footprint such as precision agriculture, good farming practice, managed aquifer recharge and targeted stream augmentation to name a few.

Federated Farmers itself is looking for tools, solutions and answers - for example running a Sustainable Farmers Fund trial investigating the effect of medium to long-term irrigation on soil water holding capacity.

Despite this effort there are still catchments which need work and we need to concentrate our efforts there.

But I contend that behaviour change is already under way.  Eighty percent of our catchments have water which is either improving or steady with respect to water quality.  Even Horizons was achieving water quality progress as they implemented their plan and at the point they were dragged off to court.

On the ground behaviour change happens when the players are engaged constructively, not forced down a narrow set of unworkable rules.  On the ground behaviour happens when the problem is viewed from the ground up (catchment by catchment) not from the top down. And on the ground behaviour change happens when it is led by good science not activist rhetoric.

My message to the NGOs is if you want to get behaviour change get down at the catchment level where you can look the farmer and their family in the eye, where you can understand the dynamic and the sheer hard work so many farmers put in every day, realise that science is bringing the tools which will make the real difference and is already showing that in most catchments simply slashing animal numbers is not the only and certainly not the best solution.

Federated Farmers along with others has engaged with our farmers, has promoted ground up decision making and has pushed for the science to be developed and the rules to be based on it.

Farmers care about their land and it shows.  Recent reports from Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, and from the Ministry for the Environment show that farmers are just one part of the water puzzle and while it will take years, even decades, to reach the quality targets we are making progress.

What is more I think the penny is finally starting to drop for the media and they have started to articulate the farmer’s side of the story.  

So next time you eat, or purchase your food for the family, remember that it was grown by a farmer who needed to use water to grow that food. Remember farmers are on a journey to improve water quality.  Now we need the rest of New Zealand to get behind them.