A Clayton’s Cure – Fencing Rivers

Opinion by Bill Benfield

An abridged version from the late Bill Benfield’s book “Water Quality and Ownership” published by Tross Publishing, 2017

Around 17 or 18 years ago Fish and Game NZ started raising concerns about dairy run-off into rivers. That concern was proper.
But Fish and Game failed to look at other things that were happening.
When the heat came on, Fonterra the biggest player in dairying, moved quickly to deflect attention by proposing the Dairy and Clean Streams Accord of 2003. It s a text book example of a Clayton’s solution – how to maintain and expand intensive agriculture and its serious degradation of rivers while avoiding the real problems.
It involves fencing off river (and lake) margins and banning all animals from waterways.
As an added public “sweetener” for the “green” lobby, the fenced off river margins were to be “planted with natives.”
Not only has it been successfully sold to central and local government but also to Fish and Game and the Green Party.
Did Nothing
In the end, the Fish and Game campaign, by settling for fencing rivers, did nothing to stop the huge expansion of dairying in Canterbury.
The only thing achieved was the exclusion of the public and recreational fishers who are Fish and Game license holders, plus of course, a few animals.
By focussing on dairying, it has deflected attention from the other major polluters, a classic case being the 2009 report n the Manawatu by the Cawthron Institute which rated the river as the dirtiest in the Western world and pointed the finger firmly to dairying
In fact, the Manawatu River also had to put up with partially treated sewerage and untreated storm water from urban areas ranging from Eketahuna village (450 people) to Palmerston North city (88,000).scattered through the huge catchment.  The river and its tributaries carries industrial burden from breweries, pharmaceutical works, milk processing plants and freezing works and there is also forestry and council bulldozer operations in the river bed. contributing to silting.
The price is being paid for dirty dairying. The rivers are being fenced off!
Reality Check
While fencing off rivers and banning all stock sounds good in principle, the reality is quite different. 
The river/streams are no longer subject to browse and the riparian strip quickly becomes overgrown with blackberry, broom, convolvulus, gorse and even poisonous tutu.
Not only does the river become inaccessible—but riparian planting does nothing to stop most pollution entering the waterway. 
The fact is riparian planting does nothing to stop nitrates from entering the waterways.
River margins can be managed better. It just requires a more focused system of river management.
There is certainly a case that where there is no intensive dairying, river banks should be left as in near as natural unfenced condition as possible.
Thereafter the issue is stock. Stock like sheep, goats and horses at the density of traditional farming, are not the problem.

©  “Stock like sheep—–at the density of traditional farming, are not the problem”.

Cattle can be a different issue. Where cattle densities are high and stock receive supplementary feed from offsite, they should be kept far from the river – it could be 50 metres or more. In such situations the ideal would be to significantly de-stock the land.
If mixed stock are grazed, i.e. sheep and cattle, then the “selecta-fence” can be the answer – two top wires to stop cattle and no bottom wires so as to let sheep through.
As an example of corporate posturing by big dairying to take the heat off, the fencing of rivers programme has been a stunning success.
The only trouble is that it has done nothing for the rivers. It has allowed their continued degradation, often unseen and for most purposes, particularly recreation, rivers become no longer accessible.
And to repeat as Mike Joy’s “Polluted Inheritance (page 34) makes it quite clear, riparian planting does nothing to stop nitrates from entering waterways.

© Cattle can be a different issue” – Mackenzie basin

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3 Responses to A Clayton’s Cure – Fencing Rivers

  1. Peter Trolove says:

    Nitrate is dissolved in water. This makes it impossible to stop entering streams and aquifers. Phosphate is more readily bound to soils and preventing sediment from entering streams will reduce nutrient pollution from phosphate. Fences help here but the slope and distance from the stream are critical. As the scientific and advisory group (STAG) pointed out to the Ministry for the Environment the 3 m minimum simply will not cut it. This political compromise negates the purpose of fencing. We are spending hundreds of millions of public money to landscape streams on farms to little effect. Bill Benfield concluded “As an example of corporate posturing by big dairy to take the heat off, the fencing program has been a stunning success. The only trouble is that it has done nothing for the rivers; it has allowed their continued degradation, often unseen.” It seems politicians have perpetuated this posturing. Unfortunately good intentioned farmers are being taken in by this deception.
    The creation of wetlands is a logical means to mitigate nitrate pollution but the scale of the pollution will require proportionally large wetlands. With light porous soils there is no solution once nitrate leaches beyond the root zone. This is why irrigated dairying is not environmentally sustainable on light land despite farm environment plans, GMP, etc.
    On top of this regional councils are politically and practically unable to manage nitrate pollution through regulation.

  2. Michael Gregg says:

    Great article and a reminder that the silent degradation of our water continues 24/7, even as the fencing sham continues.

    I recently raised the issue of cattle damage on the government-owned Molesworth Station with farm manager, Jim Ward, and the Marlborough District Council. The wetlands surrounding some of their high country waterways are heavily pugged and covered with cattle sh#t after intensive grazing over September/October. Anglers I’ve met on the river are furious. The cattle are using one stream as a highway. Jim has committed to fencing a couple of small track-side wetland areas this year. MDC are now proposing water testing in February (when the cattle are well away on the hillsides). Too little, too late. Too frustrating.

    What is required is a fundamental change away from profit-driven intensive farming to environment management and toothy enforcement. I can’t see this happening in my lifetime. And for the next generation, it will simply be too late – even for many of our backcountry spawning streams like those on the Molesworth.

  3. "Sand Piper" says:

    Fencing streams is just cosmetic fiddling. The solution is watershed management not a five metre strip along streams which becomes a jungle of weeds.

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