Otago Regional Water Plan

October 2012

The potential effects of a new regional water plan for Otago farmers

The Otago Regional Council is bringing in a controversial new water plan, and its chairman Stephen Woodhead and the Otago Federated Farmers chairman, dairy farmer Stephen Korteweg talk about its likely impacts.

Stephen Korteweg and his wife Rhonda milk 580 cows on their 180ha Stirling farm and have a runoff of 35ha nearby. This grazes young stock and some cows during winter, while 400 of the cows in their herd are wintered in two herd homes to avoid the risk of soil damage.

The farm is right beside the Clutha River, and although it appears flat, there is 2m of fall from one end of the farm to the other, allowing for reasonably speedy drainage.

The farm also has a variety of shelter trees including Leyland cypress, eucalypts and alders, but most are poplars, thriving in the deep, damp soils. The favourite is Veronese, and its vigorous narrow crowned habit suits this property perfectly.

The farm produces around 1300kgMS/ha. While Stephen believes production could be pushed higher, he is confident they have the right balance at present on their riverside environment.

They also have an advanced effluent management system and a nutrient plan which has reduced fertiliser costs and significantly reduced the risk of nutrient run-off. Their farm is an excellent example of how to achieve high production while protecting the environment, and using trees to create shelter and enhance the landscape. Three years ago Stephen and Rhonda won the Otago Ballance Farm Environment Awards.

Stephen Woodhead, Chairman of the Otago Regional Council explains that the Proposed Plan Change 6A (water quality) aims to ensure the good water quality of Otago’s waterways are maintained and improved where necessary. The focus of the plan change is on non-point source discharges to water in rural areas, such as contaminants coming out of drains, and from runoff and leaching.

It will affect agriculture, forestry and subdivision where contaminants are discharged into water, or if water is discharged back into water, such as from a dam or irrigation scheme.

A new suite of controls will prohibit discharges that have an obvious adverse effect on water quality, or from disturbed land to water where no practical steps are taken to avoid sediment run-off. Discharges will have to meet specified limits for nitrogen, phosphorus, E.coli, ammonia and sediment.

The proposed new rules take effect from 31 March 2012, but where they are not currently met, there is a five year transition to 2017 to meet the discharge limits (for phosphorous, E.coli and sediment) and a seven year transition to 2019 to meet the nitrogen discharge limits and leaching limit.

There is a high risk of discharges breaching the limits and contaminating water from intensive stocking, saturated soils and exposing soils.

If water discharging from a property is dirty or smelly, it will not meet the limits.

Prohibited discharge rules will apply at all times, for example no discharge should result in sedimentation in a waterway, from as soon as it stops raining on a site.

Farmer Stephen Korteweg has been working with the Regional Council on the changes to Water Plan 6A. Stephen says “We agree with the concept and a lot of what the ORC are proposing and trying to do. We do believe there is room for improvement in the way farmers in general run their farms to have a lesser impact on the environment but our concerns are around the speed at which they are wanting to implement the changes. If what they are proposing occurs, it could have a really negative impact on farming generally for the Otago region. For example under some of the rules they are proposing, wintering cows on crops would not be possible because of sediment run-off and nutrient run-off. There is no way farmers could comply on a point-source basis, especially if it rained for three days. If there was only 5-10mm of rain there might be some run-off, which has to be clear in 24 hours. But it can rain for three days.

Nitrogen levels for run-off have been proposed at 30kgN/ha, and for sensitive areas at 10kgN/ha. A limit of 10kg on sensitive areas such as North Otago makes dairy farming impracticable under modern farming practices. If it is based on Overseer 6, as is proposed, which has a plus or minus accuracy of 30-40% then 30kg on all other areas could make life difficult there as well. It just seems ORC want to charge on blindly come hell or high water when more homework needs to be done on such an important issue.”

Federated Farmers’ view is that it is almost impossible to comply all the time.

The Plan Change still has to go through the hearing process in September. Says Stephen, “We are hopeful the ORC will see that some of what is being proposed will be amended. We are negotiating on trying to get a good outcome, not only for the farming community but for Otago. Urban areas will certainly have some problems trying to comply with the proposed water plan too. We believe everybody has to lift their game. We are not pointing the finger. We are saying, let’s work at this one together and get good outcomes.”

Compared to what is happening around the country the ORC approach is unorthodox. None of the other councils is doing what Otago is doing. For example in Southland to start another dairy farm you have to get a consent to do so. But you don’t in Otago. The ORC puts the onus back on the farmer.

Under the new plan if you breach the rules you are likely to find yourself getting an infringement notice, which in the worst case scenario will end up in the Environment Court. “We don’t feel very reassured by this process and don’t know why they want to put such tough rules in place.

Having the hearings process take place in September is not idea for farmers either: on the farming calendar it couldn’t be a worse time.

This issue is the biggest one I can think of for Federated Farmers since I have been involved; there is a lot riding on it. For us personally we will probably have to keep a better paper trail of what we are already doing. We will probably look at increasing effluent storage from the current level of between 60-70 days. We have to manage that carefully.

The Plan change will also kick in around the issue of run-off occurring from tracks. The run-off and sediment collected in the drains would not meet the water quality provisions in the plan.

But on this country, where we have drains alongside the tracks it is almost impractical: the dairy cows have to walk somewhere, and the reason the drain is there is to collect water from the tracks. It is impractical for us to fill in drains on this sort of country because it is not free-draining enough.

We are hoping they don’t put some of these changes in place, and that they can be modified to something which is achievable and which will get buy-in from farmers.

Some farmers haven’t realized how far-reaching and extreme the proposed Plan Change will be.”