Southland Times- Holding the line against what, exactly?

In an opinion piece for the Southland Times Doug Fraser poses the question.

Hundreds of submitters have been taking their turn to speak to Environment Southland's punitive, prescriptive and economically debilitating Water and Land Plan.

The question remains: can Environment Southland justify its actions?

Its stated aim is "prevent the further decline in water quality". The plan's purpose is to "hold the line" until the limit setting program which is due tobegin next year.

But in stating its aim for the plan, ES assumes water quality is in decline. It says that nitrogen levels in surface water and groundwater are increasing over time. 

Federated Farmers made a significant investment in 2012 on an independent review of ES's State of the Environment report. This review was critical of the methodology of the analytical process and the ES report's conclusions. 

Given the continual negative comments from ES the on state and trends of water quality in Southland, the federation believed it was vital for a review of the last five years to be completed. 

Late last year Federated Farmers Southland sought to fund an independent scientific review of Southland's water quality state and trends. It asked if there are water quality issues that require immediate action prior to the soon-to-be-commenced catchment limit setting process.

Having failed to review the last five years, when asked to provide data, ES belatedly made a decision to analyse it themselves.

Given our earlier concerns, Federated Farmers commissioned a review to ensure the analytical process was robust. 

Unfortunately Environment Southland's planners would not wait. They wrote their plan before considering current water quality standards. Worse they responded to the 900 submitters without the current water quality analysis.

With improving trends identified in 2012, it is not surprising the most recent five year state and trend findings tell a very good story. 

The huge investment made by the farming community is paying environmental dividends. 

Environment Southland's own report - The ES State of the Environment 2017 Report - shows the nitrogen water quality trend is improving.

So its interim measures, particularly the targeting and prohibition or severe restriction of further conversions or intensification of land use, cannot be justified.

The assumption of increasing nitrogen levels drives Environment Southland's Water and Land Plan regulation to make dairy conversions non-compliant in large areas of Southland.

The 2017 water quality findings do not support the regulations informed by the physiographic model in the Water and Land Plan.

Unfortunately the planners at Environment Southland have taken this model and used the zones to differentiate farms to prohibit land use change.

So farmers in the "old Mataura" and "peat-wetlands" zones are now non-compliant for any change of land use which can be categorised as "intensification". This is a hurdle which will be virtually impossible to clear. 

Regulatory control of land use is a fundamental attack on property rights.

The economic consequences of prohibiting land use change will be dire for the Southland economy.

Regulatory control of land use will prohibit the market driven economic booms that benefit Southland's community.

Remember the huge benefits from the wool boom in the fifties and the dairy boom beginning in the nineties. 

Despite the significant investment in the physiographic model we still await its endorsement as a regulatory tool to differentiate farms and regulate land use. 

It fails in many instances at a farm level to correctly describe the on farm conditions.

Despite the uncertainty of the physiographic modelling and its failure to reflect what the water quality data is telling us, the planners at ES continue to use it to support a punitive regulatory regime.

The perverse outcome of the Water and Land Plan is that it protects existing dairy farms while restricting land use change on sheep and beef farms.

Sheep and beef farmers are prohibited from intensifying their operations, initially in two zones, with the subsequent loss in capital value.

Perversely the neighbouring dairy farmer, with arguably a larger environmental footprint, can continue farming largely unaffected.

This could see a landfall capital gain as supply of dairy farms is constrained. 

It is hard to understand how anyone, including Fonterra and Dairy NZ, can support the use of physiographics to grandparent current land use. The physiographic model is not supported by the latest ES state and trend analysis within the existing surface water and groundwater environments.

The focus should be good farm practice for all farming systems. This will drive the continued improvement in water quality outcomes.

While the farming community is being asked to shoulder all the responsibility for water quality, Environment Southland continues to pay only lip service to urban water quality issues.

Its failure to prosecute territorial authorities for water degradation ensures they are able to keep their ratepayers blissfully unaware of regular breaches of consent conditions.

The rates impact to meet the high standards expected and enforced on the farming community will be enormous for urban Southland. 

How can the wider community work together in the limit setting process if Environment Southland pits urban against farmer? 

This has happened in recent years with many ill-advised and inaccurate comments from both Environment Southland politicians and staff.

Now the Water and Land Plan pits farmer against farmer. It identifies winners and losers. Perhaps that's the strategy. 

Doug Fraser is a sheep and dairy farmer in Western Southland.