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Published: 2000-11-16 00:00:00

Taupo farmers have asked Environment Waikato to produce more proof that farming is the major contributor to deteriorating water quality in Lake Taupo - but environmental representatives say action needs to be taken urgently without waiting for further research.

Environment Waikato has released a discussion document containing four options to preserve the quality of water in the lake, after finding that increasing amounts of nitrogen – mainly from intensifying animal farming – is lowering water clarity and quality. Large numbers of Taupo residents and farmers have attended community meetings in the town to discuss the options, which range from doing nothing to strict rules on land activities.

A delegation of farmers attending this week’s Environment Waikato Policy Committee meeting asked for more scientific information that farming is the major cause of the problem. Representative Bob Cotterill said there would be far-reaching and on-going consequences for farmers if Environment Waikato and the community pursued proposed policy changes.

Farmers had already experienced a significant drop in land values of about 30 percent in seven months because of a perception that restrictions would be made on farming. Farm sales had stopped and farming families were depressed because of their deep concern about the issue, and the time it would take for decisions to be made. Farmers were sceptical about the statistics, and had the most to lose in the issue, he said.

“Environment Waikato should present data that presents clear proof of nitrogen loading from all activities. Too few streams are being monitored regularly enough and there are anomalies that question Environment Waikato’s assumptions.”

Work had not been done on the effects of climate change, the Tokaanu power development and the effects of significant land use change in the past 10 to 12 years from pasture to lifestyle blocks or forestry.

“Lake Taupo is an important national waterway which farmers are committed to preserving, but more work needs to be done. Environment Waikato and farmers need to agree on a strategy before that strategy can be effective.”

Ministry for the Environment manager Kathleen Ryan said the Ministry strongly supported Environment Waikato’s actions on a very difficult issue, and there appeared to be consensus favouring protection for the lake. New Zealand was facing increasing market pressure to back up its clean, green image claims. The Ministry favoured a high level of protection measures.

Ecologic Foundation representative Guy Salmon said the need to take action was urgent as the lake's distinctive clarity would be lost in less than a decade.

“Action must get started quickly without waiting for final proof of the cause and effect.”

Landowners were in a very difficult position with no existing rights or compensation rights, as the “polluter pays” principle applied. They had also acted honestly, investing on the basis of existing rules, and faced significant costs if the rules changed. The issue was too big for Regional Councils and District Councils to tackle on their own, he said.

Similar issues existed elsewhere in New Zealand and $1 billion would be needed over 10 years to bring agriculture up to basic sustainable standards. There was a strong case to address Lake Taupo first as it was a national problem. However taxpayers would not accept a slow rate of decline in the lake and it was vital to adopt stronger measures to save it.

Environment Waikato councillors asked for a scientific workshop to consider the available research.