The environmental dairy debate was stirred up when a local fishing guide took photos of cows in a tributary waterway, sending them viral on the internet. This caused an uproar among the community and this particular landowner was seen by many as representing all dairy farmers.
In an anti-dairying environment, the Regional Council's 2004 Proposed Water Management Plan was released. Lake Brunner, the largest lake on the West Coast, was recognised for its fishery and tourism values, importance to local tangata whenua and local ecologically. However, monitoring of the lake showed nutrients were increasing and the resulting algal growth was steadily reducing water clarity.
The problem was responsibility for this damage was placed solely on dairy farmers, but the evidence supporting this was lacking; the water clarity data had gaps of six consecutive years, when no water testing was undertaken. And the quality didn't appear any different to other West Coast lakes, but none of this made little difference to who was blamed and held responsible.
The facts, however, identified the water quality problem as phosphorous - in most other areas in New Zealand problems are Nitrogen related. Phosphorous attaches itself to the soil, and living in a high rainfall catchment area (between 5 metres to 7m annually), there is a lot of natural soil movement into waterways.
Science shows this can come from natural erosion, land slips, rock falls and even road maintenance.
It's relevant to note, agricultural use is only one contributing factor.
There were no rules associated with the lake's management in the Water Plan, but voluntary farm plans were developed with most farmers in the catchment and many positive changes were made.
This was followed up with a discussion paper, in 2009, by West Coast Regional Council outlining changes to the regional plan and rules in the Lake Brunner catchment.
There was limited consultation and input into the changes, but again the onus fell on dairy farmers. We were still questioning the science and the missing data - were the spikes and trends consistent with other lakes on the Coast?
There was no clear process to follow, minimal collaboration and few areas around New Zealand had been through this process so we had little to refer to. The battle lines were drawn.
Given the feeling of vulnerability by farmers and heightened emotions, tensions rose at one meeting. Some regional councillors seemed to display an arrogance in their approach.
At other meetings there were also tensions between farmers themselves; some digging their toes in, not wanting to move forward, others in complete denial and others accepting they contribute to water quality in the lake so let's address this. Others opened their farms for trials from AgResearch and DairyNZ and some had their say in submissions and hearings.
This tense process continued for some time, but little by little parties gradually started working together and acceptance settled among all.
A number of dairy farmers in the area became active and led environmental efforts, not only on their own farms with riparian planting, fencing and bridging, but organising work by community groups such as the Lake Brunner Community Catchment Care Group, and participating in the Inchbonnie Best Practice Project.
I can't recall a definitive turning point of when the mood shifted, but it has. Some council staff have changed over the years, some are refreshingly supportive. There's also been acceptance from Lake Brunner farmers, that the rules aren't going away, so let's get on with it. No-one has rolled over in defeat, but we have found a way to make it work and achieve some workable outcomes with a plan in place.
This has been a long process - there has been a lot of pain, but we are moving forward. This has gained speed in the past few years with fencing off farm waterways, erected bridges, culverts and riparian planting - about 21,000 plants in total have been planted on farms with some funding from the Environment Ministry.
Alongside this we've continued with other farming tasks like growing grass, feeding and milking cows and running a business. Currently the next steps for many dairy farmers in the catchment are upgrading effluent systems, a huge financial cost, anywhere between $50,000 and $300,000.
Now it's common for council staff, holiday makers, dairy farmers and other residents to give up their free time to attend planting days organised by the Lake Brunner Community Catchment Care Group - about 4000 plants have been planted over four different public sites.
The local school, Lake Brunner School, has also joined in which really put things in perspective. This work is an investment in the future and the results are starting to show. Annual monitoring shows Lake Brunner water quality has stabilised - an important first step, but certainly not the end result.
Looking back, this sometimes-painful process illustrates a lesson our community learned and we hope it helps others; to make a difference we all need to be in this together.
Renee Rooney is a West Coast resident and dairy farmer
Source: Christchurch Press - Fairfax Media