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Fresh water thinking

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Farmers who want more input into ways of improving freshwater quality need to take ownership of the issue at a local level so that change is made from the bottom up rather than being forced on them from the top down, says a river catchment group.
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Roger Dalrymple | September 08, 2020 from GlobalHQ on Vimeo.

Rangitikei Rivers Catchment Collective (RRCC) chair Roger Dalrymple says catchment groups can help farmers better understand their current environmental footprint and whether their land use is compromising the environment.

They may discover that’s not the case but if they do, farmers will be on stronger footing if they can prove that with verifiable data.

Dalrymple, who farms a mixed cropping and livestock operation near Bulls, says that’s where catchment groups come in, as water testing allows farmers to understand the effect their farm is having on waterways.

The Rangitikei Rivers Catchment Collective is an umbrella organisation established in 2017 that is focused on the Rangitikei, Turakina and Whangaehu river catchments, an area of about 707,360 hectares.

Today, there are 14 sub-catchment groups in the area, covering about 325,000ha.

Between them, they test water at 41 different sites around the wider catchment every month, measuring nitrogen (N), phosphorus, E. coli and turbidity (sediment) levels.

Testing of samples is done by Central Environmental Laboratories in Palmerston North, which is government accredited, providing the assurance that the data it supplies is robust.

Testing results can vary depending on influences such as weather, so the idea is to use results to get an idea of trends and so be able to see the wider picture of what is happening within catchments.

With that in mind, Dalrymple says at least three years of data is needed before results can be talked about with any confidence.

It’s not a short-term ‘try and fix everything overnight’ approach, instead planning ahead for what can be achieved over the next 10, 15 or 20 years.

“It’s intergenerational, with industry becoming responsible for the environment rather than the top down,” Dalrymple said.

No farmers want pollution but, in many cases, farmers don’t know whether they are polluting waterways, he says, and testing allows them to understand the effect their farm is having on tributaries.

Dalrymple says there’s been a lot of buy-in from farmers.

One of the strengths of the catchment group approach is the engagement of farmers who are more likely to buy into an idea if they are involved in it from the start.

Groups are member-driven, so farmers and other stakeholders collectively identify issues specific to their catchment, then take a leadership role in addressing those challenges.

For the RRCC, coordinator Louise (Lou) Totman is there to bring ideas in, to serve as a point of contact with experts, to keep in touch with the chairs of sub-catchment groups, ensure samples are recorded and data is stored, and to help maintain momentum.

Farm environment plans are an important tool in helping to achieve these outcomes and having one is the first step to becoming a sub-catchment group member.

Totman likens environment plans to farm financial budgets, measuring income and outgoings.

They help understanding soils on-farm, the effect of wintering and summer on properties, slip-prone and critical source areas, and small, low-lying parts of farms, such as gullies and swales, where runoff accumulates in high concentration that are likely to come under increasing scrutiny.

It’s about farmers understanding their property and part of running their business is knowing what they have got to work with.

Taihape sheep and beef farmer and RRCC deputy chair Mark Chrystall says the data collected by sub-catchment groups can help farmers make better informed decisions.

He knows of one farmer who had budgeted $40,000 for fencing off waterways on one area of his farm, but fenced off another area after catchment group data showed the problem was in a different part of the property.

There’s plenty of support, both financial and logistical, available to catchment groups, including the Landcare Trust, Beef + Lamb NZ, DairyNZ and regional councils.

In the RRCC’s case, Horizons Regional Council has been on board from the start.

Dalrymple says regional councils are not the enemy that some perceive them as.

“You need to view them as a partner. They have a job to do. It’s best to work with them and not against them,” he said.

Dalrymple recently travelled to Fairlie in South Canterbury to share the Rangitikei experience and he’s got other destinations pencilled in over the next few weeks.

He says the time to act is now, as there are a range of subsidies and grants to help with environmental work that will not be there once rules make new standards mandatory.

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