Concerns over water quality report

    Environment Southland chief executive Rob Phillips.

    SOUTHLAND’S agricultural community feels like it is in the dark as rumours fly about an unpublished report on water quality, with one farmer saying it could be a disaster for the sector.

    As well as pushing for an independent appraisal of the Environment Southland (ES) report, farming advocate and dairy farmer Doug Fraser raised concerns during a council meeting last Wednesday.

    After the meeting, Mr Fraser told the Southland Express rumours of the report were causing concern among farmers.

    “We’re hearing it is suggesting massive cuts in nutrient loads in waterways.

    “It would mean no cows on the Southland plains.”

    Mr Fraser said if the report was as bad as what farmers were hearing, it would be catastrophic for the agricultural sector.

    While no longer actively involved in Federated Farmers, Mr Fraser said as a life member he felt a responsibility to the community.

    He said there was confused messaging coming from ES.

    He referred to a column by chief executive Rob Phillips in the Southland Express, which he said encapsulated some of his concerns.

    It was emotional stuff and it concerned him.

    “Rob is saying you’re still delving into the science, and yet what I hear out on the streets is that the science has been in your hands since about Christmas time,” Mr Fraser said.

    Farmers were being alienated and water was prioritised over people, he said.

    He had sent questions to both ES and the regional forum, a community group which reports to the regional council, about whether the forum had a role in establishing community values and objectives, when and how that would occur and how community sentiment would be conveyed.

    ES chairman Nicol Horrell said while they could not have a discussion then, the council would get back to him on his questions and noted that, under government regulation, it was required to set limits.

    After the meeting, Mr Phillips said the region faced significant environmental challenges.

    ES was working to find solutions and spoke with thousands of Southlanders during the process of compiling values and objectives.

    He said the report Mr Fraser referred to was about nutrient reduction work and, while not yet published, was part of building understanding of what was required to improve waterways.

    This was being shared with stakeholders, including Federated Farmers, for review.

    While it was still in draft form, discussions on the nature of the findings had begun.

    This would continue.

    Findings had been derived using the best possible science and models, which were published in peer-reviewed international journals, he said.

    However, the focus was not on the numbers so much as the scale of change required and steps to take.

    “We know just how important our agricultural sector is to Southland and Southlanders, as well as to the national economy and we need to make sure that we are able to retain confidence within our rural sector.”

    To achieve the reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus, E. coli and sediment, ES would support the farming sector and wider community to better understand what was needed and to make changes and improvements in stages, over time, he said.

    The pace of change needed to be accelerated.

    “The change needed is simply too big for any one agency to achieve alone and will require strong regional and national partnerships with a long-term vision.

    “That’s where Southland’s experience and success in working together will come into its own.”

    He also noted values and objectives were released last November in the draft Murihiku Southland freshwater objectives.

    ES had recently hosted a hui with council, industry and local leaders to discuss and work towards a plan to address these environmental challenges, he said.

    Mr Phillips said it was constructive and had resulted in further workshops being planned to develop feasible, achievable actions in the short and medium term.