The board of inquiry decision on one facet of the Ruataniwha irrigation scheme in Hawke’s Bay started to display far wider repercussions last week.
Prime Minister John Key’s “not yet” response, at his post-Cabinet press conference, said as much in reverse – that, once the appeal period is over, if the board’s decision doesn’t suit, the Government might intervene.
Irrigation NZ chief executive Andrew Curtis claimed the board’s decision on nitrogen leaching would affect at least 10% of New Zealand’s waterways – effectively, all the dairy land – and to meet it everywhere would devastate farming.
In response to that, green groups Fish & Game, Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society and the Environmental Defence Society were scathing about the Irrigation NZ view. Fish & Game chief executive Bryce Johnson said: “Irrigation NZ’s scaremongering about nitrogen leaching limits should be seen for what it is – a push for a pollution subsidy.”
Environment & Conservation ministers Amy Adams & Nick Smith sent the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s proposed plan change 6 and the Hawke’s Bay Regional Investment Co’s notice of requirement & 17 resource consent applications for the Ruataniwha water storage scheme, together the Tukituki catchment proposal, to a board of inquiry in June 2013.
The board approved the $275 million scheme on 10 April, with a draft ruling on nitrogen limits.
Irrigation NZ asked NIWA (the National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research Ltd) to produce a map of where dissolved inorganic nitrogen levels in New Zealand fresh waterways exceed 0.8mg/litre – “this is the limit set by the board of inquiry in the Tukituki plan change”.
Mr Curtis added: “This may help us understand what the consequences will be if this number is set as a precedent for New Zealand’s fresh waterways.”
Environmental Defence Society chairman Gary Taylor and Forest & Bird advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell said in a joint statement: “We are also concerned that statements made by Irrigation NZ are misleading. The NIWA report it commissioned maps rivers where the median nitrogen concentration exceeds 0.8 mg/L. However, the nitrogen limit set by the board of inquiry will apply to the average nitrogen concentration. In practice this is a limit that will be met more easily.”
The board set out its limits in a table (volume 3, part 2 conditions schedule 1-3, page 88, table 5) showing limits in 4 zones. Footnotes to the table said the maximum in-river median concentration of nitrate-nitrogen in 2 pairs of zones was the median of results obtained over a period of one year, and the maximum 95th percentile of nitrate-nitrogen concentration in those 2 pairs of zones should be calculated from monitoring results obtained over a period of one year. The maximum dissolved inorganic nitrogen in all 4 zones was 0.8mg/litre (no mention of average or median).
NIWA mapped river reaches around much of the country to find where median dissolved inorganic nitrogen concentrations exceeded 0.8mg/L, but commented that most of the results were from 2006-10 and the model fitting process was conservative, tending to under-predict at the higher end of the observed range, so the model might underestimate the extent to which the 0.8 mg/L threshold was exceeded.
It showed “a strong tendency for dissolved inorganic nitrogen to be highest in catchments dominated by heavy pastoral landcover”.
The short answer is that the limits set for Ruataniwha would force less use of nitrogen on land throughout the dairy industry if enforced nationally.
Fish & Game chief executive Bryce Johnson alleged Irrigation NZ was scaremongering about nitrogen leaching limits in a push for a pollution subsidy: “The irrigation industry already reaps massive taxpayer-funded handouts for infrastructure development & free water. Now the sector is telling the public they are going to have to suck up the social, financial & environmental costs of more pollution in their waterways.
“That’s a slap in the face to the 93% of Kiwis who, we know from research, want our waterways to be safe for swimming, fishing & food gathering.
“Irrigation NZ is claiming that, to have an economy based on intensive agriculture, which goes hand-in-hand with irrigation development, we have to have toxic rivers & unsafe drinking water. This is the reality in parts of Canterbury – the most heavily irrigated region in the country – and Southland. It’s almost like they’re saying, ‘What’s a little pollution between friends if it makes us rich?’
“I seriously wonder whether Fonterra & Dairy NZ subscribe to Irrigation NZ’s extreme stance calling for Kiwis to accept more pollution in their rivers & drinking water supplies. Perhaps they could tell us?
“The fact is, Irrigation NZ’s ‘either/or’ argument is a myth. We can have a healthy economy and a healthy environment. All the evidence, and the reality on the ground, is that farmers can be profitable & productive while significantly reducing their environmental impact. In some instances they can reduce their nitrogen leaching by up to 40% or more with no or little impact on their profitability.”
He gave 3 examples:
- A report by Dairy NZ (Cost benefit & economic impact analysis of the Horizons One plan, a report prepared for Dairy NZ & Horizons Regional Council by Nimmo Bell, October 2013) into the economic impacts of the One Plan farming rules, which essentially represents a worse-case scenario, concluded that farmers could on average reduce their leaching by 20% and increase profitability by 2%
- Scott Farm in the Waikato leaching 50% less than the regional average while maintaining profitability
- Lincoln university dairy farm 20% reduction in nitrogen leaching while maintaining profitability.
The Environmental Defence Society and Forest & Bird leaders said: “Whether Irrigation NZ likes it or not, the reality is that irrigation schemes should only go ahead if they can operate within acceptable environmental limits. To do otherwise would be reckless & irresponsible….
“The Land & Water Forum brought together industry (including Irrigation NZ), environmental, recreational, iwi & other organisations to develop a shared vision for freshwater & land management. It concluded that land use intensification has to be subject to water quality limits that protect ecosystem health. We continue to agree with this consensus view.
“On the basis of more than 28,000 pages of material, the board concluded that a limit of 0.8mg/L was the highest nitrogen concentration that would protect ecosystem health while providing for sustainable agricultural land use.”
When the board of inquiry released its decision in April with the draft ruling on nitrogen limits, Irrigation NZ’s Andrew Curtis was happy with it: “Seeing first-hand the drought that is starting to crush many parts of the North Island, we can only conclude that Ruataniwha is not only overdue, but essential if the Hawke’s Bay is to survive.
“Creating& investing in water storage throughout New Zealand needs to continue to be a priority for the Government, particularly on the east coast, which the recent UN climate change report confirms will only get drier.”
He said the decision to turn down the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s proposed “single nutrient” wasn’t entirely unexpected: “Phosphorus & nitrogen, along with sediment & riparian stream protection, all need to be managed to protect water quality – each aspect is covered through the farm environment plan approach to be implemented as part of the Ruataniwha water storage scheme.
“The Environmental Protection Authority’s decision (through the board of inquiry) is a positive step to New Zealand unlocking its renewable resources for the benefit of all. It’s now down to the local farming & business communities to get on board – both as investors and also to increase initial uptake.”
However, after asking NIWA to conduct further research, his tune changed when that research “found that all waterways in highly productive fertile plains of the country exceeded the limit. This was 10% of 622 sites mapped through New Zealand. This means that the farms which produce the bulk of New Zealand’s food for consumption & export will be in breach and be facing significant reductions.
“Having to claw back to these limits will significantly impact production and will detrimentally affect local communities which rely on farming & food processing industries to provide thousands of jobs in factories. If we are to not paralyse New Zealand’s economy in the short to medium term, we need to set ourselves up with achievable goals in regards to nutrient management.
“Reducing the environmental footprint of farming in New Zealand is critical. But we need to do this in realistic ways which do not cut the lifeline to much of New Zealand and do not stagnate our economy.”
Regardless of the board of inquiry’s draft ruling on nitrogen limits, Fish & Game’s Bryce Johnson said the economics around the scheme “have been dodgy from the outset. Agriculture industry experts have crunched the numbers and these clearly show a negative return on investment to farmers. This will be compounded by the recently forecast reduced dairy payout. Little wonder no one wants to buy in.
“But it begs the question: Why are Irrigation NZ & others trying so hard to ram this project through with no reference to environmental limits, when all it will do is burden farmers with more debt? If farmers aren’t going to benefit, and the Tukituki River will certainly suffer, whose interests are the pro-dam lobby really serving?”
Attribution: EPA, Irrigation NZ, Environmental Defence Society, Fish & Game, Forest & Bird, ministerial decision.