- Question No. 8—Environment
8. Hon EUGENIE SAGE (Green)(remote) to the Minister for the Environment: Talofa, Mr Speaker. Thank you. Is dilution the solution to agricultural nitrate pollution, or is there a need to reduce nitrate leaching into groundwater in regions such as Canterbury to reduce risks to drinking water and freshwater from farmed areas?
Hon DAVID PARKER (Minister for the Environment): The Government is committed to promoting freshwater ecosystem health throughout the country, including in Canterbury. Our essential freshwater work programme was set up in response to poor environmental outcomes, including the effects of excessive nitrogen on aquatic environments. Under the 2020 National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, councils are required to improve water quality to meet a range of water-quality indicators, including for nitrates. I suppose increasing the amount of water entering an aquifer could, theoretically, reduce nutrient concentrations in groundwater downstream of that point if the new water wasn’t, itself, contaminated by nitrates—but I’m not suggesting this is either a practical or desirable solution. Nitrate leaching into groundwater can be reduced through changing farm practices; we’re supporting farmers to do this through the development of a nutrient risk index tool, improvements to OVERSEER, and freshwater farm plans.
Hon Eugenie Sage: Is he concerned that intensive dairy farming in Canterbury is causing a significant legacy effect of nitrate contamination of groundwater and drinking-water sources, and, if not, why not?
Hon DAVID PARKER: Well, in respect of the effect on drinking-water sources, that’s an issue that falls to the Associate Minister for the Environment, Minister Allan. In respect of whether that breaches standards for consumption of drinking water, that’s a matter for the Associate Minister of Health. In respect of the broader issues as to whether there are environmental consequences from intensive dairying in parts of the country that still need to improve, then, yes, I agree with that.
Hon Eugenie Sage: What is the Minister’s response to research by Dr Mike Joy and others—
Nicola Grigg: Oh, “Mike Misery”—”Dr Mike Misery”!
Hon Eugenie Sage: —showing that dairy farming in Canterbury is expected to result in steady state nitrate concentration—
DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! Sorry for interrupting the member, but interjections while a question is being asked is out of order. So, please, stop doing it. I didn’t catch all of the question, so if the Hon Eugenie Sage would ask the question again.
Hon Eugenie Sage: Thank you, Mr Speaker. What is the Minister’s response to research by Dr Mike Joy and others, showing that dairy farming in Canterbury is expected to result in steady stake nitrate concentrations averaging 21.3 milligrams per litre in groundwater coming from farmed areas that renders much of that water undrinkable and impacts the ecosystem health of spring-fed streams?
Hon DAVID PARKER: I respect the role of science. Whilst I don’t always agree with Dr Joy’s statements, I agree with many of them and I thank him for his advocacy in these areas. I haven’t read that research, but if that was the effect, I would share his concerns.
Hon Eugenie Sage: Is he concerned that nitrate contamination was increasing in 47 percent of the 322 groundwater wells that Environment Canterbury monitored from 2010 to 2020, and, if so, is he confident that the current national direction is strong enough for Environment Canterbury to take all the necessary steps to control the land-use activities that cause this contamination?
Hon DAVID PARKER: The first point I would make is that there has never been a need for national direction in order for regional councils to do their job to stop improper levels of pollution adversely affecting the environment. So they don’t rely upon national direction to do their job; national direction does help them do their job and prescribes minima that would not otherwise apply.
Hon Eugenie Sage: What will he do to change business as usual, and stop the increasing nitrate pollution of groundwater caused by the 629 percent increase in fertiliser use in New Zealand between 1991 and 2019, and the 82 percent increase in dairy cow numbers to 6.3 million cows over the same period?
Hon DAVID PARKER: In respect of the issues that the member refers to as to the very high increases in the use of synthetic nitrogen, we’ve already moved to take the top off that by introducing a per hectare annual cap of synthetic nitrogen application that is legal. That limit is set for review in about two years’ time, but, for the first time in the history of New Zealand, we’ve already got one.
Hon Eugenie Sage: Will he consider reducing that regulated 190 kilogram per hectare cap on synthetic fertiliser use to help reduce dairy cow numbers and the amount of urine causing nitrate pollution of groundwater and spring-fed streams, and, if not, why not?
Hon DAVID PARKER: The review of that level implies that those issues would be considered at the time of the review.