Thursday, October 02, 2008

Dirty rivers

Five years ago, in response to increasing pressure over dirty dairying, Fonterra and the government set up the Clean Streams Accord [PDF], aimed at reducing dairying impacts by voluntary regulation. Fonterra agreed to encourage its dairy farmers to follow "best practice", fencing off streams and treating effluent, the government agreed not to regulate them properly, and everyone avoided a major political fight.

According to a report [PDF] out today from Forest & Bird and Fish & Game, that accord has failed. Farmer compliance with the scheme is doubtful, and data from regional councils on non-compliance is consistently much worse than that reported in the Accord's progress reports. More importantly, the Accord has failed in what should be its most basic metric: our rivers and streams are now dirtier today than they were when the accord was signed.

The reasons for this failure are twofold. Firstly, there is the usual problem with voluntary approaches: a lack of sanctions for non-compliance. Farmers could just keep on polluting, so they did. Meanwhile, the reluctance of regional councils to prosecute those who refuse to comply with their resource consents allowed them to get away with it. But in addition to that, Fonterra's goal of 4% annual growth in milk production (meaning 4% annual growth in cowshit) has increased environmental pressure, and in the long term is simply unsustainable unless we want to turn our rivers into open sewers. That may suit dairy farmers, who are laughing all the way to the bank on the back of that environmental destruction. But I don't think it will suit the rest of New Zealand, who want a clean, green country, safe drinking water, and the ability to swim without risking disease.

Forest & Bird and Fish & Game want the Accord reviewed, and suggest a number of measures if it is retained, including implementing the Accord's standards as regulations so that non-compliance can be sanctioned. I have a better suggestion: can the Accord, implement real regulations to protect water quality, and actually enforce them. More importantly, remove the farmer exemption from the RMA, and require farms to apply for resource consent like any other polluting industrial activity. Until we do that, we're simply fighting the symptoms, not the real disease.