Public pressure is working and Canterbury's dairy farmers are knuckling down and making an effort to improve the state of the waterways, says a dairy leader.
There has been a "significant shift" in the attitude of dairy farmers towards water quality over the past couple of years, said Mid Canterbury farmer Tom Mason, a member of the DairyNZ Dairy Environment Leaders Network.
"The lead up to the last election reminded anyone who was a bit reluctant in shifting their practices that they didn't have much choice - that's public pressure," he said.
The Waikakahi River near Waimate has been transformed from dirty dairy farm drain back to a thriving trout fishery, thanks to cows being shut out by fences and riparian planting. For Waikakahi River story for Friday???s farming pages.
"Public pressure flows through into regulations from the regional councils and government. Some farmers just want to do the right thing, but others need a bit of prodding."
Mason said dairy farmers were "putting money where their mouths were," fencing off waterways to exclude dairy cattle and planting out riparian buffer zones to filter nutrients before they reached the water.
Farmers are required to complete farm environment plans.
"And it is working. We have hard proof from ECan [Environment Canterbury] that water quality in the region is already beginning to show signs of improvement," Mason said.
Under the Canterbury Land and Water Regional Plan, many Canterbury farms required consent to farm which ensured they were meeting environmental responsibilities, including adhering to nitrogen losses.
ECan chief operating officer Nadeine Dommisse said more than 90 per cent of Canterbury farmers had taken the action required. A farm environment plan (FEP) and a nutrient budget were needed for a consent.
"Earlier this year we began a rigorous, targeted campaign to ensure that every farmer knew of their responsibilities and how to approach them," she said.
More than 900 farmers had acted, and the remaining 80 had received formal warning letters. Some were "wait-listed" for their nutrient budgets, and they were exempted from compliance visits to take place from early next year, Dommisse said.
DairyNZ catchment engagement leader Angela Harvey said the main purpose of farm environment plans farmers were required to complete as part of the consent process was to raise awareness of environmental risk areas before regulations were introduced.
She said many farmers were well on their way to completing the plans and were focusing their activity on areas where environmental gains could be made.
"We helped the farmer pinpoint what was needed to be done and involved consultants to work closely with them to explain the reasons why certain options were better than others, and provide detailed plans and direction for the work to be carried out," Harvey said.
She said farmers had found the FEP process more rewarding than just being told what to do by a regulator.
"Along the way, farmers have also told us they have been gratified by the fact that farming to FEPs has also helped them to be sustainable across the board, not only achieving better outcomes for their environment but also for a business bottom line.
"Important though it is, the plans are not just about farmers meeting regulatory requirements. These plans are just as much about having truly sustainable dairy farm businesses that strike a balance in getting the best out of the farm, while also achieving the best for their people and the environment."
Mason said he joined the Dairy Environment Leaders Network because he was interested in the issues and wanted to show some leadership.
"I try and demonstrate the right thing on my farm and get involved in the zone committees," he said.
The network was a group of dairy farmers from around the country which acted on farming environmental matters from within, and on behalf of, the dairy industry.
"Twenty-five years ago I got an award from the Taranaki Regional Council for riparian management on the family property. It's good to go back and check the plantings every now and again," Mason said.
"Most of the riparian planting that's happened around the country is much more recent than that."
In parts of Canterbury, riparian planting was significant, Mason said.
"But riparian planting is not so much for nitrate levels but phosphate and sediment. What you can't see is the leaching of nitrogen. The rules we are working under require us to lower nitrate levels.
"We have property on the fringe of Lake Ellesmere where we have a lot of drains and managing the runoff of phosphate and sediment is important. It's less critical further up the [Canterbury] Plains where you have no natural waterways.
"Further up the Plains on the stonier lighter soil nitrogen leaching is the number one issue."