Contamination of Havelock North’s water supply is a serious health issue which has prompted the government to undertake an inquiry.
In announcing the draft terms of reference for it, Attorney General Christopher Finlayson said:
“It is important that New Zealanders have confidence in the quality of our drinking water, and the independent inquiry will ensure we have a clear understanding of what happened in Havelock North,” says Mr Finlayson.
“Cabinet has today agreed to initiate a Government inquiry which will report to me as Attorney General.
“The inquiry will look into how the Havelock North water supply became contaminated, how this was subsequently addressed and how local and central government agencies responded to the public health threat that occurred as a result of the contamination.
“The terms of reference are very wide and will include any lessons and improvements that can be made in the management of the water supply network in Havelock North and, more broadly, across New Zealand.”
Cabinet will consider over the coming weeks who will lead the Government inquiry.
The inquiry will be undertaken under the Inquiries Act 2013. This will ensure it follows a clear statutory process and will have a range of powers such as the ability to call witnesses.
The need to wait for facts hasn’t stopped the usual anti-farming suspects rushing to blame farming in general and dairying in particular for the contamination and using it as an excuse to call for the end to irrigation development.
Federated Farmers’ Hawke’s Bay president Will Foley said while there was some livestock farming in the area it wasn’t intensive:
. . . Basically in terms of the area around Havelock North there just isn’t intensive livestock farming.
He said farmers were watching the situation but there had not been any discussions yet.
“Really we’re just waiting to see some more clear evidence as to how the contamination occurred. And then if it was something related to farming livestock, then we can react to it then and I guess change practises if that’s what it turns out to be.”
IrrigationNZ points out that a focus on science and proven solutions is needed in the response to the Havelock North water crisis.
“IrrigationNZ is very concerned, as is everyone else, about the situation in Havelock North. However, we are surprised by some of the accusations now being made around intensive livestock and irrigation, particularly as the area surrounding the water supply well is dominated by orchards, cropping and low intensity livestock.”
“Before jumping to conclusions we first must understand the facts. A thorough inquiry will establish how groundwater in the area has become contaminated but this will take time. In the short term we should be moving towards best practice when it comes to protecting public water supplies from contamination,” says Andrew Curtis, IrrigationNZ CEO.
Pathogen contamination almost always results from a point source or a preferential flow scenario.
“The issue will likely be either a preferential flow scenario down the side of an old well case (particularly around older bore casings), a poorly constructed or sealed well head or backflow (contamination making its way directly into bores). Another scenario could be point source from the stock piling of manure. During periods of heavy downpour, contaminants can move through the soil and then there is a risk,” says Mr Curtis.
Grazing livestock or irrigation are unlikely to be the cause.
“The Havelock North end of the Heretaunga plains is an area of low intensity livestock. Dominated by orchards and seasonal cropping, with sheep grazing in winter there is no dairy or intensive livestock,” says Andrew Curtis.
Livestock grazing is extremely unlikely to have caused this issue – the pathogens don’t make it through the soil, the soil acts as a filter – research work undertaken by ESR has previously shown this to be true.”
Solutions to prevent contamination of groundwater?
Proven solutions include good management practice at both the supply point and any nearby wells.
“Well head protection is essential for all bores and this needs to be better enforced for older bores. Additionally, we need to be looking at requiring back flow protection where applicable. INZ has produced guidelines for backflow prevention that are based on international best practice for agriculture. On top of this, the council needs to be managing nearby point sources where, if heavy rain occurs, leaching could result. Basically all wells near public water supplies should be properly protected.”
“A best practice approach to managing the threats to public water supplies needs to be implemented across New Zealand. There will always be risks from avian, ruminant and human sources so we need to be identifying all the contamination pathways. We need to let the experts get on with their jobs and not take cheap shots with un-informed accusations,” says Mr Curtis.
It’s understandable for the people of Havelock North to be upset about their water and everyone wants to know what caused the problem and what can be done to prevent it happening again in the area or anywhere else.
But that’s not an excuse for the usual suspects to use the issue for their own political agenda without waiting for the facts. In doing so they’re show their anti-farming bias.
We could forget about feeding people and earning the export income we need for a happy, healthy, well functioning country as those of a very dark green persuasion would have it.
We could produce a lot more food and seriously degrade the environment with no concern for the future, a path for which I haven’t heard anyone advocate.
Or we could use science to produce food sustainably which requires good environmental practices based on science.
If poor farming practices are degrading the water we can do something about it but let’s wait for the inquiry and base any required action on the facts.