Should Dairy Farming Expand in Areas of Low Rainfall?

Opinion by Andi Cockroft

A recent Radio New Zealand report says that Hawkes Bay rivers are suddenly starting to dry up, with conditions starting to track close to last year’s dry spell, which was described as a one-in-100-year event.

“Excuse me, we’re out of water.”

The alarm bells sounding could herald a renewed push for harnessing the Tukituki River watershed for irrigation. But there are serious questions to be posed and answered.

The east coast of both islands is drought-prone. Hawkes Bay is no exception. Droughts are frequent and go way back in history. For example, the 1909-1916 period saw several years of drought with 1915-16 the “Grandfather” of all droughts. coming on top of the dry years from 1909, its effect was deep. Hydrologist and botanist the late Dr Patrick Grant identified the 1909-16 period of causing giant 100-year-old trees in the Ruahine Ranges to die. Some of the dead spars of the hardwoods remain today.

Canterbury is a stark warning to Hawkes Bay. The dictatorial grab for control of Canterbury’s irrigation by the National government spearheaded by PM John Key and Environment Minister Nick Smith sacking the democratically elected Environment Canterbury (ECAn) and installing its own state puppet-like commissioners was a thinly disguised move to benefit “fat cat” dairying corporates by accelerating irrigation proposals.

It was an unmitigated failure not only a dangerous snub to democracy but for the environment.

NZ Federation of Freshwater anglers nitrate testing done by volunteers and led by Dr. Peter Trolove NZFFA president has highlighted not only a nitrate flow into the aquifer and streams but a public health hazard.

A Danish study, published in the International Journal of Cancer, included 2.7 million people over 23 years and monitored their nitrate exposure levels and colorectal cancer rates. The findings confirmed suspicions that long-term exposure to nitrate may be linked to colorectal cancer risk.

The rivers and streams have become an environmental disaster with once free-flowing rivers like the Selwyn just south of Christchurch, once internationally known for its fine brown trout and dry fly fishing, now in mid-summer, dry, algae-infested river bed with a few stagnant pools.

With rivers, streams and aquifers rapidly drying up, nitrate contamination, and pollution at all-time highs, Canterbury is not exactly the showcase for large-scale dairying in a naturally arid area as is Hawkes Bay in midsummers.

Installing dams can be very beneficial if they are used correctly – as a means to store water during periods of plenty to augment periods of drought. But they need to be monitored and not biassed in favour of dairying expansion. It only needs one government like the John Key national government, to wreak environmental havoc on the public’s rivers and water supplies.

Monitoring by local councils is woefully weak. Several have admitted their “system” of monitoring relies totally on the public making complaints. In other words, regional and district councils have by their own admission, been inefficient in monitoring.

At stake is New Zealand’s marketing boast of “Clean and Green” and “100% pure”.
New Zealand both economically, socially, and environmentally cannot afford the situation of Canterbury’s beleaguered waterways to spread like cancer.


“Hawkes Bay Forests of Yesteryear” by Dr Patrick Grant. (self-published 1996)

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