8 June 2017

Managing Water Quality

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Reflections from Europe

I returned this week from the Interdisciplinary Conference on Land Use and Water Quality: Effect of Agriculture on the Environment, held in The Hague, Netherlands (LuWQ conference).

The LuWQ conference has been held every second year since 2013.

Reflecting the importance of the issue to this country, New Zealand had one of the highest levels of participation with16 participants from 14 different organisations.  Of the 30-odd countries represented, only the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany had more participants.

As is usually the case with a five-day conference undertaken in three concurrent sessions, there was much to take in and mull on.  From a New Zealand perspective some of the key "learnings” I took from the conference are that:

1.     New Zealand is far from alone in grappling with the issue of diffuse pollution from agriculture. (Okay, perhaps I knew that already).

2.     Other countries (and I am thinking here of the Europeans) often have rates of nitrate loss far exceeding those that would incite calls for us to reach deep into the regulatory toolbox in this part of the world.  

3.     It is clear that the EU standard off 50mg/L nitrate is not being met in many areas despite various interventions. A least one commentator (from Belguim) concluded that meeting that goal simply wasn’t feasible.  Only 15% of surface waters in the Netherlands will meet the water quality goals of the Water Framework Directive by 2027. The Irish contributor said that 30 percent of Irish waters would not meet the EU Directive. (Yes, Europe with all its regulation and grants schemes is experiencing intervention failure too!)

4.     New Zealand really stands apart in how we are responding to these issues.  I didn’t get any sense that any other country is attempting to make individual land users responsible for achieving property specific nitrogen discharge limits or investing in micro-regulation of farm practices through farm environment plan approaches (although there is a level of information collection at the field scale and cross-verification of data gathered against other data sets that would be incomprehensible here).  Europe is focused on input standards in the form of EU-set standards for N and P application rates effecting manure application (a 170kg/ha/yr nitrogen limit – able to be increased to 250kgs/ha/year through the "derogation” mechanism).  Other European approaches focusing on de-intensifying farming are backed by very substantial public funding through various centrally funded grants schemes.  In that part of the world "voluntary initiatives” typically mean initiatives that farmers are paid to undertake.  

Not surprisingly given the nature of the policy interventions in place in Europe the conference spent a lot of time on the approaches to, and results of, modeling to understand loads and discharges rates (and catchment or whole-of-country scale) and the effectiveness of intervention.

There’s a PhD thesis in there on how massive public investment in improving environmental outcomes in rural areas is an accepted response in Europe but an anathema to policy-makers in NZ.  I suspect it has something to do with the size of the agricultural sector relative to the rest of the economy but also perhaps reflects wider acceptance amongst the urban population that farmers are struggling to make money and need help (despite the Common Agricultural Policy I’m told that many dairy farmers in the UK are often forced to sell product below the cost of production).  I wonder also whether the greater rights most Europeans enjoy to access "the countryside” somehow translates to greater sense of responsibility.

Finally, one presentation that caught my attention was on the Netherlands’ Annual Nutrient Cycling Assessment (ANCA) tool that estimates the magnitude and nature of N and P losses based on farm-specific inputs and outputs.  Unlike NZ’s OVERSEER model the ANCA tool does not seem to take into account individual farm management practices.  Not surprisingly, the tool shows that that even under similar conditions dairy farms yield very different results.  Also unsurprisingly, the relationship between nutrient surpluses (estimated by ANCA) and surface water loads was found to be relatively weak.  This is no doubt due to variation in soil and hydrological conditions.  Hence the ANCA tool is currently being extended to integrate the results of ANCA, (representing the "source” risk), with both management characteristics and conditions that specifically determine the hydrological pathways to surface water ("transport” risks).  It struck me that we are part way there already with our OVERSEER model - but only part.  The reality is that the Dutch realise that a model that only predicts losses from a farm is only so useful.  What you really need is to understand and manage is the contribution from each farm to the receiving environment. I do wonder whether we are even close to being able to do that – and that’s the rub for those of us working on policy and regulation in this field.

Interesting facts learned: the Netherlands has 15,000 dairy farms - roughly 3000 more than New Zealand!  Oh and in most places the water table is awfully close to the surface and the surface well below sea level. And we think we have challenges!  I was  fascinated to hear that annual statistics on N loss to coastal waters is (supposedly) the second most anticipated statistic published by the Netherlands Government. I also learnt a new term "manure fraud"  But that's for explanation on another day  –Gerard