Guy Trafford reviews the latest claims on Canterbury water quality by Fish & Game and finds misrepresented sources, misquoted facts, and no transparency around samples selected

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By Guy Trafford

Despite a large cross-over of fishers being farmers and vice versa, the relationship between Fish & Game and farming, particularly dairy farming has not been a happy one.

It was Fish and Game who were the first to tag dairy farmers with the label “dirty dairying” and began the national pastime of putting dairy farming under scrutiny at seemingly the expense of anything else. Much of the facts they roll out are correct; what seems to be lacking is a sense of balance and providing credit to those who are leading the way to improved environmental management. Yes, there is a problem and yes dairy farming (among others) have largely contributed to it. But just remember, water quality as an issue has only surfaced in the last twenty five years, at least in Canterbury anyway, and the focus has gone on to it in more detail in about the last fifteen. So given the size and relative importance of agriculture to the economy it is not surprising that it is taking time to turn the ship around.

The latest article to come out of Fish & Game is yet another piece that appears to lack any balance and makes implications that, at least by ECan’s data, appear to be wrong. The article reeks of scaremongering despite the Fish and Game chief executive declaring that it’s not.

It states that Canterbury water nitrate levels are increasing and are predicted to get worse.

Reading the 2016 Ecan report it alludes to, it says no such thing. It does say that, at 2016, 23% of wells surveyed had increased their nitrate levels, over the previous 10 years. 10% had decreased and 67% had remained the same. It did not predict future trends. In fact  (2018) ECan’s latest’s report states “All but one water quality attribute showed more Canterbury sites were improving than degrading over the past 10 years (with a probability of 67% or greater)” and the one that didn’t show improvement was turbidity.

The heading of the article is “Canterbury water testing raises health concerns”.

The supposed driver for the Fish & Game concerns is a Danish report which has found that colon cancer can increase by 15% when exposed to drinking water with nitrate levels over 9.7mg per litre of water when compared to those with access to water with a 1.3mg per litre of water. Fish & Game then go onto say that they worked with Dr Mike Joy to conduct a survey and he found over half had nitrate levels of 3.7mls per litre, nothing like the 9.7 in the Danish study, although to be fair the study did say that over 4mg per litre the potential for increased colon cancer did exist, but no figure was given.

Fish and Game state “One of the world’s largest ever studies on the impacts of nitrates in drinking water in Denmark confirmed that nitrate levels above 3.87 mg/1000ml substantially increases the risk of colorectal cancer (CRC).” I would be happy to be corrected but I could find no such reference.

What the study does state is that “We found statistically significant increased risks at drinking water levels above 3.87 mg/L, well below the current drinking water standard of 50 mg/”. To a researcher, and Dr Joy would be well aware of this, “statistically significant” means that it is unlikely to be a random result but the value is likely to be less than 5% certainly not “substantially increases”.

When it comes to the impact upon trout, obviously anything other than high quality water is less than desirable. However nitrate toxicity for trout is exceedingly low; arguably of more concern is the impact upon our native species which according to a 2014 NIWA study are more vulnerable and trout have also had a fair bit to do with their state.

It is also a pity that there was not more detail about where the water samples came from as the article says they came from across the Canterbury Plains from samples provided by concerned Cantabrians “and from sampling of public water supplies at sports grounds and public facilities”. I would feel more comfortable if the samples came from an unbiased group and knew more about the various sources.

From what I can glean and certainly compared to international standards Cantabrians should feel more reassured about their water quality rather being increasingly concerned.

My intention is not to try and pretend there is not a problem and water quality certainly does need to improve especially when it gets into the rivers. But some balance needs to be brought to the discussion rather than try to create a beat-up for another agenda and to say that the article wasn’t a “scare mongering”… come-on.

As if to prove a point that there is a substantial movement to improve the environmental footprint on most dairy farms, Matamata dairy farmer Tracy Brown won the sustainability Superstar Award at the Sustainable Business Network Awards. Selected from across all businesses, not just agriculture. The award was for Brown’s activity in promoting the sustainability cause and she is a founding member of the Piako Catchment Forum and Mangapapa Catchment Care Group. She and husband Wynn’s farm ‘Tiroroa’ is an environmental award-winning property and they frequently hosts groups to explain what dairy is doing to be more sustainable. The supreme winner was the City Rail Link project in Auckland just to show the diversity of the contestants.

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