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Auckland is living through a water crisis, with many of the region’s water storage dams left high and dry. In response to one of the worst droughts in Auckland’s history, the council has imposed water restrictions and Auckland water provider Watercare has applied to pull a further 100 million litres of water per day from the Waikato River.
Wait, what? Aucklanders could be drinking water from the slimy brown Waikato River?
The same Waikato River that has been abused and mistreated for decades? The one that has had ever-increasing amounts of pollution draining into it from the region’s intensified dairy operations? Yeah, that one.
It might surprise you that we’ve been drinking from the Waikato for yonks. After some big droughts in the nineties, Watercare built a treatment plant which cleans up water from the river and sends it down a 38km pipeline to Auckland. It was completed in 2002 and Aucklanders have been drinking from it ever since.
The water is thoroughly filtered so it’s safe for human consumption, but unless something changes soon, industrial dairying is going to keep muddying the waters of the Waikato.
Let’s start with the basics. Fertiliser companies turn an incredible profit selling synthetic nitrogen fertiliser to farmers so they can artificially coax more grass growth and in turn, keep more cows. More fertiliser = more cows = more river pollution, simple.
Too many cows on the land means more effluent (poos and wees) getting into rivers, either directly or through run-off. The synthetic nitrogen fertiliser itself also adds nitrates to waterways. Dairying land occupies only 22 per cent of the land area in Waikato, but it is estimated by Environment Waikato to account for 68 per cent of nitrogen entering the waterways. And if stock aren’t appropriately fenced out of waterways, cows trample mud into the water, filling our rivers with murky sediment.
All this adds up to worsening water quality. In 2011, Greenpeace Executive Director (and then-politician) Russel Norman took a trip along the dirty Waikato river, all the way to Watercare’s treatment plant. Here, the water goes through several treatment processes to make it drinkable.
It’s an impressive feat to turn brown, slimy water into clear drinking water, but here’s a radical idea: imagine if we just didn’t let our rivers get so polluted in the first place.
The climate crisis is undeniably upon us, and it’s likely that in coming years, we’ll see longer and more frequent droughts. That means water storage dams running dry and more reliance on water pumped in from rivers.
We all have a stake in how our rivers are managed.
Instead of an ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff model where our water providers have to build increasingly complex (and expensive) water treatment facilities to deal with increasingly polluted water, let’s make sure we protect rivers now for the health of our future generations.
We know that there’s a better way of farming than dumping chemical nitrogen fertiliser onto the ground, where it gets washed into rivers and supports overstocking of cows. Long before fertiliser companies came onto the scene, farmers increased nitrogen in the soil naturally with nitrogen-fixing crops, like clover or lupin.
We’re calling for the Government to phase out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and to back Kiwi farmers to work with the environment, not against it. We’ve put forward a proposal for a $1 billion fund to shift New Zealand away from industrial monoculture dairying towards regenerative farming.
Regenerative agriculture means seeing farming as part of a whole system, from the soil that grows the grass, to the animals that eat it, to the water that courses through New Zealand’s farms.
In practice, this looks like farmers growing a thriving diversity of plants instead of monocultures, nurturing the soil instead of stripping it of nutrients, using natural inputs like compost instead of synthetic fertilisers, and honouring our precious freshwater.
The state of our rivers affects all of us—especially if we end up drinking from them. We must switch to ways of farming that not only reduce harm, but enable our land, waterways, animals and people to thrive.