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Published: 2012-08-28 00:00:00

Waikato dairy farmers are being advised of a new trial system to monitor compliance with effluent management rules, which are designed to protect water quality in the region.

The trial will involve more ground-based work with farmers to identify and fix problems, and less random helicopter monitoring of dairy farms by Waikato Regional Council.

Previously, the council has largely relied on complaints from the public, and helicopter monitoring of farms chosen at random, to detect breaches of effluent management rules which can result in the pollution of waterways. Each season, about seven helicopter flights are carried out over approximately 1000 of the region’s 4000 dairy farms, with potential problems identified from the air followed up with a ground inspection.

Now the plan for the 2012-13 season is to target up to 500 farms in areas with soils that are seen as having a greater risk of allowing effluent to get into waterways. Firstly, the council will select farms in areas where there are high risk soils. Those farms will initially be flown over by a helicopter to identify any properties with potential serious non compliance, and these farms will be inspected first. Once any serious non compliance is dealt with, the rest of the properties in the group will also be inspected. The exact boundaries of the high risk areas aren’t being disclosed in advance. But farmers who will be visited at some stage during the season are being informed of this in writing and will receive a phone call shortly before a council officer arrives for a ground-based inspection. The advance warning by letter will give farmers a chance to do any needed work on their effluent systems before the officer visits.

When the officer does eventually visit for the ground-based inspection they will identify any problems with the farmer’s effluent system and, if necessary, make a formal direction for improvements to be made. After recent work with the dairy industry, the council will now be in a position to tell the farmer to work with effluent system companies accredited under DairyNZ’s farm dairy effluent code of practice and design standards.

Helicopters may still be used outside the higher risk soil zones for random monitoring as required. The new way of doing things is not expected to cost any more.

“The change to a more ground-based strategy sees us moving from a random system of compliance monitoring, to a targeted monitoring regime under which we are now able to direct farmers to farm specific advice about compliance from a code of practice-accredited designer,” said compliance and education manager Rob Dragten.

“In the past, farmers haven’t always had access to guidance on what constitutes a good effluent management system. Now the dairy industry has developed the new code and formally accredits those designers qualified to apply its standards properly.

“The new arrangements mean we can trial our different approach to compliance monitoring, involving us working with farmers more to sort things out. Naturally we’ll still take formal enforcement action where necessary against farmers, as we have in the past.

“Another advantage of our new system is that there will be targeting of farms in areas where soils are seen as having a higher risk of allowing effluent to get into waterways. These higher risk soils include, for example, those with impeded drainage or infiltration rates, soils with a very coarse structure and land with a slope of over seven degrees.

“Targetting higher risk soil areas is a bit like paying more attention to roads with higher crash rates when you’re trying to reduce the road toll,” said Mr Dragten.

He said the council has a strong focus on preventing untreated dairy farm effluent from entering waterways.

“Many farmers have shared our environmental protection goal and have done much to protect water quality, including upgrading effluent systems. Fonterra and DairyNZ have also worked with us closely to improve the industry’s environmental performance in the Waikato.

“Our combined strategies have been helpful in making progress over the years. We’ve been holding reasonably steady with dairying’s environmental performance lately. Now the council is hoping its new, more targeted approach will make further gains.

“Effluent in waterways can have a serious impact on aquatic life and make people sick, so it’s important to have effective effluent management systems. Many farmers have put a considerable effort into getting their systems up to speed and we want to ensure the inaction of others doesn’t dilute all their good work.”

Mr Dragten noted the new system of monitoring compliance meant this season’s compliance results would not be directly comparable with previous years.