Farmers lead community to fight local river pollution

A New Zealand community stands up for clean water

In New Zealand, the recently completed Pathway for the Pomahaka project showcased an innovative approach to sustainable development. Farmers took responsibility for improving local water quality in partnership with their community.

On its face, the area around the Pomahaka River in South Otago, on New Zealand’s South Island, is typical of the sort of unspoiled landscapes the country is famous for. Local water quality, however, has become a cause for concern. Levels of phosphates, nitrogen and E. coli were getting too high, with sediment entering the river and increasing pollution. The intensification of agriculture in the region, a shift toward dairy farming, and heavy soils coupled with a wet local climate all compounded the problem.

Without action, water quality would have continued to deteriorate. The Pomahaka might have eventually become unsuitable for recreational purposes like fishing, swimming and boating.

“When farmers owned the problem, then things started to change”

- Craig Simpson, New Zealand Landcare Trust

Concerns had been growing about pollution in the Pomahaka river.
Photos: Courtesy of the New Zealand Landcare Trust

A bottom-up approach

Regulation and top-down initiatives are one way to tackle challenges like water pollution. In fact, new rules were about to be adopted to enforce better water quality. But the New Zealand Landcare Trust decided to explore a different approach. They encouraged farmers and the wider local community to take ownership of the problem and find their own solutions to improving their environment.

Initial meetings were held back in 2013 and, as Craig Simpson of the Landcare Trust explains, “Several of the farmers took things to heart. They said ‘You guys aren’t going to fix it, it’s us farmers who will fix it.’ Because they are the ones who work the land and live on it day to day. They can be told what to do but it was when they owned the problem that things started to change.”

Establishing a connection

Farmers and local residents established a Water Care Group and obtained funding for the Pathway for the Pomahaka project, which ran for three years until June 2018. It aimed to identify how farms were contributing to pollution and what could be done to reverse the environmental damage.

The project was underpinned by wider community involvement and partnerships with environmental groups, schools and businesses who contributed their expertise. Among the companies offering knowledge and support was Rabobank.

“The strong buy-in came from farmers’ links to the local waterway”

- Blake Holgate, Rabobank

According to Blake Holgate, a Rabobank Rural Manager who advises on Sustainable Farm Systems, one of the things the project did well was establish a local connection to environmental issues that can sometimes seem a bit abstract.

“One of the successes has been that they have linked it to a local waterway,” explains Holgate. “A lot of farmers in that area grew up in that region – they swam in the Pomahaka – so the waterway they were looking at protecting was quite important to them. And, through the testing and investigating, they also saw a tangible link between what they were doing and the impact on the waterway. I think that’s where some of the strong buy-in has come from.”

Community buy-in and information sharing were at the heart of the project.

Tangible improvements

The Water Care Group started its own water quality monitoring program, which developed a number of solutions to take local farming in a direction that would make it both profitable and sustainable. Initiatives have ranged from promoting the more efficient use of fertilizer and keeping livestock away from the river to enhancing riparian management (i.e. better monitoring and planning of areas positioned between agricultural land and rivers).

Results so far have been encouraging, particularly when it comes to levels of nitrogen and E. coli. The Pomahaka Water Care Group is now an independent organization. Members are currently running a new project focused on further improvements, such as reducing phosphorus levels, and involving even more farmers and stakeholders. Similar community groups are emerging elsewhere in New Zealand, where they are increasingly seen as key to delivering better water quality.