Sunday, July 3, 2022

Nothing ho-hum about water crusader

Freshwater ecologist Dr Mike Joy uses science like a weapon but is also never far away from rejecting “bullshit” arguments. Tim Fulton meets a strident defender of the country’s waterways.

You can’t leave a meeting with one-time dairy farmer Mike Joy feeling ho-hum about his convictions.

Just like his creative mate Sam Mahon in the Hurunui district, the mop-haired Joy has thrust himself into a maelstrom over the damage farming does to the life of rivers and streams.

His criticism of people and institutions creates such uproar in parts of rural New Zealand that he’s surprised , perhaps even relieved, to get the sort of sympathetic hearing he had in Canterbury last week.

The Massey University academic visited Culverden to run his views by ECan’s Hurunui-Waiau zone committee, whose members have led the province in creating a formal plan for water use and land management.

The next morning Joy talked The New Zealand Farmers Weekly through the same set of slides, culminating in a blast for regulators and primary industry who try to soft-soap the real state of play.

His line is that most of the publicly reported measures for reporting water quality are misleading, to the extent that some of the material wouldn’t pass muster if it was turned in by his first-year students at Massey.

He likens the organisms filling our waterways to residents of an apartment whose building is filling with silt. Starved of oxygenated living space these creatures are being forced to flee to the dangerous roof of the building.

Why then, he asks, is there routine misrepresentation of basic indicators like the build-up of sediment?

“The crucial things are not suspended sediment but how much sediment sits on the bed, because that’s what affects the apartment building”, he says of that analogy.

As he rollicks through a series of points on his laptop he turns next to measurements for his home-town Manawatu River. He can’t quite believe that samples testing dissolved oxygen are often recorded as a snapshot sample in the middle of the day, taking no account of variability. “It doesn’t matter what (the reading is)…if you go along at lunchtime and measure it, what matters is how variable it is.”

To hammer that point he displays data from continuous monitoring near the Teachers’ College on the Manawatu River.

Pointing to the amount of recorded nitrogen in the river over a week, he says: “Look at it, it’s way below the limit to way above the limit on a different day of the week. But we go and take a jar full of water and send it off to the lab.”

Joy’s tone suggests he’s witnessing a sort of scientific madness that is even less reputable when teamed up with “N and P-limiting” rules.

“This is why you can’t (have) N or P-limited rivers. They might be N-limited and be P-limited the next day.”

It’s a similar story for snapshot temperature readings. “It doesn’t matter what the temperature is then, it’s how hot it gets on the hottest day that kills the fish, not what it is the rest of the time.”

Barriers to biodiversity also struggle to get a look in. All sorts of chemical and physical barriers force fish to make decisions about where to move along a waterway but again, they don’t get measured.

Then there’s the grand-daddy of missing measurements, the intensity of farming practices. Joy says he has tried unsuccessfully to prise this information from AsureQuality’s Agribase system.

“You know, I always cop shit from the Feds who say ‘(your) information can’t show that farming intensity is the problem’. But I can’t get the data.”

It’s true that the Land Cover Database can indicate whether the land is in pasture, forestry, suburb or orchards. But Joy says no-one will provide statistics on cows per hectare, for example. The explanation for this, he says, is that policy-makers know that the major cause of water pollution will soon be plain to see.

If you had to categorise Joy’s passions, you’d have to describe him as primarily a fish man. How else could you explain him downplaying the importance of monitoring faecal pathogens, guarding against E. Coli and the like?

Faecal testing “only relates to humans”, he points out, adding that “the fish couldn’t give a shit about that. Nothing in the stream gives a shit about shit except us”.

As for recording visual clarify, that’s also “meaningless” if viewed through the eye of a fish.

“It’s a human thing. We don’t like water that looks dirty when we go for a swim but actually it’s not such a problem for our native fish which aren’t visual feeders anyway. It only affects the trout.”

Joy insists that the methodology involved here is crucial. If done correctly, it should be possible to see what intensive farming and other industry is doing to the water-body.

And with this knowledge it should also be possible to make predictions about how a relatively untouched river like the Hurunui could one day collapse into something degraded like the Manawatu.

As you will have guessed, Joy doesn’t buy the typical defences of primary industry people who deny substantial pollution in our rivers, let alone their contribution to it.

Federated Farmers and Fonterra are “right in on that game”, he says, despite being part of a system that measures the wrong things. Looking at the problem through this lens “of course we’re going to underestimate it”.

At this point we’ve had to cut him off on his case for the effects of climate change and excessive cadmium concentrations through fertiliser use. He has plenty more unsettling views where those came from, too.


Dr Mike Joy, Centre for Freshwater Ecosystem Management and Modelling, Massey University.
A late starter in academia, Joy started full time study at Massey University Palmerston North in 1995 after 16 years of working in a range of non academic jobs.
He completed a BSc (Ecology and Environmental Science) in 1997; an MSc with first class honours (Ecology) in 1999, and completed his PhD thesis in 2003. He is a lecturer in Environmental Science and Ecology at Massey.
Interests include environmental issues, especially sustainable agriculture, alternative house construction, sustainable energy use and the impact of globalisation on human and animal diversity.
Joy’s research is centred on using fish in bio-assessment using computer based predictive modelling. He tries to combine reality with the virtual by ensuring that he does enough fieldwork to keep him “in touch with reality and away from computers as often as possible”.
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