10 Oct 2016

Council slow to move stock in rivers - campaigner

8:26 am on 10 October 2016

Campaigners for cleaner rivers in Northland are accusing the regional council of dragging its heels over rules to keep stock out of waterways.

Cattle on Waiotu River in Northland - Millan Ruka said the council had a poor track record in stopping pollution.

Cattle on Waiotu River in Northland. Millan Ruka said the regional council had a poor track record in stopping pollution. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

The council has no regulations to stop farmers letting cattle graze banks and foul streams and is now drafting rules that would give it a basis to do that - but not for some time.

In its new draft regional plan the Northland Regional Council has proposed that dairy herds must be kept out of streams as soon as the plan becomes operative - some time after 2018.

Most Northland dairy farmers have already fenced their waterways, spurred on by Fonterra and 50 percent subsidies from the council.

But the plan gives farmers until 2025 to fence off other stock, including beef and dairy support cattle, a term used to describe cows that are not being milked.

The council's consents manager Colin Dall said that beef farmers had lagged behind in fencing and needed time to catch up.

"The council recognises that the beef and deer sector hasn't initiated stock exclusion programmes to the same extent as the dairy sector," he said.

"They will require more work and investment to exclude stock. We've also taken into account that stocking rates on beef and deer farms are a lot less than for dairy so the impact tends to be less than with dairy cows."

Whangarei's Environmental River Patrol (ERP) founder Millan Ruka said beef and dairy support cattle could make as big a mess of a stream as a milking herd.

Mr Ruka cited the example of a dairy support cattle polluting the Hatea River just above the Whangarei Falls - a popular swimming hole for local children.

The farmer fenced this winter, Mr Ruka said, but only after pressure from ERP and Fonterra, not from the regional council.

Mr Ruka said the council generally ignored his countless reports of beef cattle in Northland rivers.

Hatea River

The cattle at a stream that feeds into the Hatea River, the Whangarei Falls, and the harbour. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

But recently it's served abatement and infringement notices on three farmers whose cattle he's photgraphed in waterways, which was encouraging.

Mr Ruka said it probably helped that in those cases the stock fouling the streams were plainly visible to the public.

"If it's out of sight, it's hard to get any traction from the council," he said.

Council reluctance to act shameful, says campaigner

Mr Dall said the council was getting tougher on repeat offenders, especially farmers who had been offered subsidies to fence and turned them down.

But another campaigner for clean rivers, the author and researcher Wade Doak, said the council's apparent reluctance to act against farmers and foresters was shameful.

He believed the recent sediment build up in the Ngunguru estuary and the die-back of its pipi beds was the result of the council's failure to monitor pine harvesting in the catchment.

Mr Doak and wife Jan contributed to a recent Environment and Conservation Organisations study of the impact of forestry on the Ngunguru River in 2014.

In it they concluded that the steep erosion prone hills were not suitable for pine forestry because of the damage that harvesting caused to waterways.

"There was monitoring (of the Ngunguru logging) but we judge that on the basis of the evidence to have been sometimes inadequate and insufficiently frequent," the report said.

Mr Doak said part of the problem was the number of people on the Regional Council from farming or other land-use backgrounds.

"I'm not surprised that they would want to protect themselves from taking the measures that need to be taken," he says.

"But they must know in their heart of hearts that what they are doing is not sustainable and they're asking the public to carry the load. And that shouldn't be accepted by the public.

"We should not have to carry that load. We want rivers that you can swim in."

However Mr Dall said the regional council believed it had struck the right balance between environmental gains and economic costs, with its draft plan.

The council has had 46 submissions on the draft stock exclusion rules - some saying they are too tough - others saying they are too lax.

Mr Dall said the rules might change when the proposed plan comes out next year.

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