Tilting at windmills instead of the Manawatu River

Published: Wed 25 Aug 2010 05:42 PM
Tilting at windmills instead of the Manawatu River
Guest Opinion by John Barrow, Federated Farmers Tararua provincial president
In recent weeks there’s been rehash of a nasty farmer stereotype over the Manawatu River. You know what I mean. Farmers seemingly thumbing their noses at an environmental imperative and being tut-tutted by mayors and environmentalists as pendants. The fact ratepayers cash has been spent on anything but sewage upgrades is brushed into the drain. The media digests all of this into bite-sized packages using ‘hard evidence’ from the Cawthron Institute’s misunderstood and misreported study.
Federated Farmers hasn’t signed the Manawatu River Accord yet, but still intends to. So before you fully form that ‘nasty farmer stereotype’, I have one request. Before judging me or my fellow farmers, come onto my farm to see the fencing, plantings and effluent systems I’ve spent my hard-earned cash and sweat putting in. I’m deeply proud of this and farmers throughout New Zealand opened their gates in late March for Farm Day to showcase that pride. I must say that many of those now throwing stones at us were absent. Never mind, there’s still 2011, so I hope the media, politicians and environmentalists who have devoted so much negativity towards us, will do the decent thing and promote Farm Day 2011 with gusto. Unlike the cartoons of Tom Scott, we dairy farmers are aware of our obligations and we don’t pour stuff directly into water. I want to you show you how dairy shed effluent is recycled back to pasture as a liquid fertilizer. We are light years ahead of where we were even a decade ago.
This is part of my personal tangible investment to improve my local environment and I see it working. Excepting Manawatu Mayor, Ian McKelvie, what have these mayors and environmentalists, now critical of us, done to reduce their personal impact upon water?
When farmers sign something we generally carry through on our promises, so Federated Farmers involvement with the Accord was conditional on taking any document back to our membership. That was on 14 July and this is sound because this isn’t about tomorrow, next week or next year, we’re talking about generations of farmers to come. I think 48 hours is insufficient because on 16 July, the regional council released it to the media. I want to work through the Accord with my Manawatu/Rangitikei counterpart and our members. It seems our attempt for farmer consensus didn’t fit the electoral timeline of some mayors. They may crassly call this ‘pedantic and pathetic’, but I call it principled and considered.
Yet the Accord does contain emotional wording reflective of that widely misreported (Our rivers of shame) Cawthron Institute study. But how many have read the Institute’s follow-up to clear ‘a lack of understanding of the study and its implications’? Its author tellingly writes this, “…our research DOES NOT (author’s emphasis) indicate that the Manawatu River is the worst in the western world.” The study used one indicator based upon 283 river sampling points from some 123 rivers from Australia though to that major western power, Puerto Rico. Yet 163 of the sampling points (57 percent) are from New Zealand and we have around 1,200 rivers and major streams. 123 rivers cannot be representative or comprehensive, given North America alone has 250,000. Yet the Oxygen Indicator brings up the West Coast’s pristine Mokihinui River (as those opposed to its damming repeatedly point out), as more ‘degraded’ than Southland’s Makarewa River. There are plenty of farms and some industry on that particular river, so an ‘indicator’ is only useful if it allows reliable discrimination of impacted and unimpacted sites. Comparative major rivers like the Ohio (USA), Thames (UK), Murray (Australia), Seine (France) and the Rhine (Europe) are absent from the list. That’s why the Cawthron Institute never said their study was the definitive work on global rivers, as some media and lobbyists have made it out to be. Conversely, the US universities, Yale and Columbia, have ranked New Zealand second out of 163 nations for overall water quality – a mysteriously underreported ‘clean-green’ success.
Yet I expect some who have signed the Accord will do what’s happened in the past and claim ‘it will cost ratepayers too much’. While politicians sign one thing, they go off and spend money on the complete opposite, given the underinvestment in human sewage. How many millions have been spent on large visible council projects instead of wastewater? Treated human sewage seems out of sight and out of mind. But when Federated Farmers does sign the Accord, it will be to address our problem with nitrogen and not the deficiencies of the towns and cities. In this context, the World Health Organisation’s drinking water standard for nitrogen is 11.3 parts per million (ppm) while the Manawatu is well under 1ppm. Nobody will get sick from drinking or swimming in the Manawatu because of nitrogen, given it’s a nutrient and not bacteria.
Despite everything, Federated Farmers is still working with Accord members while we meet with our members. Both Federated Farmers’ provinces are looking to sign the Manawatu River Accord at month’s end with virtually all of our members backing. We’re keen to be part of that community-wide plan to improve the Manawatu River but we know it demands a lot more than PR.

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