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Canterbury farmers unhappy with Government's freshwater plan

Eleisha Foon for rnz.co.nz

Some Canterbury farmers are dismissing the Government's plan to clean up the country's waterways as a pipe-dream.

Regional councils across the country have been organising meetings to debate the best ways to reduce nitrates from dairy farming.

According to the Institute of Economic Research, Canterbury is the second highest dairy-producing region, behind Waikato, but many farmers there feel unfairly targeted by what the government has proposed.

"Farming is the art of losing money, while trying to feed and clothe the world while the world thinks you're trying to poison them, the atmosphere and the environment," Canterbury farmer Jeremy Talbot said.

The Government is proposing 19 new rules, including tightening control on farm land intensification, with an aim to improve the quality of New Zealand's streams, lakes and rivers.

The government would need farmers to take immediate action to reduce nitrogen loss in catchments, including cutting fertiliser use, draining wetlands, excluding stock from waterways from June next year.

Jeremy Talbot worried the changes would push an already stressed and anxious rural community over the edge.

"We talk about suicide rates, we're only going to hit the tip of the ice berg at the moment the way things are going. There's absolutely no confidence out there in the rural economy at all at the moment," he said.

Under the proposal, some Canterbury farmers said they would be expected to reduce nitrogen levels by up to 80 per cent for some catchments, a task that Federated Farmers mid-Canterbury president David Clark said was impossible.

"I don't actually yet understand the rationale why it would be proposed. The problem is, if you propose a set of rules that are unachievable you don't get community buy-in and if you don't get community buy-in, you don't actually make any progress," Mr Clark said.

Vaughan Payne, chairperson of the Regional Sector Water Subgroup and chief executive of Waikato Regional Council, said the government's science advisory group had not taken on board the social or economic impacts when putting forward the proposals, which concerned them.

"While the government's freshwater discussion document proposes various important interventions to improve freshwater, one very important question raised is whether the proposed Dissolved Inorganic Nitrogen (DIN) and Dissolved Reactive Phosphorus (DRP) standards should apply nationally or on a more targeted basis," said Mr Payne.

"This is a question that needs to be answered because we know that there are multiple factors that affect ecosystem health, the impact of nutrients as a stressor varies considerably around the country, as well as between catchments," he said.

Forest and Bird's Annabeth Cohen said she understood many farmers were working to reduce damage to the environment but drastic change was needed to turn around the years of pollution.

"The water in Canterbury is not healthy at all, which is reflective of the current regulation. It allows toxicity and that level of pollution is what sees our native fresh water fish in serious decline," she said.

Regional councils would also be accountable for freshwater quality.

In a statement, Katherine Trought of the Canterbury Regional Council said it was already developing its own plans to manage nitrates in freshwater rivers. She told RNZ it was confident farmers were already doing their best.

Ashburton farmer, Mark Slee won a national environment award in 2014 for his farming practices and believed farmers were already trying to do their bit for the environment.

Submissions on the governments proposal closed in mid October.

Herd of dairy cows. Source: rnz.co.nz