The best part was from Mt Cook to Lake Waitaki – through the McKenzie Country. But the rest of it is a downhill experience as the effects of another one of John Key’s legacy projects gets up your nose.
Being an Oamaru boy, at Waikaki Boys High School, this landscape was my backyard. And later when I attended Canterbury University, my backyard extended to include much of the Canterbury Plains.
We had a family crib (bach) at Gemmell’s Crossing on the Kakanui River 8 miles from home. Even in the hottest summer you could jump off the bridge, or a willow tree rope swing. The river was deep, wide, clear, fast-flowing and glorious. Dad was a keen fly-fisherman.
Now it’s buggered.
Too much water being taken out of it, and from bores sucking down its feeder aquifers. For irrigation.
The soils that have naturally developed in the normally semi-arid climate (600mm of rain in an average year) don’t hold much water. Any extra goes through, some runs off on the underlying clays, some into the water table, and the rest into aquifers. That was when it did rain. Now centrally-pivoting irrigators have taken over. Inevitably, to get the grass growth needed, much of the land is over-irrigated.
So now any dissolved nitrates or any other chemicals or fertilisers, get washed into the river or into the aquifers. It’s not rain anymore that wets the ground and replenishes the groundwaters. It’s irrigation. And it’s washing through what clogged up my bike gears. Which is why what water we do see today in the Kakanui is green and weed-filled. Most people in New Zealand don’t know about the Kakanui River. More know about what’s happening to rivers in the Canterbury Plains.
Here’s some remarkable photo essays that Stuff has run recently on Canterbury’s braided Ashley and Selwyn Rivers.Community Mourns its Lost River; Selwyn is polluted and running dry; Trout get free ride to deeper water; 60% drop in river flow.
I talked to a Fish and Game Executive member about what’s happening. He’s angry of course. One thing he told me explains attitudes.
Apparently New Zealand’s Primary Industries Minister was in South Canterbury, talking to farmers. His memorable quote, when he talked about the rivers?
“Every drop that gets to the sea is water wasted….”
That’s the attitude of most - but not all - farmers. Seems to be the attitude of government Ministers.
The Minister of Environment writes: “good science and not slogans are at the heart of decision-making…” He’s grumpy at Fish and Game. He argues: “making every river swimmable is ‘not practical’…” And on Hastings and Havelock North: there’s “…’no evidence’ of dairy linked to gastro…”
Yet these are ministers in a government that sacked ECan Regional Councillors who, under advice from their water quality scientists, moved to restrict water-take permits in Canterbury for more dairy farming because of modelled nitrate pollution risks.
Seems like there’s science we like, and science we don’t.
Did you know that Fonterra gives itself a GST holiday on a proportion of the milk it buys from cooperative farmers? Payments for that milk are treated instead as a dividend and don’t generate GST revenues for central government. This is a subsidy to Fonterra farmers.
Nevertheless, in terms of central government revenues, Fonterra’s annual turnover (2015 year) of $18.8 bn (equivalent to almost a third of NZ government’s annual tax revenues) resulted in around $500 million in total tax payments (compare - by the way - with the $2.8bn GST collected annually from tourists). However these fiscal numbers don’t account for the total cost to New Zealand, or to the rest of the world for that matter, of the focus our country has on dairy farming.
|Action photo of me at start of A2O taken by Emily Cayford|
If you looked at my A2O video you will have seen the quality and clarity of rivers in Central Otago close to their source. Hard to value the losses that are being caused by dairy intensification.
The bald Fonterra numbers exclude or conceal externalities - external costs such as:
- Loss of fresh water area and amenity for local population recreation (swimming, boating and fishing)
- Loss of biomass and diversity of freshwater ecosystems (eels and trout are at the end of a complex food-chain)
- Loss of cultural and geographical landscapes for regional parks, tourist attractions, and which are reminders of what physically shaped our human history and character
- Loss of future tourist revenues - who wants to look at or bike through dairy factory farming?
- Loss of dry-weather resilience because of reduced water volumes stored in underground aquifers
- Loss of global economic resilience because of focus and reliance on mono-culture agriculture
- Loss of rainforest land in Malaysia and Indonesia. Over 1.5 million hectares of palm plantations were planted to meet typical annual New Zealand imports of Palm Kernel processing products to supplement the pasture feed of the country’s dairy herd (2008 data).
Whose water is it anyway – especially the underground water? And whose landscape is it – particularly outstanding landscapes that intensive irrigation will change forever?
This is not a natural disturbance. Like an earthquake.
It is a disturbance borne of short-term economic planning which is slowly destroying what could be termed a kiwi birthright, core kiwi values, the essence of New Zealand. The institutions that enable this disturbance know their economic livelihoods, and of everyone who works for them, depend on the disturbance continuing, and understand it is part of their role to minimize and dismiss and deflect concern and criticism.
Fonterra, Dairy New Zealand, and Government Ministers all share this responsibility.
How long will New Zealanders let them get away with it – that is the question?
(Stop Press: Some are doing something about this now. You can read a useful article about what's happening in the McKenzie country in the current issue of the Listener magazine. And EDS - Environmental Defence Society - is mounting a legal challenge to the irrigation and land use changes that are happening. They are in court this month and need financial support. EDS were successful in a similar King Salmon challenge relating to aquaculture in the Marlborough Sounds. They are an effective organisation. I suggest you make a donation. Go here.)