New Zealand’s nitrogen focused water quality monitoring undermined by incomplete reporting

Inquisitive flock of sheep standing on the farm paddock with fertiliser being spread in the valley below them

In New Zealand, the health of freshwater systems is a growing concern, with many water bodies experiencing degradation from nutrient runoff, notably nitrogen from synthetic fertilizers. This has led to alarming levels of nitrates in the drinking water of approximately 800,000 residents, elevating health risks and contributing to environmental degradation. Despite the National Environmental Standards for Freshwater, which cap synthetic nitrogen usage at 190 kg per hectare annually and mandate reporting, compliance remains incomplete.

As of the financial year ending June 2023, only about 61% of dairy farms complied with reporting requirements, a slight increase from 45% the previous year. The implications of this shortfall are significant, given that around 85% of waterways in New Zealand’s farming regions already surpass nitrate thresholds, with conditions worsening over time.

The government’s plans to amend the Resource Management Act (RMA) could exacerbate the situation. Proposed changes might eliminate current priorities for the health of freshwater and human safety in favor of economic considerations, potentially reducing the focus on nitrate accumulation in freshwater sources. Additionally, the potential removal of Te Mana o Te Wai, which emphasizes the fundamental significance of water, signals a shift that could prioritize economic benefits over environmental and health protections.

Regional councils have primarily adopted educational strategies for enforcement, which could change as non-compliance persists. For instance, Environment Canterbury now has the capability to identify non-reporting farms and is considering more stringent enforcement measures.

The failure to fully implement and enforce reporting standards threatens the effectiveness of regulatory frameworks designed to protect New Zealand’s freshwater resources. As regional councils contemplate stronger enforcement protocols, the agricultural sector faces increasing pressure to adhere to reporting requirements, which are crucial for managing nitrogen’s impact on water quality effectively.

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