She’s a hard road finding the perfect regulations for water-quality and use as attested to by the five years Otago Regional Council has been locking horns over the issue with those earning a living from the parched land.

Arriving at a set of rules that protects precious, clean fresh water without being the straw that breaks the back for family farms is proving a tough ask.

As a revised deadline draws nearer for implementation of initial changes, there are fears of grim financial consequences for both farmers and foresters.

Both industries appear willing but also weary from the pile-on of new regulations, negative vibes towards their industries, climbing interest rates and fluctuating returns.

The big picture for some farming families means getting out may become the only option, industry leaders say.

Some Otago farmers feel they’re in limbo between six years of increasing workloads and costs and a new phase of waiting for relief from a more rural-friendly government.

In Central Otago it seems universally accepted that action had to be taken to improve pockets of very poor water quality and relieve pressure on rivers from irrigation.

E. coli levels at one troublesome site on the Manuherekia River near Omakau now show a marked drop since a 10-year high that peaked in 2019, according to data from Land Air Water Aotearoa, an organisation whose members include councils and the Ministry for the Environment.

The overall state of the river is, however, described as being in decline.

Aside from what farmers have done off their own bat to improve things, wider-scale controls have been delayed because of disagreements over scientific evidence and workability of regulations.

Nothing will change this summer with the first binding implementation of new rules not due for another eight months.

On a chilly Friday in October in the midst of lamb tailing, the Otago Regional Council held its last drop-in session for farmers to discuss its draft land and water regional plan.

A big turn-out of about 80 people sat at tables in the tiny Ophir hall near the Manuherekia River to nut out the issues.

One of the issues for the Manuherekia River, the main flow of which is out of sight in this February photo near Omakau, is how much water irrigators should be allowed to take. Photo: Jill Herron

Over on the Taieri River, Maniototo farmer Dawn Sangster says people there are also keen to improve environmental outcomes.

The challenge is finding ways to do it that work, such as sensible setbacks from waterways.

“Many farmers have been fencing off waterways for years well ahead of the regulations and investing in reticulated water systems.

“There would be nothing more demoralising than taking down a perfectly good fence and putting it up 7m further out.”

Increased setbacks – also a bone of contention for foresters – would add cost, take time and labour away from farm work and give weeds such as fast-growing willows along the Taieri’s banks new spaces to invade.

Sangster, who with husband David farms 2870ha near Ranfurly, has also had a long career in governance in large agricultural companies.

She says storing water in dams and using less irrigation over larger areas makes a lot of sense in an area of less than 400mm of annual rainfall.

Both these strategies will be more expensive and difficult if not possible under proposed new rules.

Handing on family farms to the next generation hinges on financial viability and the younger and older generations are “probably struggling” now with such succession issues, Sangster says.

“Farms are expensive to buy and have a low return on capital. This is harder at the moment due to lower profitability, one reason why many sheep and beef farms have been sold for forestry lately.”

Bad press

She’s seen many Central Otago farmers embracing change and new technology to mitigate agriculture’s environmental effects but then losing confidence in the face of negative media coverage.

“I think farmers have been hurt by the negative commentary as we are all working hard and doing the best that we can.

“Farmers get frustrated by regulations that are impractical and add cost especially if they feel they are not being listened to.”

Ben and Anna Gillespie, who farm a 400ha beef and dairy grazing property at Omakau across the Manuherekia from Ophir, say finding time to have input in decision-making is their biggest challenge.

“It’s the time spent keeping up to date with a never-ending volley of new regulations and interpreting which affect us and which don’t – time involved not in completing paperwork but completing submissions and evidence for hearings,” Anna Gillespie says. 

“When 10- and 12-year-olds know what submissions and evidence are, the world has gone a bit haywire.”

The couple weren’t keen to talk to Newsroom after previous negative media experiences.

Anna Gillespie, who calls a spade a spade, says she is fed up with a nationwide trend of “totally unjustified” farmer-bashing mostly on account of their industry’s methane emissions.

Sangster acknowledges this too saying beef, dairy cattle and sheep numbers have dropped considerably, but without tools to tackle greenhouse-gas issues, there’s not much farmers can do.

“If there was something on the shelf we could buy and give our livestock to reduce emissions we would.

“There is research going on but until genetics, vaccines, feed additives or some other solution is available we need to work at being as efficient as we can within our existing systems.”

Those in Gillespie’s locality are focusing on improving water quality as it is a problem on which they can have an effect.

Talking the talk … Central Otago farmers and regional council staff discuss water in Ophir. Photo: Supplied

However, the drawn-out process of setting new minimum river flows and irrigation takes has left farmers guessing in terms of planning.

“It is hugely stressful with the uncertainty of how much and when and this has been going on for years.”

While she hears constantly of people exiting the industry, she also knows plenty of young tertiary-study graduates who are starting out.

Interest rates are the key factor that pushes existing farmers out, Gillespie says, combined with their other challenges.

Pain v gain

Otago Regional Council staff describe the process of setting new water regulations as a “moving feast”, while trying to assure landowners they are doing the job in ways that cause the least pain.

The region’s draft plan broadly covers water quality and usage, earthworks, drilling and discharges and draws on new national environmental standards and policy, conservation orders and new regional policy.

The focus is on reducing contaminants such as E. coli, sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen.

“It will be important, however, that the plan speaks to and supports any on-farm actions required under other legislation including climate-change goals,” says council policy and science general manager Anita Dawe.

Dawe says discussions have been “robust”, with worries over the implications of the change of government now being added to the list.

“There are concerns about increasing consent and compliance costs … about efficiencies and ensuring the plan does not duplicate existing regulations.

“Some feedback has been around resilience of the sector to respond to change given the economic environment.”

Changes have largely been driven by central government but the as-yet-unformed coalition government aims to tip that on its head.

National and likely partner Act say, respectively, they want Wellington out of farming and out of making freshwater regulations.

NZ First, which could also be part of any coalition, vows to “slash red tape and regulatory blocks” on irrigation, water storage and the like.

It supports the administration of farm environment plans at a catchment-by-catchment level.

Such moves would probably be at odds with aspects of Otago’s intended new regional plan but it’s unclear if the sequence of events will see legal changes already in place by the time a new government tackles the issues.

Dawe says, however, that irrespective of national direction, Otago has water issues that must be addressed.

“At this point we, like the general public, are waiting for the new government to be formed to understand any implications.

“Broadly speaking, however, our state-of-the-environment monitoring has demonstrated we have water-quality trends that require attention and we also have known water-quantity challenges.”

Bryce McKenzie, a West Otago farmer and co-founder of lobby group Groundswell, told council staff during a tense online feedback session in late October that he was most concerned for the next generation.

“I have had a number of messages from young people, young farmers who haven’t been farming long, and they are really struggling to know how they are going to meet their commitments to debt servicing and running their properties in the future if a number of the things in your plan are implemented.”

Forest grumps

Commercial foresters describe some of the draft regulations as “extreme” and feel ambushed by proposed planting setbacks from waterways.

Nine years in the making, new National Environmental Standards for Commercial Forestry(NES-CF), which come into effect on November 3, already cover their industry, Forest Owners Association president Grant Dodson told Otago regional councillors in late October.

He says additional requirements of the region’s proposed land and water plan could result in a “catastrophic” $320 million dollar loss in value of Otago’s plantations as well as huge social implications.

The presentation of the forester’s concerns was something of an ambush itself.

Council staff and elected members heard the dramatic predictions for the first time alongside ratepayers and the media in a public forum during a regular monthly council meeting.

Feedback on the draft plan closes on November 6, then all will go quiet for the summer as council staff attempt to accommodate feedback in the document without compromising on their duty to safeguard the water.

At the end of June next year parts of the new plan will then be notified and legally actioned.

Somewhere in between changes driven by the new government may alter matters.

However, the intention is for submissions to then be opened, hearings held and final decisions made.

Any appeals would then be heard before the document supersedes Otago’s 2004 water plan. 

No deadline appears to be set for final adoption. As the Southern Man of Speights beer advert fame says, it seems “there’s no hurry, aye”.

Meanwhile, predictions are for low returns this season from the sheep, beef and milk markets.

There’s also an unpredictable El Niño summer brewing with its dramatic temperature swings, long dry spells and occasional dumps of flood-inducing rain.

Neither will be great for farmers or nature with the E. coli in the rivers the only thing that might do well this summer.

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

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