Regional councils fail to enforce rules around dairy effluent

By Jessica Tyson

Some regional councils are failing to enforce rules around dairy effluent management in some of the country's biggest farming regions, according to a new report.

The report by Forest & Bird, Cleaning Up: Fixing Compliance, Monitoring and Enforcement in the Dairy Sector, found a total of 5,000 dairy farms were not inspected for dairy effluent compliance from 2016 to 2017.

Too much effluent applied to soil can kill pasture, pollute nearby streams and rivers, and pollute groundwater, according to the Waikato Regional Council.

However, nine seriously non-compliant farms in the Waikato had not been inspected for over 10 years. 

Forest & Bird's Freshwater Advocate and report co-author Annabeth Cohen says, "This is extremely concerning, given that 'serious non-compliance' means serious damage to the environment has either occurred or was imminent.  We are facing a freshwater crisis, and yet too many councils are letting farmers get away with breaking the rules."

As well as that, one persistent offender in Northland received four abatement notices and eight infringement notices but was not prosecuted.

Waikato Regional Council is disappointed with a Forest and Bird report regarding compliance monitoring and enforcement in the dairy sector in the 2016/17 dairy season.

Resource use director, Dr Chris McLay says there were more than 180 enforcement actions against dairy farms from 2016 to 2017, including four prosecutions.

"While no-one likes to be rated poorly, I am confident we are doing a good job.  The Waikato farming sector is well aware that when we find non-compliance, we hold people to account.  Only in the past week a Waikato farming company was convicted and fined $41,000 for environmental breaches," he says.

Forest & Bird has set out a range of recommendations for both regional councils and central government to take appropriate action when rules are broken.

What is dairy effluent?

According to the Waikato Regional Council farm dairy effluent is a natural, dilute liquid fertiliser.  It contains nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, sulphur and trace elements that you’d normally pay for to have applied to pasture.

When spread over land and applied in a timely fashion, the effluent of 100 cows can save farmers up to $2,200 in fertiliser a year.

However, soil can only filter so much effluent at a time and too much can:

  • kill pasture – especially where effluent has ‘ponded’ on the soil surface
  • pollute nearby streams and rivers – where it runs off paddocks into waterways
  • pollute ground water – by seeping too deep into the soil
  • be an ineffective use of nutrients - by seeping past the root zone before the plant can utilise it.